Saturday, February 26, 2005

Searching for the Roots of Selflessness

One of our favorite Cleveland-based writers, Kristin Ohlson, made a savvy observation when she was interviewed about writing on public radio station WCPN not long ago. She said that despite the fact that much of her writing time is taken up with books and other longer projects, she still loves tackling shorter freelance magazine stories, because for her, each project is like taking a class in a new subject. The January/February issue of Utne Magazine (the word "Reader" has been dropped from the title) benefits from her latest coursework. She wrote an interesting piece about the Cleveland-based Institute for Research Into Unlimited Love, which is led by CWRU bioethicist Stephen Post. "Not a New Age brothel or a branch office for a goddess cult, IRUL encourages scientific research that examines the source and impact of unselfish, altruistic love," she writes. Since its inception in 2001, the institute has raised about $4 million, $2.5 million of which has been awarded to 33 researchers who are working on such diverse fields as evolutionary biology, theology, sociology, positive psychology and medicine. Click here to go to the institute's website, where you can sign up for an electronic newsletter with the intriguing title "Works of Love."

Friday, February 25, 2005

Something Had to Be Done, So She Did It

Below is a passage written by Beachland Ballroom co-founder Cindy Barber. It appeared last November in the PD's excellent "Voices in the Arts" Sunday series under the headline "Culture Can Be a Catalyst for Neighborhoods Too."

'When my partner, Mark Leddy, and I opened the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern in 2000, the goal was to kick-start the redevelopment in my neighborhood, a sometimes forgotten section of Cleveland bordering Lake Erie between Bratenahl and Euclid, north of Interstate 90. A landscape-architect friend had turned me on to North Collinwood's affordable lake-access living in the mid-1980s, and I was hooked. Even though the area already had lost much of its older ethnic population, the local culture still centered around Friday-night fish fries, bowling and corner bars. But the dominant Slovenian, Croatian and Lithuanian populations eventually shrank to the point that many of the businesses also disappeared. By the late '90s, abandoned streets were taken over at night by young drug dealers and prostitutes.

Something had to be done.

Our thinking was to create a destination location to bring people into the neighborhood at night, so we took over the historic Croatian Liberty Home in the rundown Waterloo business district and turned its warm-sounding ballroom into a national-level music concert club. A few blocks away, a small collective of other area residents was opening the Grovewood Tavern & Wine Bar in an old neighborhood corner bar. Both ventures have gotten rave reviews from a wide region. Today, after 4½ years, the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern is a local institution with a national reputation. In some ways, the acclaim for the venue has far surpassed the original goal to help stabilize the neighborhood. Until recently, we felt like the lone pioneers, with a few exceptions. Some of the old North Collinwood is still here. Down the street, the Slovenian Home hangs on and still puts on a great Friday fish fry. There's a couple of sausage shops and Fanny's home-style Slovenian restaurant that all consistently bring old neighborhood residents back to the 'hood. Our fellow neighborhood activist Sarah Gyorki has managed to keep open her WhatNot Coffeeshop down the street, and some of the bands that play the Beachland have a practice space nearby. But there have been more empty storefronts and buildings for sale than plans and activity.

Yet, there are signs that things might be starting to take off.'

More than once, I've described here how inspiring it is to know and watch Cindy. For years, she was a stalwart alternative weekly editor at the Free Times, fearlessly and tirelessly giving voice to average citizens during a difficult moment in Cleveland history, when the twin power poles of City Hall (under Mike White) and 1801 Superior Avenue (the PD under Alex Machaskee, before Doug Clifton arrived to moderate his worst excesses) were being run by bullies intent on ruthlessly quashing dissent. In working with literally hundreds of editors in 20-plus years, I can't say I've ever known anyone who was better at both the technical and the human sides of the business. When her job got eliminated due to the Village Voice chain buying the paper, she didn't feel sorry for herself and go off in a corner to sulk, as many might have done. Instead, she simply found another focus for her prodigious community-building (and -saving) energies, and in her own neighborhood of North Collinwood. In this post from November '03, I wrote about the medical benefit concert she hosted at the Beachland for our drummer/photographer friend Jim Jones, late of Pere Ubu (just this week, Jim sent along a note about how much he appreciated the effort, and how the money raised served as a crucial bridge until he could get his hospital bills covered by disability insurance). And in this Free Times piece last year, I mentioned Cindy as among Cleveland's leading progressive activists who are helping to change this town, not with hype and glitz and BS, but with her own inspiring and transformative neighborhood sweat equity.

We need to support these people and their dreams, folks. That's why I plan to be on hand at Cindy's joyous converted Croatian dance hall next weekend to help her mark her fifth anniversary in business. I hope you'll be there too. But don't limit yourself to attendance then. Stop back as often as you can. And while you're at it, when you get there, why not ask for Cindy to congratulate her in person. And as long as you have her attention, you might ask for some ideas of how you too might do your bit to help turn things around where you live. I know she'll have a good idea for you. Maybe even five or six.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Your True Vocation

'A man knows when he had found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live...when we are not living up to our true vocation, thought deadens our life, or substitutes itself for life, or gives in to life so that our life drowns out our thinking and stifles the voice of conscience. When we find our vocation, thought and life are one.'
--Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
(offered in memory of our dearly departed friend Steve Goldberg. May he one day come back from among the missing)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Gonzo Ends With a Bang

Last year, the Watergate reporting duo of Woodward and Bernstein raised eyebrows by selling their reporting notes and other background files from their famous Watergate investigations. The University of Texas library shelled out a cool $5 million for the right to own and display this unique stash, and the Washington Post proved to be surprisingly writer-friendly by letting the pair personally profit from the detritus they accumulated while operating as fulltime employees of the paper. Anyway, if this bit of buckraking doesn't bother you too much, you can now check out much of the collection online here.

Supporting the Next Generation of Woodsteins. American University in Washington D.C. and the Center for Public Integrity have newly teamed up to offer the first fellowship in investigative journalism. Fellows can pursue a master's in journalism at AU while pursuing investigative project with the singularly effective Center, founded by former ABC News producer Charles Lewis, who's become an icon of journalism for his aggressive exploration of the connection between money and politics. It's not a bad deal: fellows have their tuition paid in full, plus get a $24,000 stipend. If you have at least four years in the business, get those applications in by March 15th. Information is available here.

Insulting Right-Wingers Watch. In an interesting piece on Fox News in the January/February Atlantic Monthly (which is unfortunately now locked behind walls for non-subscribers), novelist Tom Carson gets off a nice line about right-wing bully boy Sean Hannity, referring to his "red-white-and-Colgate smirk." David Letterman also delivered some well-deserved body blows to George W. in his January 14th Top Ten list, reminding students of late-night comedy that the D's tend to watch Letterman while the R's generally prefer Leno. It went like this: Top Ten Perks of Being the New White House Dog: #10--you're one of the few dogs that is smarter than his master; #3--get the same high-quality leashes that are used on Abu Ghraib prisoners; #1--An owner who sleeps as much as you do!

Hunter S. Signs Off. The king of so-called Gonzo journalism has written his last sentence, his life ended by suicide. Every death is sad, of course, but no one should really be surprised by this ending. For years, I must admit, I tended to interpret a new acquaintance's interest in Thompson's life and his writing as a sign of likely shallowness, an emblem of a perhaps understandable romantic yearning for a life of nihilism by the pen. That was possibly unfair. To many, he embodied a rebellion against the cowardice of modern corporate journalism. This sense was fed by legends of his outlandish reporting expense accounts while on assignment for Rolling Stone (rented helicopters and even elephants). Okay, so far, so good. And his legacy does have its positive sides. Last year, I wrote this profile of a Cleveland native named Evan Wright who had inherited Thompson's slot as a roving international correspondent for Rolling Stone. And when I reached him by phone in Los Angeles, I made a point of asking him about what that meant to him. He quickly changed the subject, which I interpreted as his way of trying to break free of the gravitational pull of the Gonzo legend (perhaps he also wanted to forestall me from asking about his own recovery from an earlier drinking problem). Indeed, in the last quarter century, Hunter S. and his bizarre shenanigans came to stand for (to me, at least), a sad obsession with violence, booze and recreational drugs. And where does all that typically lead in human affairs? And still, intelligent, serious people indulgently tried their best to write off his admittedly self-destructive habits to the rantings of a poet-mystic. Today, I'm prepared to admit he may have been just that. I'll say a quiet prayer that he can somehow have a quieter, less-conflicted existence in the afterlife.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Brass Balls

For once, the Democratic Party showed a little imagination (and plenty of balls) by crossing up the conventional wisdom and selecting a DNC chairman who actually has some leadership skills and something substantive to say. It's quite an astonishing leap to go directly from the Clintons utterly amoral bag man, Terry McAuliffe, to the man that both Republicans and Democrats-posing-as-Republicans love to hate, Howard Dean. I must confess to being a tad shocked that he was selected. I predict that with his penchant for saying what's on his mind, however politically incorrect it might be, he's going to shake up the slumbering party in the same way that Harvard prez Larry Summers is roiling the formerly smooth academic discourse in Cambridge. But he also showed that he's learned something since last year about crafting a message that straddles various positions. Even before he got the DNC nod, he came up with this brilliant little formulation about religious faith, which leaves the party's weak Congressional leadership duo of Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid in the dust: "We can talk about our faith, but we cannot change our faith. We need to be people of conviction." Amen, Howard.

Helen's House. During the Reagan years, a writer named Mark Hertsgaard wrote a fine book about the toothless White House press corps. Entitled On Bended Knee, the cover photo said it all: dozens of human lapdogs huddled together, with microphones and cameras outstretched, waiting for their morsels of gruel from the designated press handlers. For 40 years, one of the leading figures of that corps, the now-elderly Helen Thomas, stood out for her singularly aggressive, independent-minded questioning. To her everlasting credit, she quit the venerable United Press International wire service five years ago when it was purchased by the Moonie Church. Today, even at 84, she remains a thorn in the Bushies' side, speaking out forcefully as a columnist for Hearst News Service. She has decried the administration's "bullying drumbeat" and pointed out in her writing and her public speaking that in 40 years of covering several presidents, she had never before encountered a president who was eager to go to war. "Where's the outrage?" she keeps asking. Where, indeed.

But I think all of that was mere prelude to her most telling encounter yet. It occurred a few weeks ago, and unfortunately it wasn't covered anywhere that I noticed. In a testy exchange with White House press secretary Scott McClellan, the Bush mouthpiece tried to intimidate her with the suggestion that she had insisted that that U.S. is not better off with Saddam Hussein out of power. She cooly countered that she had said no such thing, but had asked why so many Iraqi civilians had to be killed. McClellan responded by saying that it was his briefing, and that she could offer her viewpoint from somewhere other than the White House press room. The elderly Lebanese-American lady, who's been crossing swords with far smarter flaks than this in the last half century, won the encounter with the simplest, truest answer she could offer--by noting that this was her White House, too. I say good for Howard Dean and Helen Thomas, each playing a role their citizenship permits. It's good to see that brass balls are available in both genders.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

'They're Cheering for You, Tucker' You, Too, Bill

So much to catch up on, and so little time, at least today. So I'll have to save for another day accounts of two fascinating, catalytic events I've taken part in within the last week. One was my friend Anton Zuiker's phenomenally successful, even mind-blowing blog conference in North Carolina last weekend. The other was a Tuesday afternoon encounter at John Carroll between nearly a dozen Russian journalists from Siberia, in town for a couple of weeks on an international exchange program, and five of us U.S. scribes. We spent nearly two hours helping each other understand the different challenges and opportunities of our respective systems, in the process challenging the lone interpreter's best efforts to keep up with the fast-paced group conversation and help both sides undertand all the language nuances. Let's just say that each of these events was an intellectual delight, and each stretched my understanding in important and complimentary ways. And to have them occur back to back felt like a special blessing.

Even Seth Godin Gets It Wrong. Most people I know who know anything about viral marketing guru Seth Godin, or have read any of his stuff, come away impressed. It's hard not to: he's smart as a whip and on top of so much of what's new and changing in the web-enabled world, while always managing to resist being swept away by the silly and superficial. But even he can occasionally get it wrong in a big way. In mid-January he wrote in defense of an unnamed friend who was being savaged by what he called the "mob justice" of the blogging community (sorry, but I'll keep intact my disfavor for that silly word blogosphere). So far, so good. But then he erred, I think, with this small bit: " will blow over. Blogging is about speed, and no news is bad news if you're in the hunt for the easy score..." Sorry, Seth, but blogging is only about speed if you choose to make it about speed. Blogs and blogging are mere mediums, tools or, as Anton Zuiker likes to say, pencils. They're used differently by different people. Can't we ever get off this childish reductionism of attributing all kinds of group descriptions to a simple communications medium that's as customized as one cares to be? Blogs are whatever their authors choose to make them. End of story.

Kukral Elicits an Interesting Nugget. For many, the newest guru to follow in the footsteps of Godin is a New York p.r. guy (of all things) named Steve Rubel, who writes brilliantly about the new media landscape on his similarly brilliantly named site, Micropersuasion. At the end of January, my Cleveland-based pal Jim Kukral, himself a budding micropersuader, posed a question to Steve on his blog, about his apparent policy against accepting advertising. It prompted Rubel to give this unexpected answer:

Jim, when I started this blog back in April of last year I vowed never to accept advertising. I am not in this to make a buck, but to engage in a discussion about the democratization of media and evangelize its possibilities. However, in recent months a few companies have approached me about placing ads on my blog. I am weighing if I will run these campaigns. If I elect to go forward, I will donate all proceeds to a charity to-be-determined that supports medical research for children with brain tumors. Believe it or not, I am a brain tumor survivor going on 22 years now and I would like to give back. If others have thoughts here, I would be eager to hear them. I promise, however, that if I do run ads I will keep the advertising simple, relevant and clean.

Which proves once more (as I like to tell my sons, ad nauseum): you only learn by asking. Hats off to Jimmy K.

And finally, we bring you the heartwarming story of Bill Belichick. When last we Clevelanders left him, Bill was the almost comically sullen, monosyllabic Browns coach. An obvious creep with borderline psychosis issues. What the hell is this guy's problem? we all asked. He has since, of course, morphed into a genius who's rightly being compared to Vince Lombardi, causing any honest person to reconsider their original assumptions about the guy. But this tender little story in the NYTimes just before the Super Bowl, by the dependable beat writer George Vecsey, made me root even more for Bill and his Patriots:

Way beyond the Doctor Doom stereotype, Belichick is a family man, anchored by his wife Debby, and three children. He makes friends, and keeps them. From his days with the Giants, he got to know Ingraham, a sports businessman and fellow graduate of Wesleyan U....when Belichick was settling on Long Island in 1997, he stayed with (the family) , becoming part of the family. Now 9, Tucker Ingraham keeps in touch with his pal Bill via email, and receives almost instant replies saying that he is turning over Tucker's critiques to his coordinators. Last year, Tucker got to play catch on the field before the Super Bowl and, after the Patriots won in te closing seconds, Bill whispered to him, 'they're cheering for you, Tucker.' Think of that when you think of Doctor Doom."

Call me a softie if you will, but that one brought a lump to my throat.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Couldn't Have Said it Better Myself

'For me, reading’s like the inhale and writing’s like the exhale. Which part of the oxygen process do you want to cut off?'
--sex columnist and X-rated author Susie Bright, in an interview with the Boston Phoenix