Friday, October 31, 2003

Like Drinking From a Firehose

The last couple of weeks have been so stuffed with amazing events and great projects, some underway and others in various stages of development, as to make my head spin. In the past, I've written about these kinds of periods (like last May), when wonderful things, events, projects and people are coming in so fast and furious as to cause near-vertigo. Only those periods seem to be coming closer together, always a little curse but more blessing. Anyway, I've attended so many cool events in the last couple of weeks that I won't try to describe them all today. Instead, I'll use the weekend and its more reflective rhythms (which of course includes hanging with the family and watching the latest Browns loss) to catch you up on some impressions from, among others, these recent events: a Press Club Hall of Fame installment dinner, for which I was honored to write a tribute to the towering TV guy Virgil Dominic; a lecture at Hathaway Brown by NYTimes education correspondent Jacques Steinberg, on his new book about getting into Ivy League colleges; a packed-to-the-gills JCU Entrepreneurs Association dinner where one Wal Mart big foot filled in for another; the latest Community of Minds event; my first visits to the new Legacy Village, just a few hundred yards from our house; a long lunch interview with my old crony, the thrice-published (and working on book #4) thriller author Rick Montanari (who was good enough to tell me he'd spotted a typo in Woody Allen's name! I told him there's no such thing as typos in WorkingWithWords!); an inaugural Akron Business Conference (yesterday) that was an uqualified success in large part due to the fine efforts of my friends Tom McNamara, Barb Payne, Jim Cookinham and Dustin Klein; and (perhaps coolest of all), the latest chapter of the emerging NEObio revolution co-engineered by our colleague Steve Goldberg, who also appears to be a bit staggered by the vertigo accompanying the success of his rapidly growing baby. And needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), the best part of cool events and projects are the smart, stimulating people you meet and the new learning they offer. Enough to feed the brain and spirit for a long time to come.

Quick Hits. Anyway, while I haven't the time nor mental juice today to really describe all that, I did want to mention a few quicker-hit developments. More congrats to our staggeringly successful fellow blogger and economic development whiz Don Iannone, for his soon-to-be-launched third blog, which to my delight is going to take his trademarked razor-edged look at this region rather than his normal beat--the country and even the world. It should be a real intellectual treat as well as an incredibly useful tool for development folks and just plain citizens. In fact, you can take an early look at it here. The Cleveland and Akron chambers are planning major launch announcements soon, and you know those two groups can agree only on two things: that Lebron and Don Iannone are world-class local treasures...

Time For An Update, Folks. And if you needed any more evidence that the well-intended but clueless old top-down structures like Cleveland Tomorrow are tottering, check this out. The site is housed on Nortech's site (Nortech being just so much old wine in a new jug), but the link at the bottom to Cleveland Tomorrow's strategic plan for Cleveland takes you to a musty old document (it's nicely designed, at least) with TRW's chairman talking about what a great region this is (so great that he pulled up stakes!). And I think it's equally telling that the document carries the name of Dix & Eaton in the the very URL, D&E of course being the longtime ghostwriters to the town's power elite. And speaking of these new wine in old jugs, should we be concerned about the ability of the new TeamNEO to do the right thing, since ethics-challenged First Energy plays such a central role in its founding? The utility company seems to have trouble doing the right thing when it gets involved in the public sector, as witnessed by its troubles with nuclear reactors and now the outrageous way in which the Ohio Consumers Counsel Rob Tongren tried to deep-six a report that would have saved consumers billions in rate hikes. Do you think the supposed consumer watchdog became the utility's lapdog without any subtle or overt prompting from FE?...

You'll Appreciate This. If you look closely enough, you'll notice that the principals of Appreciative Inquiry are rapidly seeping into the culture. For the layman, I'll define it thusly: learning to pay more attention to the glass half full than half empty. But we'll expand a bit on that theme in coming weeks. But I noticed yet another example in this recent headline pun in a New York Times Circuits section article about digital photography. The headline: "What's Right With This Picture?"

Tom Friedman's Minnesota Moderation. NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman is revered for his books (like The Lexus and the Olive Tree), his three Pulitzers (I'm pretty sure there's no one else now living who can claim that many) and his common-sense approach to the muddled Mideast. But closer readers might catch something else altogether: a squeamish inability to call something what it is. Okay, so you might like how he finds the middle of every issue and avoids taking sides with either the right or the left. But for me, he's becoming impossibly namby pamby about some serious issues. And the latest evidence is this unbelievable lead from his column yesterday: Since 9/11, we've seen so much depraved violence we don't notice anymore when we hit a new low. Monday's attacks in Baghdad were a new low. Just top for one second and contemplate what happened: A suicide bomber, driving an ambulance loaded with explosives, crashed into the Red Cross office and belew himself up on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. This suicide bomber was not restrained by either the sanctity of the Muslim holy day or the sanctity of the Red Cross. All civilizational norms were tossed aside. THIS IS VERY UNNERVING (caps added). Now, think about this. He started so well, so vividly, in setting the scene. And he used just the right word, depraved, to describe it all. And after he paints all that nearly unprecedented horror and nihilism, he sums it up by calling it....very unnerving! Leave aside the fact that, for reasons I can't imagine, he used the nearly meaningless squishy intensifier adjective "very," (for which he should have at least one of his Pulitzers revoked). But is this scene merely unnerving? C'mon, Tom. You need to get a little more worked up than that...But here's a bigger outrage. This week, Delaware Senator Joe Biden got on his soapbox about how unfair college football's Bowl Championship Series seems. He lectured one official at a Congressional hearing that "It looks un-American, it really does. It looks unfair. It looks like a rigged deal." Sorry to wake you from your slumber, Joe, but there are a few deals in America that are better-rigged than this, and more importantly, they're costing Americans lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. Perhaps you might better direct your outraged at the rigged pharmaceutical industry, the rigged corporate lobbying apparatus just down the street from you on K Street, and worst of all, the rigged system by which so many in government have just about stolen the country out from under its citizens. And when you've cleaned all of that up, then by all means, turn your attention to some football games involving college football. But first things first, Senator...

Breaking Through the Clutter. Finally today, we bring you the tale of the sandwich board. When I lived in Chicago, I recall once driving to O'Hare and being caught in the usual mile-long snarl, only to notice a young guy carrying a sandwich board. It implored people to hire him, and included his phone number. In the next day's Tribune, I read that he was inundated with job offers. I've often told that story to recent grads (and others) as an example of the crucial need to think of something that others haven't, so as to break through the clutter and avoid being simply another lifeless resume in a pile on an HR person's desk. And sure enough, the other day while leaving I-271 and entering Cedar Road, I noticed a guy once more with a sandwich board. "We want to be your plumber. Jack's Heating & Plumbing." A tad less poetic, perhaps, but I'd guess it will be nearly equally effective. In fact, I'll check on that soon for you. In the meantime, I'm taking applications for the newest position here at WorkingWithWords: you guessed it, I need someone to stand with a sandwich board in heavily trafficed areas, and induce readers to visit the site. The pay isn't much, but just think of the psychic rewards of getting more people to read...

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Odds & Ends Day

I'm writing on the fly today, at the intersection of two major projects, and so we'll be brief. But I just couldn't let a second consecutive weekday go by without reaching out and touching y'all...

A Sign of Things to Come. One of my favorite bloggers, D.C.-based political maven Josh Marshall, has just posted an appeal for funding that I hope will become the wave of the future. He'd like to cover New Hampshire's all-important presidential primary exlusively for his Talking Points Memo. But in order to do so, he's asking for direct financial support from his audience. Think of it as the equivalent of the Catholic's second Sunday collection--the first for general church/parish/school expenses, and the second for a more specific initiative. I plan to drop a few sheckles into his pot, not only as a reader and admirer, but because he's been so generous with his time in helping me think about revamping my blog...

Sobering Stats. Need a visual to bring the presidential money race into focus? Here it is. As stunningly successful as Howard Dean has been, he's still got some racing to do before catching up with the Bush money machine.

Who Says Economists Can't Write? Practitioners of the so-called "dismal science" of economics are generally teased for their deadly dry manner, and were once thought to be congenitally bad writers. But Paul Krugman is helping put that old notion to bed. Closer to home, the Weatherhead School's Marcus Stanley shows that he has a nice flair for pop culture coverage with this spry piece about Ahhnold in the consistently excellent online zine Flak.

More Cool Stuff from Jack. For as long as I can remember, I've chided my friend, the uber-consultant zen guru Jack Ricchiuto, for not sharing with his pals enough news about what he's up to. But of course, he's so busy being up to it all that, try though he might, he can't always come through for us. And so I've gotten into the routine of occasionally Googling him. And I always find some new gold. The latest is this interesting session on Appreciative Feedback that he gave last month at the Cleveland Public Library, and this even more interesting juxtaposition, in which he's quoted on the topic of inspiration along with the late, legendary inspirer of writers Ranier Maria Rilke. Do please check it out, and keep up the fine work, Jacko...

Mourning Freddy O'Toole All Over Again. And finally, from the pages of the Boston Globe, we bring you the sad, elegaic tale of the deceased cruller. That variety of donut, native to New England, will always and forever be related in my mind with my wife's grandfather, the late Fred O'Toole of Dorchester, Massachusetts, a hard-bitten, working-class suburb of Boston. Since I never really knew either of my grandfathers (one died when I was a kid, the other lived in Italy till his death during my teen years, and I only met him once), I adopted Fred into service in their stead. And he never disappointed me, right up until his death at 90-plus about seven years ago. One of the three or four grandest, coolest people I ever knew, he was a font of history, insight, local color and wisdom. His stories were legendary, and we listened hour after hour (I even tape-recorded more than a dozen hour's worth for posterity, which we subsequently had converted onto CD-ROM after his death). As a kid, he had played semi-pro baseball, and recalled as a kid walking by a tavern with his buddies and seeing the then-Boston Brave Babe Ruth casually drinking beers outside with his teammates. He actually attended the Red Sox's first appearance in the World Series, in 1912! Fifty five years later, he took his grandsons, my brothers-in-law, to the '67 series.

Fred regaled us with detailed recountings of his two or three distinct near-misses at serious wealth: as a young man, he was an early right-hand guy to a green grocer who went on to develop one of the largest grocery chains in New England, but Fred moved on to other work. If only he had stayed around... In similar fashion, he recounted how, as an ace handyman during the Depression, banks and financial institutions would turn over title of repossessed homes to him in return for his taking on all upkeep and tax payments. Again, he could have really cashed in if only he could have held on for a bit longer.

He loved the race track, either horses or dogs, and we spent countless hours with him there, watching him study the program like a physicist. Always, he seemed to emerge at least a few dollars on the upside. When he hit 85 (I think it was), we arranged to have him briefly recognized on the track scoreboard. I remember him beaming like a kid. One day back in Cleveland, I stumbled over a new book on Boston history. It focused on the downtown district that was home to a collection of the dozen or more Boston newspapers in business in the early and middle years of the century, a true marriage of our favorite subjects. I sent a copy along to him, and for years afterward, he would lovingly refer back to various parts of the book, using it as a launching pad to blast off into many more hours of rich reminiscences about his life. In filling our ears and imaginations with all these impossibly rich stories, he couldn't have guessed it at the time, but he was indeed leaving a far richer legacy to his heirs than if he had passed along billions of dollars. And for that, we'll always thank you, dearest Freddy.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Things That Took My Head Off Today

My former Edition colleague and master book reviewer Kathy Ewing (click here and here for examples of her writing) once wrote an especially memorable column about how serious readers often have the experience of reading something so good and powerful and evocative that it almost gives you the sensation of having the top of your head taken off. Your brain actually aches after reading it. Depending on how much good stuff you read, you can go days, weeks or even months between these experiences. And then there are days like today, when it happened twice to me.

The first came in the early hours of the morning, when I rise before dawn (pretty easy to do in Ohio in October, before daylight savings pushes it one hour earlier), let the cat out and fire up the family Dell for my first quick survey of the day's news. I happened upon Salon, as I generally do, and took in Annie Lamott's latest. I've enthused about her before, but I'm duty-bound to do so again. That's because I found her latest column--of all things about the necessity to surrender to motherhood--so rich and so emotionally powerful as to take one's breath away. Please take a moment to go there today, figure out how to click on the free one-day visitor's pass in the upper right corner (which my tech-challenged buddy in New York, Bill Gunlocke, can never seem to do, prompting him to occasionally ask me to cut and paste an article into an email) and read her column.

A little later, while making a quick scan of the blogs, I came across this amazing entry on Lois Annich's uniquely graceful Hearts @ Work blog. Sorry, Lois, but out of concern for the possibility that some of you won't take a second to click on a link, I'm going to ignore your copyright just this time and reprint the small item in its entirety:

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost. --Thomas Merton

Inspector Javert, the antagonist in Les Miz, is the most tragic figure among an ample field of tragic characters in the play. He cannot face the implosion of his graceless theology when his prey and obsession, Jean Valjean, offers him the gift of life. His logic is so twisted. He can no longer appease his bloodthirsty God and cannot release his old world view and receive reconciliaton. He takes his life instead. Admitting that we have been wrong is a major blow to our egos. We must be humble. We must release any number of self-images we have built up over time. We must be willing to receive forgiveness and move forward in hope. We must accept the support of others. As Merton reminds us, giving into despair is no sign of greatness. Greatness instead depends on humbly receiving grace and living our way into the promise of new life, if only one uncertain step at a time.

Of course, the things that take our head off when we read aren't due solely to the beauty or the power of the writing or to the truth of the thoughts they convey--thought that's of course much of it. They also work so explosively on the brain because they deal so well, and in such timely fashion, with the questions or challenges we're wrestling with, as if the article or the passage was written directly for you, almost in the form of a letter from a friend. And indeed, each of these passages helped me think more clearly about very specific challenges/initiatives I've undertaken. The Lamott piece related so beautifully to a new monthly dad's column that I'm beginning in January (which of course means I'm now beginning to write). And in my struggle to communicate not just to other dads of teenage boys, but to all parents and maybe even non parents, and hell, perhaps even kids, about some important themes about families and really about love, her column was pure inspiration, a welcome reminder of the universal appeal of good, honest writing. Though I'm not a single mom of a single kid, living in libertine Marin County, California, I nevertheless connected so deeply with the advice she gave, because it was great advice, artfully served up. And because it really applied to anyone trying to live a better, richer life, even apart from parenthood, the proximate subject.

Similarly, the Merton quote about the need to put aside our pride and accept help (letting community become a dialogue rather than monologue) dealt so specifically with some networking advice and support I'm providing with a new friend named Jeff, whom a headhunter friend referred to me, and whom I met with again this morning. As he comes out of the focused shell of a high-powered corporate job in a billion-dollar-plus company, where networking mostly meant with internal colleagues, I think he's been overwhelmed (as a fairly new to Cleveland guy) by how many smart, connected people in this town have been only too happy to take time and help him think about what comes next in his career. And yet as I offered to him whatever small help I can provide--and most importantly the very large help that my network of friends and colleagues can offer--I was forced to admit that I'm impossibly bad at accepting the reverse, the generous and repeated offers from others to reciprocate. While I'm okay at the "humbly receiving grace" from God part which Lois writes about, I'm less good at accepting that a key part of that grace comes in the form of warm human figures who generously offer to help.

Whether it's stubborn male pride or 20 years of baked-into-the-DNA writerly independence, or an especially toxic combination of the two, it doesn't really matter. Merton's quote, and Lois's artful and knowing annotation, somehow combined to break through my hard shell this morning, as I read these grace-filled letters directed at me while my precious family slept one floor above me. And for that, I'm so very thankful...

Thursday, October 23, 2003

New Urbanism Just Down the Street

In writing yesterday about the war over Lakewood's West End project, I suppose I did so with the mental backdrop of a not dissimilar east-side project opening this week just a few hundred yards from my house: Lyndhurst's Legacy Village. Like Lakewood, Lyndhurst went through a small civic civil war a few years ago after TRW announced it would be moving its headquarters and putting the land up for sale. In the end, the struggle was resolved in favor of the developers, as these things generally are in America. But a major difference in the parcels was this: rather than having to condemn a century-plus-old developed area as "blighted," the challenge facing Legacy Village developers was to build on some of the last few acres of open wooded area in Cuyahoga County.

The "legacy" in the name refers to the fact that the land, until it was sold for development, was controlled by the descendents of legendary Cleveland-area Congresswoman Francis Payne Bolton. They did a nice job more than a decade ago in balancing commerce and nature by selling a major parcel to TRW for its headquarters, while still retaining an equally large portion at the corner of Richmond and Cedar Roads as nearly pristine land. I remember the first time I hiked through the area not long after moving to our house, exploring the ruins of what was once a giant Bolton estate, only to stumble upon the skeleton of what was probably a deer. It looked for all the world as if it had been there for decades. While as a walker and lover of the outdoors I'll of course miss that private wooded expanse (even if I never walked through it again, I would enjoy just walking or driving past it), the thinking person side of me can't pretend not to love the fact that there will now be another quality bookstore within walking distance of my house--even if the ersatz Middle American retro architecture of this "lifestyle center" (and you thought it was merely a shopping mall?) isn't very appealing. After all, retro architecture and building communities based on walking are both key components of what's come to be called the New Urbanism.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Shifting Regional Wealth

I don't know about you, but I happen to think that the hoary old saw about a picture being worth more than a thousand words is overused and often wrong (you'll just have to forgive my admitted biases toward words over images). But of course there are times where a single visual does nicely speak volumes. I was reminded of that when I recently came across this arresting map on the EcoCity site, charting the distribution of regional wealth. It speaks loudly about how the region is becoming increasingly like that dreaded donut, with all the good stuff at the edges and an empty space in the middle. And the Cleveland blight is of course now beginning to affect the inner-ring suburban neighbors. What to do? The very nature of the economic, political and even historical forces affecting sprawl from older areas can render even well-intended folks like those who labor for Eco City all but ineffectual in fighting an uphill battle. I won't get into the larger issue of whether conventional anti-sprawl arguments can be uncomfortably elitist and anti-choice, as I think they often are. Whether we intellectuals want to admit it or not, the majority of Americans will always care more about the theories and values of Jay Leno than those of Jane Jacobs, and our cities will reflect that. So get over it.

What's needed to reverse the polarity of decline are some big, breakthrough ideas, not tiny incremental adjustments in the flow of people and money and resources ever outward. Which is why I'm fascinated to watch the whole clash over Lakewood's controversial West End project, which, whatever else it is, certainly has to be called a bold leap at changing the dynamics of inner ring decline. While I understand the outrage of residents and opponents of the project, and while I honor the efforts of my friend and colleague Steve Fitzgerald and his role in helping channel community dialogue through his Lakewood Buzz, I have to say I come down on the side of those who want to try to reshape the city in this dramatic way. They say in development circles that it's almost impossible to relocate a cemetary, because of all the ancient, buried interests, and developing an older area such as Lakewood has similar dynamics (including the necessary if often distasteful method of eminent domain). But I hope this project, or something like it, somehow goes through, because I've come to love Lakewood, and its continued vitality is at stake..

Ever Wonder What Your Favorite Blog Would Look Like as a Book? Take a look at this, and decide for yourself.

Corporate Myths Die Hard. As it grew into a force of the web that surpassed Amazon and now rivals Google, eBay always nurtured and repeated a warm and consumer-friendly tale about its founding, about how it all came from one man's search for more of his favorite Pez dispensers. The only problem was that it wasn't true, as even the company has long since admitted. And yet we still have tech-savvy national mags such as Business 2.0 that don't seem to have gotten the message. Maybe there's a glass half-full here: while the artwork illustrating this piece uses Pez as a backdrop, thus strongly implying the connection, at least the piece itself doesn't make an explicit link to the old (wrong) legend.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

We're Back

Apologies to my loyal readers, but when paying projects attached to looming deadlines mount, I tend to let blogging go fallow for a time. At least, that is, till I run into a reader (as I did last night) who reminds me that there is actually an audience that checks back daily (thank you, Mark Geyman). But I'm back and recharged, with less time to write here, but even more enthusiasm for doing so in the time I do spend. And so away we go.

Another List. A few weeks ago I brought you the infamous list day. Today we return with but one list, but it's an especially interesting one (or at least I think it is). Britain's excellent newspaper The Observer, with a better literary sensibility than just about any of its U.S. counterparts (part of the reason why U.S. readers are hungrily clinging to the recent news that the paper is planning a U.S. launch), has just published its take on the 100 greatest novels of all time. Read it over, and then be honest (at least with yourself): how many of these classic books have you really read, or even meaningfully skimmed? My self-disclosure: it's not till the 21st spot (Moby Dick) that I can say I've kind of read it all (maybe half). And you have to go all the way down to #30, Henry James's splendid The Portrait of a Lady, before I find a book that I read completely and loved entirely. It's considered a truism of the book business that men don't read much fiction, and I'd have to say that this list bears that out for me.

Greider Does It Again. What I do read far more, however (as even occasional readers of this site have probably guessed by now) is history, public affairs, politics and the like. And one of my long-time favorite populist authors, William Greider, has a new one out that I plan to grab soon. Greider, whose writing career has followed an idiosyncratic arc--from covering economics for the Washington Post to writing about economics, politics and culture for Rolling Stone (as the resident old guy, replacing Hunter Thompson) and now The Nation--was on NPR's Diane Rehm show last week talking about his new book, The Soul of Capitalism--Opening Paths to a Moral Economy. The man who a generation ago demystified the Federal Reserve as completely as Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong demystified the Supreme Court has now returned his attention to another important corner of Wall Street power. "Here's how we're not as powerless as we think we are: The center of financial power is not in these 4,000 wealthiest people, but in the pension funds with fiduciary responsibilities," which are directly responsive to the average person, he said. "It's here where the edge of reform is getting traction." But, he went on to say, we've all got to begin getting ahold of our own finances, rather than passively letting mutual fund companies and the like treat us as widows and orphans who must be guided in investment decisions. The book also apparently delves into other examples of Americans taking control of their financial and working lives, like the self-owned temp agency in Baltimore whose owner-employees decided to purchase their own health insurance.

And yes, another veteran scribe has gotten the daily web-writing itch, at (I love his blog tagline: "For kindred spirits and curious skeptics." He told Rehm that while "I'm a novice at this," he loves the instant feedback from writing for the web. While on a book tour, he's buoyed by the way he can retreat to his hotel room each night and go online, only to be met with a dozen emails from readers. And isn't that what it's all about? So send me yours, at

Friday, October 10, 2003

Catch-Up Friday

Okay, it's been a run-run week, so I have lots on which to catch up. Won't get it all in today, but I'll try to get to some of it in weekend entries, which will be a mostly new feature for my hungry readers around the world, who are used to my blue-collar writing habits, working hard from Mon-Fri, and then resting over the weekend. This weekend, there'll be no rest for the weary blogger.

Pekar Watch, Round 18. Three fascinating Pekar developments that you should know about. In ascending order of fascination, they are as follows. This great review of American Splendor in the wonderful webzine Slate proves that being first is less important than being best. After just about every media outlet in the Western world has weighed in on the movie, this piece somehow finds not only something new to say, but something really fresh and insightful. It makes the case that AS is the "grunge Annie Hall," a reference to what I and many other Woodie Allen fans still consider his best movie. On its face, that's a pretty odd notion, but read on, and you'll be hard-pressed to argue the point. Next: I note that Pekar, who's still given to worrying aloud about finding enough freelance writing gigs to make a living, now has a booking agent. And not just any agent: his California-based agency also reps for an eclectic group which includes Walter Cronkite, Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale, Pulitzer-winning writer Ron Suskind and CNN's Maria Hinojosa. Count on Harv to find an interesting mix. Finally, and by far the most fascinating of all, the Chicago-based libmag (my own contraction, meaning liberal mag) In These Times has just posted an amazing piece which Pekar wrote some years ago, under a pseudonym, about his encounters with Letterman. Why amazing? Try this passage, for instance: "Pekar’s greatest strength is the tension between his ordinariness as a man and his extraordinary skill in chronicling it. He is thoughtful, articulate and, above all, angry, a rare and precious attribute in his age of yappie nihilism. As a television personality, though, Pekar is a disaster. Pudgy, balding and wild-eyed, he comes across on Late Night as the sort of guy you see ranting on street corners." Remember, he said this all about himself! You'd have to give him an A for balance....

At Cleveland Works, Desperate Times Require Desperate Fundraising. Imagine my surprise when I went to the mailbox the day after I posting a piece blasting Cleveland Works for ignoring the credible story seven long years ago about the drug habits of their exec. director, only to find a letter from the group. Could it be that this little local nonprof had somehow taken a page from the first Clinton campaign and set up a war room in which their minions quickly and forcefully responded to every bit of media criticism of their guy? Had former Clevelander George Stephanopolous and the "Rajun Cajun," James Carville, been hired as consultants by Cleveland Works? Naw--as it turned out, they merely found my name and address on an ancient mailing list (which they apparently haven't used in at least a decade) to send a "we need money to stay open" alert. "Because of recent events..." it begins, without mentioning the drug busts. And they've apparently gotten so many outraged calls that they had to change phone numbers, because the request for "at least $100" ends with a note to PLEASE NOTE OUR NEW PHONE NUMBER ABOVE..." Sorry, folks, but that's one funding request that was easily ignored...

Civic Hipsters. This new piece on the very fine Christian Science Monitor site does a good job of describing what some patently unhip towns (like Cincy) are doing to try to hippify. There's even a brief mention of Cleveland's new Civic Innovation Lab, which the Cleveland Foundation, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen to hand over to the collaboratively challenged Jennifer Thomas, for reasons which only they can guess. Well, let's look at the glass half full, shall we: at least a couple of best & brightest guys are helping steer the thing--former McKinseyite Brad Whitehead, who's now at the foundation and who put the whole idea together, and my friend John Polk, who'll be serving as a mentor...

Google IPO? Reports out of Silicon Valley from plugged-in venture capitalists, which ought to soon be showing up in newspapers, are that Google will at long last be going to the capital markets for the long-awaited initial public offering. While the two brilliant young guys who founded it have held off for five long years, in the process refusing repeated offers to become billionaires while they maintained the management autonomy to keep making it better, they have new reason to do so now. Microsoft, bowing to the obvious--that search has become the most important game on the web--has put renewed emphasis on competing in web search. And with a stash of $20-billion plus in liquid cash, the Redmond Warriors can put lots of R&D into it. So Google is going to need its own deeper pockets to mount a defense of its prime position. While the company is said to be zooming in on the $1 billion annual revenue mark (as a private company, it doesn't officially disclose numbers), an IPO could bring way more into the corporate coffers, like $15-20 billion. Let's just hope this seminal event, if and when it happens, might just kick off another rebound in the market and the larger economy, as the '95 Netscape IPO touched off an unprecedented five-year run of good feeling in America. Of course, that was back when we had a bright president who surrounded himself with mostly honest folks who paid attention to little things like national budgets and peacemaking. Oh, well, as things look now, that time might just return in about a year...

Thursday, October 09, 2003

How Right You Were, Henry David...

"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Thought for the Day

"Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life."
--King Solomon, in the Biblical book of Proverbs

Friday, October 03, 2003


No time just now for my usual extended soliloquy, those gracefully constructed cathedrals of wisdom and scalding insight which I sweat and bleed over for the delectation of my readers. Instead, you get what I have time for this morning. Them's the breaks, at least till I've fixed up this little corner of virutal real estate and installed a contribution box (coming soon)...

The Most Interesting Stuff Never Hits the Paper. If you're downtown today and you observe a gaggle of impossibly sharply dressed, perfectly coiffed businesspeople emerging from the finest feats of automotive engineering, calmly barking in staccato fashion into their near-microscopic cell phones, they're probably McKinseyites. That's because the world's most elite consulting firm, the mallard-colored-suspendered Marines to the Fortune 500, are throwing themselves a party today on the North Coast. It's the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland office, recently moved (along with the local Marines, p.r. firm Dix & Eaton) to the BP Building, and current and former McKinseyites are gathering for an observation (just weeks before another 40th anniversary of nearly equal import, that of JFK's assassination). Even the firm's international managing partner is expected to be on hand, not unlike the Pope coming to bless a tiny outpost in the Third World. We haven't time here to delve into the giant subject of how the firm has influenced the shape and tone of this region's government, business community and even community conversation (in ways both positive and not so positive), but we'll try to at least take a stab in due course. Suffice to say for now that the most prominent figure of all will be physically absent but nevertheless hovering over the proceedings. Richard Shatten, maybe the most brilliant of a brilliant cohort, died not long ago of a brain tumor, but his ideas for his hometown live on, and the void of his caring and community building are like a giant hole that can never be closed. For some of the best of his insights, click here, for the proceedings of a conference he organized, and which he addresses beginning on pg. 34. In any event, check back for a report on how the soiree went, because although we couldn't wangle an invite ourselves, Working With Words has giant tentacles, and our mole who is there will help us piece it all together...

Action Figures Make Bad Guvs. Does this sound like a man who should be governor of the most-populous, most-important state in the union? If Californians are stupid enough to elect Arnold the Action Figure to their highest office, then they'll get what they deserve. But this haymaker of an article (which has the right howling at a too-late low blow) at least leaves me fully confident that the state's media, led by their revived flagship the L.A. Times, will continue to document his stupidity in much the same fashion that their Minnesota brethren doggedly covered Jesse Ventura's foolishness. Meanwhile, the Washington Post's Howie Kurtz, merely the most influential media columnist in the country, has finally convinced me with his column today that he is indeed a closet right-winger, as his chief critic Eric Alterman (of the Nation and MSNBC) has long charged. Alterman drew blood several weeks ago by noting that Howie's wife is a conservative political consultant, and while that of course wasn't in itself persuasive about his own leanings, it certainly made some folks (me among them) sit up and take notice. But today I think he's finally out of the closet, seeming to ever-so-slyly suggest that the multiple outrages from Arnold and Rush and Rove & Co. are the result of a left-wing media tilt rather than what they really are: obvious news about outrageous public developments. Having said that, let me also say that the left's reflexive urge to censor language it doesn't like is pretty repulsive, and it never ceases to amaze me for its brazen hypocrisy. A New York Times sports columnist, Richard Sandomir, is outraged this morning that no one else among the ESPN game crew spoke up to repudiate Rush Limbaugh's mildly un-PC comment about a black quarterback, as if he had just called for mass infanticide. Even if they didn't think to do so themselves, he couldn't fathom why their producer didn't "instruct them to respond" to his raising an "inflammatory issue." The gall of the guy, raising inflammatory issues! And on TV yet.

That's pathetic. Whether they're bumping up against America's third rail (you touch it, you die) or talking about something we're all seemingly less unbalanced about, let the yahoos of the hard right talk and talk and talk. Let people hear their ideas. The more they're heard, the less attractive they'll seem, in my humble estimation. Which has the additional attraction of being the model on which this republic was built, and for which it's admired (or at least was until a couple of years ago) throughout the world...

There are Gems Among Us. The PD's Julie Washington probably thinks that she broke some news with yesterday's story in the Arts & Life section about the closing of the Centrum Theatre in Coventry. But readers of the increasingly sharp and insightful Bruce Blog, one of the very best of NEOhio's blogs, knew that more than a week ago. Keep up the splendid reporting, Marc, and readers will keep flocking to you. In similar fashion, our favorite Convention Center avenger, The Sardonic One, shows his subject range with this dazzlingly brief but well-said take on why Tim Couch has to go. I found myself instantly agreeing with it. Look for the PD sportswriters to follow weeks behind our blogging colleague.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. But credit where credit is due: before there was even the beginnings of a cohort of bloggers in this community, before there was a Cool Cleveland e-letter or a series of Meet-Ups, there was an earlier progressive network of web-enabled community-builders laboring tirelessly to knit powerful ideas, organizations and people into a cohesive whole. Namely, the founders of the What's Up In Northeast Ohio listserv, which I mentioned yesterday. We tried to at least begin recognizing that debt at the Blogfest in May. But just to continue that momentum, I'd like to propose an idea. Yesterday, Jim Miller sent his annual plea for support, and I really liked how he framed the collaborative nature of what has developed. "There have been some wonderful developments in the past year or two, particularly the development and flourishing of other lists and websites in Northeast Ohio, which have made the movement for social justice around here far more responsive..." So how about a quick and informal benefit for What's Up. I don't know whether that should be virtual, with us all bundling our small (or large) contributions together and sending it along as a group gift--or a physical get-together to do what we do best: schmooze and gab and eat. But let's at least do one of those. Send your ideas and suggestions (or even contributions, if you want to jump the gun), care of Working With Words, at And we'll see that your ideas, voice, and money get bundled together into something larger...

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Roldo Loses a Platform--For Now

The long, strange, ultimately inspiring saga of Cleveland's leading muckraker continues. We've learned today that Roldo Bartimole has been told by City News that it can no longer afford to carry his column. And if he can't afford that relative pittance, then chances are that founder and publisher Ricky Crosby can't keep the doors open for the entire shoestring operation.

It's been tough sledding for minority newspapers in this town for some time. Ricky, son of Crosby Furniture founder Fred Crosby, who became a favorite serial appointee to public and private boards and commissions in the '70s for his then-rare double diversity (a black Republican), has tried mightily for years to make his own mark as a local publishing czar, grandly dubbing his modestly sprawling enterprise The Crosby Group. He's had some successes, even parlaying his role with the paper into a cable-TV show called Work & Money, but he's also unfortunately developed a reputation for always being just one step ahead of (and sometime behind) the bill collector (full disclosure--he's stiffed a friend of mine, the uber-designer Clarence Meriweather, who nonetheless landed on his feet as design director of the Free Times and now Urban Dialect and as a book designer for Gray & Company). Crosby the younger left an earlier black paper--begun with a partner, Lou Reyes, who got abused for claiming to run a minority newspaper for the black community when he was himself Hispanic--to make a run at buying the venerable crown prize of black Cleveland papers, the Call & Post. But he lost in the bankruptcy bidding to the deeper-pocketed boxing promoter (and Cleveland native) Don King, who has poured enough capital into the C&P to revive it, thereby making for even thinner air for competitors.

But Ricky nonetheless went from his disappointment over not getting the C&P to start yet another paper, City News, edited to this day by a bright and bubbly raconteur and former convict-turned author, Mansfield Frazier. I've spent just enough time in years past sitting and talking with Mansfield in his E. 40th office at the paper to marvel at how he had so utterly reclaimed his life. His irrepressible spirit, joyfully fused with street smarts like almost no one else I've ever known, helped make him an editor-impressario, a throwback to the old-style small-town editor whose door was always open. You couldn't talk to him for more than a minute without someone calling in with a tip, or a former councilman-turned-lobbyist for the phone company stopping by to take his temperature. He loved it all, ate it up, and used much of what he learned in the paper. And tiny City News got a giant dose of much-needed attention and even some grudging respect when Roldo decided to move his weekly column there after the closing of the Free Times last year. Only the paltry circulation was never enough to make a dent, forcing Roldo to habitually carry extra copies to give out to readers and sources who didn't see the paper anywhere. Loyal to a fault, Roldo refused to do what almost anyone else in his place would have done without a second thought: simply jump back to the Free Times when it reopened, offering a much more prominent platform for his column. He figured City News was there for him when he needed a new home, and damned if he was going to abandon them for a better deal.

But here's a nice part of the tale: even though print copies of his new home were in short supply, the web intervened to delightful effect. Links to his column from the progressive What's Up in Northeast Ohio listserv (co-founded by old-line Roldo supporter Jim Miller) and especially Thomas Mulready's community jewel, Cool Cleveland (which now probably has a larger circulation than City News), gave him new life with his former audience while also allowing a third or even fourth generation of web-centric readers to find him anew. The software tracking tools Cool Cleveland uses to count the clicks to various links told the story: most weeks Roldo was right near the top as the most popular item. In other words, a guy in his 70s--who three years ago closed down his central operation, his independent Point of View newsletter--was still as hip as a serially pierced punk rocker.

But that voice has been put on hold, for now at least. But here's a prediction: look for the Free Times to grab him back (and quickly, we hope). We're counting on you to make him an offer he can't refuse, Mr. Eden. Teamed with your new regular, Harvey Pekar, that would be a pretty powerful mix of familiar irascible Cleveland voices. May they both keep growling at injustice for many years to come...

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

List Day

That's right, sports fans, you read it here first. Welcome to the first annual Working With Words List Day, a soon-to-be-celebrated seminal moment in online journalism sure to one day rank right up there alongside the day that an attractive young woman began accepting online bidders for her hand in marriage. Who knows: perhaps it will one day even come to rival that fateful moment that Matt Drudge's grubby little finger hesitated over the send button in his tiny Hollywood studio apartment before he uploaded his first breathless report that Newsweek was preparing a story on an unnamed White House intern with untoward access to the Presidential member. Well, the reality is that it's pretty hard to compete with sex on the web, but I'll do my best anyway...

So on to the lists! We thought you needed to hear about these three freshly issued lists, two of which are online. Business 2.0 has just released (in print only) its stab at ranking the 100 fastest growing tech companies, and while a handful are based in Israel, only one is headquartered in Ohio. And that, something called Convergys, which hit #80, is down in Bengals country (Cincy, for the sports-challenged). Meanwhile, a more closely watched regional business ranking list (with a longer history), Entrepreneur Magazine's list of most entrepreneurially friendly cities, this year places the Cleveland-Elyria-Lorain crescent way down in the 57th slot, just behind Detroit. The good news: that's up a few notches from last year's 61st place, and also ahead of San Fran and L.A. (no doubt largely due to higher taxes in those otherwise business-friendly areas). This region ranks #12 in the midwest, according to the editors. But of course, one could easily take issue with their methodology, bunching Cleveland with its two smaller burgs to the west rather than its one larger (and healthier) neighbor to the south, Akron.

And then there's the eagerly awaited (among moguls, at least) Forbes list of the richest 400 Americans. I always like to take a gander each year at the relative position of the Brothers Newhouse, Donald (who controls the newspaper side) and Si (who controls the magazines), because their vast holdings include everything from my beloved New Yorker to my (well, I'll have to search for the appropriate adjective to capture my feelings) hometown paper, the Pee Dee. As they do each year with the four offspring of Wal-Mart's founder Sam Walton, Forbes list editors simply evenly split whatever total they estimate for the privately held Newhouse Advance (named for the first paper their dad bought way back in 1922) empire, and assign each brother half of the paper wealth. And this year, they estimate that each brother is worth $7.7 billion, good for a tie at #21 on the list. They thus dropped just a single notch from last year, when their wealth was pegged at the same total. In fact, unlike many of their fellow billionaires, the sober boys from Newark have remained pretty steady through all of the rollercoaster economy of recent years. At $4.5 billion each, they tied for 15th on the '96 list, slipping to 24th the next year and all the way to 43rd place two years later, in '99, even though their $4.5 billion estimated net worth remained constant. In 2000, just as many of their fellow moguls were about to experience a vertiginous drop in net worths that were more closely pegged to the declining stock market, the Newhouse boys were thought to be worth $5 billion each, tied with financier-turned-philanthropist George Soros and just ahead of's Jeff Bezos (whose net worth was about to be walloped with a tsunami). And sure enough, the Newhouses stayed in place a year later, but others fell behind, and the Newhouses rose to 31st on the list in 2001, just ahead of Nike's Phil Knight and MBNA's Al Lerner. By 2002, they had improved all the way to a tie for 20th. Moral of the story? The hare really does tend to beat the rabbit. Anyway, we'll bring you more about the fascinating, secretive Newhouses in future installments...

Because We Like to Bring You Value. I said we have three fresh lists for today, but just because I'm in a generous mood, let me throw in a mention of a fourth, at no additional charge to you, my dear readers. While this one is a year old, I (and most likely you) had never come across it before, and I found it interesting. An organization calling itself Reporters Without Borders, no doubt at least partly styled on the better known Doctors Without Borders, each year ranks the world's nations for relative press freedoms. Red-blooded, breast-beating Americans couldn't be faulted for assuming their country would grab the top spot (especially if they rely for their news solely upon domestic outlets). But alas, the U.S. finds itself only in the 17th spot in the 2002 index, behind some countries you'd expect (like Finland, Canada and Norway) and others you might not (like Portugal, France and Slovenia). A question, which goes unaddressed by the group: did the press-restricting Patriot Act, adopted about a year before this index was compiled last October, play any part in dropping the U.S. ranking? Just a question...

Now It's Your Turn... Okay, we've done all the heavy lifting today here in the Working With Words lab, tracking down these lists, scrutinizing them closely for whatever precious insights they have to reveal. Now it's your turn. Send us your own list of things (at that we never write about but should. Make it as idiosyncratic as you like, with as many insanely off-topic subjects as you think appropriate. We promise to read and study them with the same Talmudic attention that routinely goes into the preparation of each day's items. And then we'll likely crumple them up and go back to writing about whatever the hell we feel like, whatever might be stimulating our synapses that day. But at least you'll know in the privacy of your own heart that you tried, however bravely and unsuccessfully, to move us all in more helpful, healing directions...