Friday, June 25, 2004

On the Road, Off the Blog

I'm headed off to Dayton for a long, interesting weekend of intense AAU hoops with my oldest son. The tournament website is here. So we'll talk to you again when it's over. Do have a splendid weekend, y'all.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Quirky Mother Tongue

'English is a dazzlingly idiosyncratic tongue, full of quirks and irregularities that often seem willfully at odds with logic and common sense. This is a language where 'cleave' can mean to cut in half or to hold two halves together; where the simple word ';set' has 126 different meanings as a verb, 58 as a noun, and 10 as a participial adjective; where if you can run fast you are moving swiftly, but if you are stuck fast you are not moving at all; and where 'colonel,' 'freight,' 'once' and 'ache' are strikingly at odds with their spellings.'
--former London Times copyeditor-turned author Bill Bryson, from his book, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer's Guide to Getting it Right

Monday, June 21, 2004

Stuff With No Theme Day

Look, I'm not going to kid you. Today's entry has no theme, no coherence, no real message. In other words, it's a lot like most days here at Working With Words, only today I have less time than others to artfully render the disjointed parts into something that at least pretends to some mild coherence. So away we go...

A Dad's Day Tribute That Brought a Tear. I'm an impossible softie when it comes to the subject of emotional attachments between parents and their kids. And this daughterly tribute to her late dad is easily the most touching thing I read in the lead up to dad's day. It's a great reminder of how it's the small things we do and say that really form our legacy, sometimes even years after we're gone. And that goes triple for parents.

Blogs in Education. Some especially visionary educators are getting together about now to talk about how to better use blogging as an adjunct to their work in the classroom. But closer to home, we have a shining example of someone who's at the forefront of using blogging technology to stretch her students minds and expand their possibilities: my friend Weatherhead prof Sandy Piderit. I've asked it before, and I'll ask it again: where were the teachers like her when I was in college? It almost makes you want to go back to academe...

A Dip Into the Mail Bag. My friend Clarence Meriweather (seen here with signature broad smile) sent along the following email last week: "I know you probably don't do this kind of thing but could you please mention the passing of Ralph Wiley in your blog? He was one of my favorite contemporary writers and I'd just liketo see him get some Cleveland Love." Well, of course we do that kind of thing, Clarence. Only problem was, I had never heard of Ralph. But a quiz of Clarence and a google search yielded the information that he's a longtime sportswriter for Sports Illustrated and then ESPN. You can check out his ESPN story archive here. After reading over his work, I'd have to agree that we've lost a giant. But at least we still have the multi-talented Clarence, who's art director for and a co-founder of the interesting monthly pub Urban Dialect. And in his spare time, he cranks out beautiful cover designs for regionally themed books by Gray & Co., including the recent book on Lebron James by Akron Beacon Journal's David Lee Morgan. And from Dallas, comes an email from another reader, my former journalism colleague Bill Hoffman. He helpfully parses the lazily constructed item I wrote on June 11th about Neil Gabler and Marshall McLuhan and Gabler's calling the Internet "the knowing machine." He asks if I agree with McLuhan (that technology determines culture) or Gabler (who believes it's the other way around). I told him I'm going to have to think a little more about that. But the short answer is that while it's long been in McLuhan's favor, we are beginning to get smarter, and adapt technology to what we need it to do, rather than simply climbing aboard the latest tech gizmo. Or at least some of us. He also notes, appropos of my quote last week about how we'd have another New Deal if Americans voted in the same numbers as then, that most of the research he's ever seen suggests that contemporary non-voters break down approximately along the same partisan lines as do voters. Anyway, thanks for the mail, fellas.

And Finally, congratulations are in order for a couple of good friends who have purchased their first homes in recent weeks. The aforementioned Clarence will soon move his bride Nancy and two sons into a great house in an energetic neighborhood, just off Cedar-Lee in Cleveland Heights. And Anton Zuiker (seen here studying a crustacean, pre-meal) and his wife Erin are now in their first house with their two daughters. Congratulations to both families. I know for Clarence especially, it's been a dream long in coming. But remember, C-man, as the German philosopher with the funny name so well put it, "that which does not kill me makes me stronger." And you're as strong as they come, my friend. You, too, dear reader, for wading through all of this themeless stew today. We thank you...

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Just Keep Playing Your Scales

This week's New Yorker, the annual fiction issue, has a fascinating essay on a subject near and dear to the heart of many writers: writer's block. Written by the magazine's dance writer, Joan Acocella, it thus becomes perhaps the first of her pieces I've ever read (sorry, but I don't do dance, and I don't do much fiction either--if you don't count anything by Richard Ford, Paul Theroux, Mark Twain or Henry James).

But do read this piece if you get a chance--it's a treat. Acocella delivers up a nice compact narrative history of "artistic inhibition," concluding that writer's block is a largely American phenomenon, which society has come to assign a kind of "bleak dignity." And of course our therapeutic culture coupled with our Amway-snake-oil-salesman underbelly gives rise to products designed to cure what ails us. She mentions a guy who sells tapes (for the low, low price of just $77) designed to help one blast through their blockage. One of his suggestions: repeating to yourself such affirmations as "I am a richly talented writer." That oughta work every time. Hell, I could sell advice like that for a lot less...

In the end, I think she gets it right when she raises the possibility that a philosopher named Ian Hacking is correct about how once you invent a category, people have a way of fitting themselves into it. "Possibly, some writers become blocked simply because the concept exists, and invoking it is easier for them than writing."

In the end, professional writers know that rookies overvalue inspiration and undervalue perspiration. If you condition the mind, fingers and especially your rear end to sit in a place every day and write, you will write. It may not be as elegant as Shakespeare and it may not get published, but at least you won't have writer's block to blame. Of course, there is always one other possibility, an obvious one that too many people overlook: you may not have anything much to say. In which case, put your pen or your PC away, and get back to it when you do. Or even better yet, stick it out and get in the habit of downloading thoughts from brain to page, and eventually you'll have something.

But let me bring in to the discussion a couple of writers whom Acocella doesn't mention but who I think have something valuable to add. Bonni Goldberg, in Beyond Words, argues that "the only true obstacle to writing creatively is a lack of faith that appears as fear and self-judgment." I've said it before: writers have to stubbornly ignore those negative, rule-laden voices of their seventh-grade English teachers, who were probably non-writers, and who taught that writing is merely comprised of mastering the rules of English composition and grammar. Instead, the way we learn to write is to read, and then to try it ourselves, and finally to seek guidance and advice from other writers. That's it. Goldberg also helpfully talks about the different cycles of the writing process--percolation, revision (rewriting) and going public (publication or other forms of sharing it with readers). And percolation of course is key. I've always said that we need to read about one million words before we can ourselves write a sentence worth reading. And no matter how experienced or accomplished you might be or how long you've been at writing, if you stop reading everything and learning everything you can from your environment, you'll also be affected in your own writing.

But let's give an old master the last word on this father's day, shall we? Gruff old Norman Mailer, who has sat his ass down in the chair for many decades of toil, has understandably been dismissive of the sillier aspects of the aspiring writer industry. When asked once at a public event where he finds his inspiration, he unsmilingly shot back "It finds me."

He expands a bit on the theme in The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing. "There may be too much of a tendancy among young intellectuals to thing that if one can develop a consciousness, if one is able to brood sensitively and incisively on one's own life, and on the life of others for that matter, one will be able to write when the time comes. That assumption, however, may not recognize sufficiently that the ability to put words on a page also comes through years of experience and can become a skill nearly separate from consciousness and bear more resemblance to the sophisticated instincts of fingers that have been playing scales for a decade."

Friday, June 18, 2004

Read It And Weep

Finally, after nearly three years and some monumental attempts at stonewalling from the White House and its various henchmen, we have a clear picture of how the 9/11 plot played out. I recommend that you read the full staff report which outlines the plot, which you'll find here. It's just 20 pages, and brilliantly explains how it all happened. A tip of the hat to the commissioners, who patiently pushed on through all kinds of opposition to get at the truth. Meanwhile, the witty wiseacres at The Onion, like their video brethren at The Comedy Channel's The Daily Show, do a better job of getting at the underlying truths through tongue-in-cheek coverage than does most of the media through its straight reporting. This piece zeroes in on how the Republicans messed up on protecting their own by failing to kill the commission when they could have.

Back to the New Deal? Progressives are going all high-concept these days in trying to sack Bush. is raising millions for its aggressive attack ads in print and on TV, and the latest round of campaign finance reports showed that Kerry has actually outraised the vaunted Bush money machine in recent months. But now that the Dems are swimming in cash, I hope they won't forget some more basic blocking and tackling that easily gets lost in the shuffle: voter registration. Chicago-based lawyer/activist/author Thomas Geoghegan (get thee to a library or bookstore and pick up any of his books) recently made an interesting observation. "I know that the country's turned to the right. But we'd still have the New Deal if voters were turning out at New Deal-type rates." Good point, and no wonder that he's been called the Romantic Realist. My friend, labor activist Sandy Woodthorpe, would especially enjoy Tom's '92 book Which Side are You On?: Trying to be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back. It may be the best argument ever made for giving unions the benefit of the doubt in the modern era.

Some Real Job-Hunting Advice. Finally, here's a riff from the sharpie viral-marketing guru Seth Godin, on how the hiring process really works. I think I'll send it to a bunch of recent college grads and some other friends who are searching for jobs. He asks the key question that anyone trying to sell anyone else (be it on hiring them, buying from them, marrying them, etc.) must first answer: How do you make them feel?

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Desperately Seeking Cooldom

As the Cool Cleveland machine cranks up its latest spasm of self-congratulatory excess, loudly patting itself on the back for actually coming out to an inner-ring burb for the first time ever today, there was a timely warning in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal (available online only for subscribers, but you can find the piece reprinted here) about all that municipal hipster jazz. In a trend piece about the competition among various mid-sized cities to attract high-achieving new and recent college grads, headlined "Lonely Town Seeks Hip Young Professionals," writer Anne Marie Chaker mentions Cleveland's Summer on the Cuyahoga internship program, among others. But the payoff is a terse reminder from the slyly perceptive urban theorist Joel Kotkin: "If you have to have a campaign to prove you're cool, you're not." I'd say Kotkin is increasingly staking out a beachhead as the thinking person's Richard Florida. I'll be sure to debate that over a beer sometime this summer with my friend and blogging colleague Don Iannone, who has long since become easily this region's leading thinker on issues of economic development.

Kid Unfriendly. Okay, we'll get the bad news out of the way with this, the latest in city rankings that puts the Cleveland area in the dumpster. Every two years, an advocacy group called Population Connection ranks U.S. metro areas for their kid-friendliness. The new 2004 report card, just issued, places Cleveland dead last among the top 20 largest metro areas, based on such factors as population density, health, education and community. No major surprises in the top five: Seattle, Boston, San Diego, San Fran and Minneapolis (there's that archrival again, the city we seem to be forever paired with but always lagging well behind). Akron did a bit better, winning a B and a rank of 46th among 80 cities in its class. Anyway, you can read it and weep here.

Tech Swagger is Back. The dean of Silicon Valley's chroniclers, the San Jose Mercury News' Dan Gillmor reports that tech execs are regaining some of their confidence. But it's also chastened by four tough years, and thus many are without their "1990s Master of the Universe routine." This upcoming conference in October seems like the days of yore, with expensive registrations "by invitation only" and the speaker list packed with marquee names. Why all the optimism? Of course, Google's IPO helps, but that's only the tip. As this influential Internet analyst put it recently, the average earnings growth of the Internet sector is 40%, compared with an average of 22% for the retail, media and software sectors. So let the bubble begin (again)...

Hear Him Roar. Essayist and literary provocateur Christopher Hitchens briefly regained his punch recently. The British ex-pat, perhaps the closest thing we've got these days to a contemporary H.L. Mencken, has disappointed many of his fans with his bizarre post-9/11 cheerleading for the worst excesses of the radical Bush crowd, which basically contradicted everything he ever wrote for 25 years before that. But he regained a bit of his old vinegar with this staccato outburst against the Ronald Reagan, in which he recalled once seeing him up close, responding with an icy and telling fury to a media question he didn't like. "The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard." It takes a righteous warrior with a tenacious sense for the truth to write like that about the recently deceased, and it was a welcome note, coming in the middle of the mindless media deification following his death. Unfortunately, it didn't last. This week, Hitch writes in Slate that the blame for the Abu Ghraib torture lies with...all of us. "...we face something like a collective responsibility, if not exactly a collective guilt." How foolish of us average citizens to be clamoring for accountability from the upper reaches of the Pentagon and the White House. It was actually all of us who helped open the flood gates to rogue military intelligence officers and lightly trained military reservists and contract employees turning Iraqi detainees into human party favors. (I just can't yet seem to find that memo I must have written). It would seem that Hitchens sees only the dastardliness of dead Republican presidents, not those still among us. A pity...

Give Poetry a Chance. Anyway, to end on a high note, let me suggest that you add something unusual to your summer beach reading: a volume or two of poetry (I know the aforementioned Don Iannone would approve, since the versatile one is also an accomplished writer of soulful verse). As this piece in the Boston Phoenix nicely points out, the best new (and old) poetry "has all the humor, vibrancy, sexiness, and suspense of a good beach read." So get some poetry in your soul while the sand's between your toes...

Friday, June 11, 2004

Catch Up Day

Today, and in coming days, I'll dash quickly through a host of things, in a vain attempt to catch up with a thousand observations while also being buried in work projects. In other words, it's time now to come up for air.

The 'Knowing Machine.' Neil Gabler, an astute social observer who has written a number of interesting books, outdid even himself with a bit of counterintuitive writing a week ago in "If Marshall McLuhan was wrong, as I believe he was, and technology does not determine culture so much as culture determines technology, then the Internet might be regarded as a knowing machine designed expressly to satisfy the ever-growing community of individuals who need to know in order to empower themselves." Amen to that. Of course, Google is increasingly coming to be the central nervous system of that knowing machine. Which leads to sentiments such as those encapsulated in this site. It reminded me of something my boy Patrick once said in frustration after I had apparently suggested one time too many that he check Google to find the answer to some question or another: "Dad, you're obsessed with Google."

Seminal Lewis-Pogue Rift Goes National. A couple of years ago, in a long and eye-opening piece on the front page of the Sunday Plain Dealer, one of the paper's few real sources of brilliance, Steve Litt, wrote perhaps the most illuminating piece ever about Peter B. Lewis and the real sources of his anger about Cleveland. In that piece, for the first time, we learned that one of the keys to his anger, almost his Rosebud if you will, stemmed from once being arrogantly dismissed by the icily uber-arrogant Dick Pogue. The story got tongues wagging. This month, that story got retold in the national press, in this smart piece on billionaires and how they're remaking U.S. cities. Governing Magazine is widely read in government and policy wonk circles. The June issue of the magazine also has an interesting column (not online, it's pg. 20 if you want to find it at the library) on the backlash over Richard Florida's simplistic ideas about building municipal economic development through catering to the latte crowd. Says columnist Alan Greenblatt: "Florida now gets mocked and trivialized for promoting bike paths, gays and rock bands as economic development tools. 'Everyone thinks they can build a handful of cappucino places and life will be grand,'" says the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. Interesting enough, that is a truly cool city, in large part because of rich intellectual traditions flowing from the University of Wisconsin. Anyway, I recommend it all.

Neocons Headed for the Ash Heap of History? The Atlantic Monthly's Jack Beatty, for years a consistent beacon of common sense and solid writing through all the magazine's changes, sensibly begins a recent column by taking Iraq war architect Paul Wolfowitz to task for being off by 30% in the estimate he gave Congress of the number of American's killed in the war. And then he goes on to make an even more interesting assertion: "After Iraq, 'neo-conservative' may achieve the resonance of 'isolationist' after World War II--a term of opprobrium for a discredited approach to foreign policy, shorthand for dangerous innocence about world realities." We can only hope so, Jack. But then the spineless media is often easily cowed.

And Finally, we bid the late, great Ray Charles his much-deserved rest. The man was so sweet, his music so singularly moving as to constitute its maker a true American original. And yet like every original, like every high achiever, he had to overcome seemingly impossible odds. My friends are only too aware these days of my growing impatience for whining and complaining of all stripes. And Ray Charles is a perfect reminder of why: he merely had to overcome bone-crushing poverty, a heroine addiction and blindness at an early age. So what the hell kinds of valid excuses do most of us have not to achieve? In an old interview with Tavis Smiley (replayed today on NPR), he reminds us of the love and humility from which his greatness sprang. He talked about being awed at his age that 25,000 people would still show up to hear him in concert. "I love my fans because they love me." And in the end, sweet Ray, love is what's it's all about, isn't it? We surely love you.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Words of Wisdom from a Pair of Sage Doubting Thomases

'Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.'
--St. Thomas Aquinas

'The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.'
--Thomas Merton