Friday, January 28, 2005

Kibbles & Bits

Okay, it must be said: I admire how so many bloggers I read can somehow find a way to spend perhaps just 3-4 odd moments here and there to post something worth saying. With the right combination of brevity and just the right link, it's an art form. One which I'll never get the hang of. No, I haven't the knack for short, so I won't even try (my style being more narrative is one way to put it; long-winded is another). At least after today. Here's an attempt at how it might go:

You Only Thought They Were F---ED. The once-hot was all the rage during the dot-com era, when the guy behind it got ahold of lots of good insider leaks from companies teetering on the brink and published them. At its peak, 1,200 subscribers paid $75 a month access to the choicest bits. But it's fallen off the radar screen lately. I hadn't come across the name in perhaps a year. Until, that is, I read in the Wall Street Journal recently that the company still brings in about $300,000 a year from a blend of subscriptions and ads. Hell, that's at least twice what Working With Words racks up. That must mean we're really F---ed up...

Witnessing History. My friend Ayad Rahim left for a return trip to his native Iraq this week, to be on hand for the historic vote this weekend. Please pray for his safety, and keep track of his travels and observations on his blog. The Plain Dealer's Global Village column mentioned him briefly this morning, and he's due to be on WCPN next week. We'll warn you when as soon as we get the word. Or you can just check his blog, where he's so longwinded that he makes me look like a piker.

Call Me Genius. I've settled on a new stretch goal for this year: winning a McArthur genius grant. I'd consider accepting it even if it doesn't happen till next year. Or perhaps the year after. Wish me luck.

Re-encountering Legendary Craftsmanship. When you pursue serious journalistic writing for a number of years, you tend to hear and read about various legendary articles, sometimes dozens of times, and yet you may never read them. Occasionally, they'll be reprinted in a book collection or anthology. More recently, we get them via the web. I have in mind articles such as Gay Talese's 1966 Esquire profile of Sinatra, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," in which he never gets to interview the singer but instead writes about the many layers of protection around him. Another such alleged marvel of literary profiling has always been Kenneth Tynan's celebrated New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson, justly so, it turns out. Well, here it is. Click, read and enjoy. Notice how much longer New Yorker stories used to be in 1978 (at least twice as long as anything that runs today). Even the best "long-form" journalism of today is tighter than it once was. And for a great recent look at Talese's thoughts about his craft and his career, do check this out.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Who Says Sportswriting Has to be Dull and Leaden?

Not much time to write today, but I nevertheless feel the urge to pass along a few choice tidbits that have recently caught my attention. Like this brief passage about Lebron James. It was written by Tacoma News Tribune columnist John McGrath, on the occasion of the Cavs' west coast swing last week. I think it comes the closest I've seen to describing the true nature of Lebron's court brilliance, to say nothing of being vividly and wonderfully written:
A teenager until three weeks ago, the NBA's defending Rookie of the Year is as talented as advertised. But there's a dimension to his game, his intuitive court sense, that can't fully be appreciated on those seemingly nightly sports-highlight clips of King James on TV. Like a pool shark running a table, he knows when to blast it, when to tap it. His passes can be feathery soft, when the situation calls for feathery soft, or they can be lightning-bolt quick, when the situation demands lightning-bolt quick. He's got the moves of a circus acrobat, but no wasted motion. Everything he does is consistent with the context of the game.

That's writing worth paying for, and certainly worth reading. On the other hand, there's the more traditional sports journalist, the multimedia performer. This piece in Slate describes one such multi-tasking writer, who, it seems, files his print column while on the run between TV appearances, using a Blackberry no less! Now that, I'd pay to see. Imagine typing hundreds of words on those tiny little buttons. Who said writing is a lost art? At least that way, it requires fine motor skills...
Lots to do on February 12th. Just as I'm about to book a flight for North Carolina to attend Anton Zuiker's Triangle Blogger's Conference, which centers on using blogs to build community (a subject just inches from my heart), I get word that a couple of pretty interesting events will be taking place in Cleveland that same day. No matter--nothing could keep me away from seeing my boy Z in action, in his element. And the expected turnout (80 at last word, and still growing) has to be especially gratifying, even humbling, to the ever-modest Anton. But please, dear readers. If you're a fan of this site, why not consider patronizing either or possibly both of these events that Saturday (that is, of course, if you can't join us down in N.C. You hear me Jack R??). My new friend Larry Trupo (who's a maintenance whiz in my office building) has a double life as a musician with his wonderfully named band, Poultry in Motion. They're due to play the Barking Spider at 8:30 that night. Meanwhile, my favorite local indy bookseller, the sainted Suzanne Degaetano of Mac's Backs in Coventry, has come up with a truly wonderful idea for honoring the late Poet Laureate of Cuyahoga County, Daniel Thompson. I'll let her announcement do the talking:

Join us on Saturday, Feb. 12th at 7:30 p.m., at the Algebra Tea House in Cleveland's Little Italy for an evening of poetry, polemics and performance to benefit "The Daniel Thompson Poet Stone Fund." This absolutely free event is being held to raise donations for a tombstone in Lakeview Cemetary for Cuyahoga Count's late, great poet laureate, who passed away in May '04. The evening features scheduled readers and performers as well as an open mic session. Donations may also be sent c/o Mac's Back, 1820 Coventry Road, Cleveland Hts., OH 44120, ascribed to "The Daniel Thompson Poet Stone Fund." The Algebra Tea House is located at 2136 Murray Hill Rd. in Little Italy. To participate, or for more information, contact Mark Hopkins at 216-231-7894 or email at

All in all, a brilliant idea to honor a special guy in Cleveland's recent past. I'll be sending along a modest check toward that, and I hope you might consider doing so as well. But here's another way to help that wouldn't cost a dime: show up in person that night to provide some moral support and to be a stand-in for me and Working With Words, which will be there in spirit if not body. And do follow up and let us know how it went, and we'll post that news then.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Enough to Renew Your Faith in the Jury System

As I've mentioned often in the past, I'm regularly transfixed by NPR, which serves up more golden nuggets for the mind in a single week than most news organizations can manage to dig up in an entire year. The latest marvelous moment happened on Saturday afternoon. Barbara Bogaev was interviewing the infamous Juror #4 from the Tyco/Dennis Koslowski corporate-corruption trial (she was the one who supposedly signaled defense lawyers "okay," thus triggering a mistrial and her identification in the media. You can read more about that here if you like). Anyway, this elderly retired teacher and lawyer veered off into a fascinating little story about how she has come to befriend a fellow juror, a black male nurse (who, as she awkwardly put it, is "a member of the black population") perhaps 40 years her junior. "We have almost nothing in common, except maybe a love for the truth," she said, before adding what I thought was the killer detail. She and her unlikely new friend still go to Costco together!

Friday, January 21, 2005

Inaugurals and New Beginnings

Twelve years ago, I carted into work the tiny black and white TV that my beloved Jule and I had bought six years earlier in our first months of marriage (We still have it in our bedroom to this day, perhaps partly a nod to marital nostalgia, but the damn thing also still works, so it functions as our family's third boob tube). I propped it up on a desk, futzed with it to try to get some modicum of a clear signal, and spent the rest of the day with one eye trained on a fresh new beginning for the country.

Clinton's inaugural festivities felt like the start of something special way back in January '93. I was a tad too young to experience or remember JFK's briskly invigorating festivities in 1961 (a toddler, to be more specific), but for my generation the parallels to JFK's symbolically ushering in a new era were only too obvious. The young and handsome Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas was a reasonable enough echo of the Harvard Man with lilting tongue from Boston. And the poetess Maya Angelou would serve as a fitting stand-in for JFK's favorite wordsmith, Robert Frost, only updated for a hipper era. To these two guys, words mattered. They moved hearts and changed history.

I mulled on that spectacle all day, and then for the rest of the week. And then I decided to do something about it. Clinton's fresh start, and how it made me feel reconnected with civic matters and with the future and with the vital core of what it means to be a thinking person and a citizen (and also how it made me miss my days as a rookie writer in D.C., with offices not 500 feet from the White House), convinced me that if I didn't act then and there, I'd wake up 30 minutes later and find myself 64 years old, stuck in a velvet coffin job, with a fat retirement account and a nice big house. But also with an empty spirit, with a soul torturing itself for not having risked anything to be a better, more self-actualized person. Which of course would mean the death of any real writing life.

And so, as I have related the story before in this space, I walked into my boss's office and gave my six-month notice (I know, that may be the longest quitting notice in the history of the American workplace. But I was a chicken, and besides I loved my work, and wanted to save more money. And mostly, I wanted to give my poor wife a cushion for the proper grieving period over the news which I knew she'd hate).

Yesterday we witnessed another presidential inaugural, of course. And I don't need to belabor how very different this one seemed to most Americans of intelligence, heart and conscience. Watching a preening, arrogant, dangerously ignorant group take hold again of the reins of government is a deeply disturbing event for those with any measure of moral seriousness. It's not anger exactly, not precisely outrage or deep concern or even an inability to yet come to grips with how stupid, heartless and cruel tens of millions of your fellow countrymen can be, if they're not simply as misguided as small children (perhaps more worrisome still). It’s all of that and so much more.

But then god has a way of interceding and handing you a timely lesson, if only you’ll listen.

After at least a year of unsuccessfully trying to schedule a meal with the budding poet Don Iannone (he has his eagerly anticipated first book of poetry out in just a few weeks), on short notice he suggested lunch. I quickly accepted, since our growing friendship has until now been based only on seconds-long social hellos, reading and especially email correspondence. So there we sat, enjoying the food and the conversation, with George W. droning on behind us and neither of us paying the slightest bit of attention. Instead, I got the delicious treat of beginning to get to actually know a deeply kindred heart, and learning more about that unique combination of life ingredients of pain, hurt and loss (but also of business success, happy family legacy and a positive attitude) that have been baked together and wondrously transformed into a refreshing river of inspiring words. And as I walked out of lunch and drove away, something suddenly occurred to me. Maybe it’s the age at which I find myself, or maybe it's more driven by this unique moment in our history (or maybe some of each). But that crucial inspiration, courage and agenda-setting that I once depended on the larger public sphere to provide is better provided closer to where one lives, works, plays and dreams--and on a more individual level. Presidential oratory is nice in all its macro ability to set agendas and inspire us to dream of what might yet be, at least when it proceeds from a good and righteous presidential heart. But even at its best, it’s surely no replacement for the life-changing, soul-stirring micro effects of those special folks you experience closer at hand, those whom we can love, honor, admire and learn from up close and in the flesh. Today, I’m so thankful for that timely lesson that I’m even in a mood to permanently forgive poor, clueless George and his crew for all that they’re not and can never be. Somehow, all that doesn't seem to matter quite so much as it once did...

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I'll Be Back Full Bore Soon

'To love someone deeply gives you strength.
Being loved by someone deeply gives you courage.'
--D.H. Lawrence

With apologies to my longtime readers, I've been busy with so much living, working, learning and connecting lately that I've failed to keep up any semblance of regularity here at Working With Words. Come to think of it, that's not an apology really, so much as it's a mere explanation. First, I was happily buried in reporting and writing a long article about the myriad ways in which the amazing Cleveland Clinic is leveraging the Internet to spread its excellence literally around the world (it's going to press as we speak, and I'll link to it when it's up), and more recently I've been happily buried in a massive project writing web content for a major Atlanta-based bank, Sun Trust. Ignoramus that I am, I'd never heard of the institution before this project came calling. Turns out that after a recent merger, it's only the seventh largest bank in the U.S., ahead of even our giant National City. I also began a new blog (more about which later), and that always takes some time and energy in order to properly breathe life into it. And the breadth and depth of writerly conferences, seminars, informal conversations and one-on-one chatting that I've been taking part in, both ongoing and some just over the horizon, are a special source of energy and inspiration as we begin this new year. They encourage and fortify my spirit, palpably reminding me every day that a smart, loving and energetic community of fellow thinkers and doers is building muscle mass around me everywhere I look.

Anyway, I promise to be better about blogging, beginning soon. A blogger recently opined in the Washington Post, when asked his thoughts on how frequently bloggers should post something: about as often as you eat. I got a chuckle out of that. But I sure haven't stopped eating, and I'm about the most unlikely possible candidate to blog as frequently as I eat. But each to his own ways.

Which of course is what blogging is really all about. As I've repeatedly explained to various uninitiated folks when the subject of blogging comes up (and it becomes apparent to me that they've fallen under the spell of some unified field theory of blogging advanced by one idiot non-blogger or another now that the media and much of the popular chatter is full of talk and coverage about blogs), there is no one way to blog, no one way to think of what it entails or what it means. It's simply a medium through which to reach people, an audience, just like a letter or a postcard or a print newsletter or TV show or any host of other avenues. Only it's all that and much more. It's unbound by editors, censors, fussy copy editors. And especially nervous ad salesmen who worry that an unkind remark or an offhand sentence will hurt all our wallets. As the wise NYU new media professor Jay Rosen recently put it in his signature vivid style, blogs are nothing less than "a little First Amendment machine." Paradoxically, as my friend, the uber-blogger Anton Zuiker, once observed, talking about blogging itself is about as interesting as talking about a pencil. His meaning: it's what you do with these little First Amendment machines that really counts. Anyway, I'll be doing lots more with it, and soon. We'll see where that takes us (and I can only say it has taken me places I could never have dreamed nearly two years ago, when this all began).

Meanwhile, I offer that singularly poetic thought found above to my dear wife Jule, on the occasion of her recent birthday. You've truly illuminated my life and put a song in my heart like nothing and no one else. Here's to the next 18 years...

Friday, January 07, 2005

Our Post-Holiday Writers' Salon
Gets the Year Off to a Nice Start

'In January everyone is something of a Buddhist.'
--From a recent New York Times article on the wonders of tofu and the general instinct to purify the system after weeks of holiday indulgence

Thanks to a wonderfully eclectic and imaginative group of two dozen writers and thinkers who gathered together at Talkies coffeehouse last Tuesday, our inaugural Writers' Salon was a sublime success. Credit my co-host Anton "Mister Sugar" Zuiker for the key original idea. His use of the word "salon" got our minds moving in fresh new directions for a new year. Certainly we didn't need another writerly event, with particular subjects, speakers or formal panels. We're drowning in those already. Nor did we need another class on how to better pursue this or that aspect of the craft (there are already some excellent resources in that realm, which I'll be pointing to all year). And of course we have plenty of purely social events, where writers and other creatives gather to gossip and blow off steam, and avoid getting back to their blank pages and screens.

But because of the special time of year, the wonderful location (the fireplace-appointed front room of Talkies) and especially the pleasing assortment of people--several of whom almost never come out for live events--the tone was special. It just felt different, somehow. A couple of post-event email comments nicely put it in perspective. "I forgot how much I missed those people," said one writer, who's been out of the circuit for a little while. "Thanks. I just need to come out of my hole every once in a while," said another.

Which is what it was all about. Writing can be a dauntingly solitary slog, at least when done right and pursued over many years. And when you add in our uniquely dreary, sunless winters (which, as I've written before, lead to low-grade depression in this region), the need for regular fellowship, for a gathering together with the tribe, becomes all the more acute. We need to come together to provide each other emotional sustenance and support, to share ideas and resources, and to remind ourselves that we've come far in developing our voices and talents (even as we all know we have only begun to scratch the surface of what we might accomplish).

The point of this converging community is to arm ourselves with a network of low-hassle, easily available resources. By banding together into a deeper connection we can create our own place where people can turn when they need anything--advice, support, encouragement or whatever. A place where the experienced can send the aspiring for coaching and support, and the veterans can also learn some new tricks from the more energetic rookies. I feel good about the new year. We're watching numerous small threads that have slowly been coming together being weaved into a giant quilt in the year ahead. It's already happening, and a thousand points of light are behind it all.

We're beginning to think about our next salon, perhaps sometime next month (or possible March). The subject of the last gathering was travel. The next one will be about journeys, as well, only this time of an inner, spiritual sort. Stay tuned for details.

And for the curious, here's a list of those who attended Salon I:
Eileen Beal
John Westropp
Jim O’Hare
Kristin Hampshire
Kristin Ohlson
Susanne Alexander
Joyce Ashman
Debby Phillips
Anton Zuiker
Becky Meiser
Kathleen Colan
Jack Richiutto
Adele Eisner
Charu Gupta
Valdis Krebs
Ayad Rahim
Debbie Phillips
John Ettorre
Sandy Piderit
Sandy Woodthorpe
Jay Miller
Wendy Hoke
Tom Haines