Sunday, July 31, 2005

What Moves Us is What We Want

' is hard not to love Augustine. He states his questions and his convictions about the human condition with such ardor that the flames of his ideas leap across the chasm of sixteen centuries from his lifetime into our own. Against the best philosophy of his day, he insisted that the human being was more than a mind sojourning in an inconvenient body. Flesh, he urged, truly is the native home of spirit: body and soul belong together, and together make up the whole person. Memory, he asserted, defines and constitutes self. And love, as he passionately and relentlessly wrote, is the hinge of the soul, the motor of the will. What moves us is not what we know, but what we want. We are what we love.'
--From a review in The New Republic of Augustine: A New Biography

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Food for Thought on a Glorious Summer Weekend

'People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind.'
--W. B. Yeats

'The opposite of play isn't work, it's depression. To play is to act out and be willful, exultant and committed as if one is assured of one's prospects.'
--Brian Sutton Smith, emeritus professor of education, Univ. of Pennsylvania

'Games are the most elevated form of investigation.'
--Albert Einstein

'Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrial society--our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value.'
--Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic

'There is no question that a playfully light attitude is characteristic of creative individuals.'
--author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Friday, July 29, 2005

Table Scraps

I have so very much to say today, but so little time in which to say it. So you'll just have to wait on those longer meals for when I can get around to serving them up. Meanwhile, munch on this quicky junk food instead. Hope it's filling enough for now.

An Unfortunate Sign of the Times. It's too bad that citizens have to be informed of their rights about being searched before boarding the subway. But at least this useful guide will get you through the thickets.

Best Comment of the Day. A caller on today's Diane Rehm show on NPR thought it silly to declare a war on terror. "You don't have a war on a tactic. That would be like a war on ambush, or a war on blitzkrieg." But he needn't worry any longer. As you may have noticed from various news reports, the imbeciles in the higher reaches of the Bush Administration have stopped using the term War on Terror, no doubt cause even they can see that average Americans aren't so stupid as to see that we seem to be losing it, and are beginning to ask when it might end. So they're simply switching to language that will leave them less on the defensive. A brighter bunch might actually rethink the wisdom of the underlying actions.

Calling All Personal First Amendment Machines. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, sort of an ACLU for the digital age, is sponsoring this worthy venture. Do consider helping out, if you can. And speaking of the First Amendment, my thanks to the gray eminence, Roldo Bartimole, who thoughtfully sent along as a gift a pocket version of the U.S. Constitution. It turns out he was following my blog debate of last week with the estimable Tim Russo, and figured I might have occasion to quote from our country's founding scripture sometime. Thanks, Roldo, it's much appreciated.

And speaking of Tim Russo... The man who calls himself Democracy Guy does a wonderful job of rethinking
his blog, with less clutter and an eye-catching design. Of course, none of it would matter much if he didn't also regularly serve up some of the more thoughtful writing to be found anywhere on Northeast Ohio's corner of the web. I especially love his motto: Grassroots, baby. It nicely captures his energy and approach. Jeff Jarvis, who until recently headed up the Newhouse chain's newspaper web strategy, seems to have taken a page from Tim, at about the same time. His Buzzmachine, once one of the butt-ugliest blogs anwhere (thought widely read), has been transformed by an appealing photo of an ancient, massive printing press. Meanwhile, it's interesting how both the Village Voice and, more recently, the New York Observer, have utterly transformed their websites in order to better react to (and benefit from) the web's faster news velocity. They follow similar experiments, from small but influential pubs, like the Washington Monthly, which a few months ago converted its website to a blog, which then contains links to stories from the print publication. Some healthy experimentation is going on all over journalism about how to better leverage the web, and make it complement rather than compete with print versions. And it's all healthy. The sky hasn't even fallen, so relax traditionalists. Journalism isn't dying--far from it. It's merely being reborn and rethought in particularly loud and vivid ways, most of which (I emphasize most) are healthy for democracy, however annoying and even frightening they might be for the old order.

Former Free Times Editor Now Blogs. My Cleveland readers may remember the name Lisa Chamberlain. Not so long ago, she was a junior hotshot writer at the Free Times, all full of anger and earnestness (not yet 30 at the time, she was famously known to muse aloud, with a grave expression, about how important people congratulated her on writing the most important stories in town). She later edited the pub, a more pleasing platform from which to continue to rail at civic wrong-doers. She was once quite a fan of her overseers at the Village Voice (which owned the paper, before trying to close it in a cynical deal with competing alt-weekly chain New Times, which smelled so bad that even a Republican Justice Department overturned it), as
this little Q&A explains. But the chain pushed her out, and she decamped to Dennis Kucinich's staff (where she had worked previously), a perch from which she continued to wage her battle with her ex-employer through the pages of the Scene. There, she charged that she had been fired for refusing to kill a story the publisher didn't want to run, an assertion that, to me at least, seemed less than persuasive. Anyway, time moved along, and so did Lisa. She left for New York, got a master's in journalism at Columbia, and did an impressive stint reporting on the last presidential election for, including an especially wonderful piece on the dark side of Ralph Nader. For the last year she has been reporting on real estate for the New York Times, a beat that can't be her first choice. She recently launched a blog, which is an excellent example of how a professional journalist can smartly supplement their work with an online companion. In a note to friends announcing its launch, she noted that it will include originally reported material. In the June archives you'll find links to her NYT pieces, including this appealing article from last August, on Shaker Heights. Do keep an eye on her. With her smarts, drive and energy, I expect she'll steadily climb the ladder at our national paper of record.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

George W's Mystifying Foreign Policy

From an essay in the Claremont Review of Books, a staunchly conservative counterpart to the venerable New York Review of Books:

'No one seems to know quite what to make of the foreing policy of George W. Bush. Realists attack him for his excessive idealis, but idealists want nothing to do with the man or his policies. Most liberals view the Bush policy as arrogant or hypocritical or cynical, or all of the above. For certain conservatives, the Bush policy in its universalism is an ugly stepchild of the French revolution. Meanwhile, his supporters often do not agree on what they are supporting. Some characterize his policies as a kind of idealism; othrs, taking a contrary view, describ ehis policies in terms of a higher realism or natural law. As for intellectual sources, supportes and critics have variously invoked Thomas Paine, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Leo Strauss--even Jesus Christ. The Bush Doctrine, in truth, defies easy definition or classification.'

I especially love the bit about trying to surmise Bush's "intellectual sources,"as if they were more complicated than a blend of Rove's cynical ruthlessness, Cheney's dark misanthropy, a filial need to distinguish himself from his smarter and more accomplished dad, and perhaps most importantly, his mother's inherited hair-trigger petulance. Folks, no big mystery about his foreign "policy": George W. is simply making it up as he goes.

Need Another Reason to Hate Wal-Mart? Here it is.

Those Remarkable Irish-American Women. Maureen Dowd's moving
tribute to her recently deceased mom, which appeared in last Sunday's Week in Review section, was interesting on several levels. After years of slashing and burning her way through politics and pop culture as the paper's unofficial savage stylist and later op-ed successor to the less tart Anna Quindlan, Dowd has only relatively recently begun writing about her own life and that of her family. Judging by anecdotal reactions I pick up, readers have found these slivers into her personal life even more interesting than her renderings on politics. And now we understand why. Judging by her affecting portrait of her mom, she's the product of a singular kind of female bravado and verve, the intellectual equivalent of a barnstorming female pilot. But it's also the portrait of a classic "Greatest Generation" figure, a woman steeled by the Depression and formed by decades of holding the family--actually an entire community--together, sometimes on little more than grit and determination.

Dowd's mom was apparently a classic Irish-American woman, rather in the mold of my sainted mother-in-law, Mary O'Toole Kerrigan. Mary wields rather less irony but a far sunnier disposition, and she combines that with all of Mrs. Dowd's tremendous work habits and her ability to glue extended families together with her charm and bustling resolve. After nearly a quarter century of watching this lady and admiring her in every possible setting, I'm finally beginning to understand the type. This energetic Irish matriarch is of course near to my heart for another crucial reason: the job she did in forming my spectacular wife into a woman of similarly remarkable qualities, with that same energy oozing from her pores, that same sunny determination to do the right thing, to look for the good in everyone and everything, to work her way through any hurdle, any challenge with an indomitable resolve.

To me, these women are national treasures, people to cherish and to give thanks for. And so I do, every day.

Monday, July 25, 2005

My List of Must-Read Blogs

Some writing colleagues have asked me to assemble a list of blogs I read regularly, blogs that I can't do without. It was couched in the form of a homework assignment, so of course I reverted to my school habits, making sure to hand it in as late as possible. Anyway, for what it's worth, here it is, my daily intellectual breakfast of champions:


Friday, July 22, 2005

The Longest Week

I won't try to describe it all for you. In fact, I won't try to describe any of it for you, really. At least not just now. Just suffice to say that the work week just ended was perhaps the most interesting and action-packed of my life, both in a career sense and on the personal side (although there's really no easy way to separate those, since I try to live by the code that says if you do it right and follow your passions, there's no way to tell whether you're working or playing). So many amazing things have happened this week, so many conversations have sprung into meaningful action, so many plans and chats have turned into group action and projects and ventures. And they all come from being at the intersection of what I've come to think of as the good folks/smart folks network. When you're around the right people, in the middle of smart networks full of smart, heart-felt people who care about their communities--be they communities of practice, craft, geography, whatever), what happens can be described only as a kind of impossible grace. Things land in your lap, they find you. Things so interesting and invigorating that you couldn't have dreamed them up in your wildest imaginative leaps.

But let me just mention two things that gave me special kick this week. Oh, hell, maybe three. My blogging friends from Northeast Ohio met on Wednesday night at a splendid location, on a splendid summer evening. The conversation was so meaningful, so friendly and collegial, so absent of any preening, competitive egos, or anything even remotely negative. Instead, and for the first time (for me, at least), it truly felt like a community of practice. There's that phrase again. I heard it and learned it first from my good friend Jack. I haven't a clue whether it's of his own coinage or whether, like a good consultant (or writer), he simply hijacked it from someone else. It might well be a stock phrase in consulting. But it matters not a bit. I forever relate that resonant phrase with him and his catalytic work and catalytic presence (and if you know Jack, you know that his presence in a conversation doesn't require his physical presence).

Anyway, this particular community of practice is now setting its sights really high, and it is forming into the kind of network that can really make things happen, and quickly. I couldn't have really begun to hope for half of what is now happening when we first assembled in May '03, at a large public event where we first really began to explore who and what we were individually, and what that might become collectively. In the intervening 26 months, this network has expanded exponentially, and yet at its core, much of it remains similar. Only now it's changing events, asking lots of the right questions, and prompting answers (and action) in ever quicker, more impressive waves. Who could even hazard a guess at where this is all heading? I'm just looking forward to riding the wave.

And then there's my old friend Dan Hanson, and his splendid little
CAP (for Computers Assisting People). Talk about a powerful network, and one founded and still organized on his magnetic, powerful energy. Word came today that the Cleveland Foundation's Civic Innovation Lab has decided to make a modest investment in underwriting his creation of a business plan for CAP. Take a bow for that, Ed, Betsy and the entire REI crew. But mostly, take a bow, Dan. I expect this vote of confidence from the lab will lead to some amazing new vistas for CAP, as it should. I just know that it will give a warm glow to my entire weekend.

And finally, two new websites containing words I've written went live this week. On one level, they couldn't be more different. On another, they're both medically related.
One is a project I completed last year. But the organization, a cardiology practice in Akron, had other complications, and the site languished in limbo for month after month. I was heartened to learn this week that limbo at last gave way to life. And life is a beautiful thing, for websites (really just publishing platforms) no less than for people. The other project was even dearer to my heart: an impossibly smart, innovative 70-something physicist of my acquaintance, Dr. Richard Hansler, who's a world-class scientist, did what innovative people tend to do: he kept innovating even after ostensible retirement, from GE's Nela Park. As a man with endless connections and intellectual capital, holder of dozens of U.S. patents, he capitalized on his dense network and founded the Lighting Innovations Institute, housed at my favorite university, John Carroll. A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to write about him, and in a magazine I once edited, no less. I felt blessed to have gotten to know him and be able to share his story with readers. We stayed in touch a bit.

A few weeks ago, he called to tell me about his latest venture, an online store to sell lighting-related products growing out of his considerable, federally sponsored research. And could I help him write the copy for that site? The resulting project was a special treat, as good an example of blending play and work as any I can point to. I supplied the words, working alongside a crack web designer (Christine) who also happens to be a 24-year-old stay-at-home mom. The upshot: I got the chance as mid-career guy to work with a couple of 70ish scientists, and a 24-year-old web developer. A well-timed reminder for me that innovation knows no age. It's more a state of mind and an attitude. And I feel doubly blessed on this sublime summer Friday to be in communion with so many innovative people.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Sound & Fury Begins

The fight that both sides have been preparing for for a dozen years is finally here. And this should be a particularly gruesome bit of trench warfare, this struggle over filling Justice Sandy O'Conner's seat on the Supreme Court. Not so much because this nominee is more polarizing than Robert Bork. He surely isn't. It's because the country is far more polarized than it was then.

The email contest heated up quickly. My friends on the left beat their rightward counterparts into my email inbox, but just barely. I'm not registered with, but I nevertheless got their message today via a relay from a local progressive/lefty network, Jim Miller's fine What's Up in Northeast Ohio listserv (check it out and sign up yourself
here, if you like). It asked me to sign Moveon's petition against the Bush nominee (thanks, but I'll pass). A couple hours later, I got this note from my friends at the Republican National Committee, with whom I am registered (see the egregious lengths to which a writer must go in order to stay informed?):

Dear John,
It's been over 36 hours since President Bush named Judge John G. Roberts to be the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Judge Roberts is a fair-minded and compassionate jurist who knows his job is to interpret the Constitution, not legislate from the bench. Response to Judge Roberts' nomination has been very positive from Republicans, legal scholars, the media and even some Democrats thanks to actions you took shortly after the President announced his choice. But our work is not done. Liberal interest groups such as NARAL and MoveOn.Org are committed to doing all they can to keep Judge Roberts from the bench...
And on it went, blah, blah, blah. Moving Ideas, a project of the American Prospect, assembled this impressively comprehensive online package for activists who want to oppose the nomination. And the judge's supporters have staked out this competing virtual real estate. Of course, the traditional political media, too, is all on fire. The Nation (here) and Slate (here) have already made up their minds: this guy is a danger. But easily the best early piece about this nominee, by the New Republic's longtime legal affairs expert, the centrist Jeffrey Rosen, in this morning's New York Times (sorry, the op-ed page is no longer free for non-subscribers) nicely captures how the early assumptions of the left might well be all wrong about this nominee.

Even before reading Rosen's take, I'd have to say I wasn't really too worried about this fellow Roberts. With the exceptions of Scalia and Thomas--a couple of creepy, thuggish disciples of the hard right--a familiar thing tends to happen when someone ascends to the highest court in the land. In some circles, it's come to be called the Souter effect, named for the fine, highly principled justice David Souter, whom Ronald Reagan named to the court, only to be later bitterly disappointed about how moderate he would be.

I once had my own life-changing brush with all this. As I've written here before, I had the great, good fortune of covering the U.S. Supreme Court on a daily basis for a couple of years in my snot-nosed 20s. And let me tell you, just being around the place--and I of course wasn't around the place quite in the way that the justices were--shakes you up, and forces you to take things seriously. It's not merely the architectural grandeur of the court--although this architect's son was surely affected by that. It's not just the hushed, brocade-curtained seriousness of the hallways, or of the courtroom itself where cases are argued. Hell, you could feel this energy even in the press room, where a couple dozen writers who cover the beat go about their business in a generally quiet, focused manner, befitting the seriousness of the surroundings.

When one spends any time at this court, you're reminded in the most palpable way of the majesty and greatness of...well, not just the law. You come to have more reverance for American democracy itself--not the messy, humanly imperfect practice of it, but rather the exquisitely calibrated balancing of powers and interests first designed by the founders. And that feeling of quiet reverance is perhaps better captured at the court than anywhere else in Washington, with the possible exception of the Lincoln Memorial. In his prime-time introduction to the nation the other night, Roberts briefly, and oh so eloquently, spoke about the way he'd get a lump in his throat each time he walked those stairs, despite having argued 39 cases before the court. I know what he meant. You simply never lose your awe for this place, and for what it symbolizes. Those wise founders, dead white males all, understood that the power of a lifetime appointment would create almost a new person on the highest court. I think this new nominee will be just fine.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Support the Independents, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I
urged you to consider occasionally taking your book-buying business to a local indy bookstore, rather than giving it all to the big, bad chains or to Amazon. There was one major indy store in these parts I didn't mention, however, the Blue Heron in Peninsula (I'm quite sure the store is more appealing than their website). Some bibliophile pals have since been inundating me with information about that shop, which is relatively new, and which I plan on visiting this weekend for the first time ever. And sure enough, as if on cue, the store got a mention last week in USA Today, in one of those ubiquitous pieces about the Harry Potter release parties. Just one more reason to head out to Peninsula, I'd say.

A Local Micropersuader Joins the Conversation. For many months, perhaps a year even, whenever the subject of the public relations/marketing industry learning to better leverage the web would arise, I would point people to a guy I consider the smartest thinker in that area, Steve Rubel. The prolific New York ad man has quickly become an A-list blogger through his smarts and his stamina (I often wonder how he manages to get a moment of client work in). His site,
Micropersuasion, recently revamped on its first anniversary, is a giant gateway to following a thousand related trends at the intersection of p.r. and citizens media. Now, it would seem we have a local equivalent, a bright guy at the powerhouse p.r. firm of Dix & Eaton, who is publicly grappling with these same issues. His name is Kevin Poor, and he's a Weatherhead grad, who also put in some time at, in Portland, Oregon. My old friend Chas Withers, his colleague, has been singing his praises for some time. But I only recently stumbled across Kevin's blog. As he put it so well in one of his first entries, back in May:

I've felt for a while that one of the most effective ways companies can use blogs is for internal knowledge sharing and employee communications. I also think that for clients that are relatively unfamiliar with blogs, and are not quite ready to incorporate them into their marketing mix, that internal blogs represent a way for them to start using the medium and satisfy a pressing need.
Welcome to the conversation, Kevin.

Fellow Scribbler Watch. Finally, we bring you word of a couple of fellow scribes who have done some truly remarkable work recently. Actually, as I began thinking about that category, my head filled with a couple dozen names, the names of special people who deserve serious attention for their recent operatic exploits with the pen. But I'm going to limit my gaze today to just these two. The others will simply have to wait their turn. Wendy Hoke has been writing for a number of years, having long since earned a reputation as a powerful pen. But I'm not the only one to have noticed that she has been really hitting her stride in recent months, as she peels away the layers of her emotional onion ever further, poetically revealing and putting language to some feelings that have no doubt surprised even her. In the process, she has found her voice, which seems ready for Carnegie Hall. And yet none of that could have prepared me for the singularly powerful experience of reading
this piece, on the late spiritual titan Thomas Merton. Okay, I'm biased on this subject. Merton's masterful words have had an almost hypnotic effect on my spiritual life for years. But this piece about him is so accomplished, so poetically compact, so full of mature insights and smart observations that it takes your breath away. I think it's not merely the best thing Wendy has ever written--it's simply in another class altogether. And the best part of all: she's just beginning to scratch the surface of her talents.

On the other side of town, my friend Jeff Hagan, a denizen of North Collinwood, continues to do his part in helping solve the poverty riddle, as a communications maven at the Case Mandel School's Poverty Center. Meanwhile, he continues to squeeze in the hours for some private writing amid his overscheduled days as a conscientious parent, husband, employee and sibling to hundreds of Irish-Italian brothers and sisters. We spent a rare, precious hour a couple of weeks ago on a glorious summer day, chatting at an outdoor coffeeshop. He caught me up on the many things that move and puzzle him, the myriad people who intrigue him. Like a hungry editor or agent, I made a mental note of the many articles I'd love to see him produce on any number of the topics we covered that day. But finding the hours are the trick. Anyway, he didn't alert me to it, but last Friday I noticed
this wonderful little jewel of a story in the Plain Dealer's Friday section. For hardened Hagan afficianados, there are some signature touches. But my favorite is this gleaming bit of inspired wordcraft. The words he intended for these special musicians could be directed right back at their author:

A new crop of kids music has come along in the last decade that recognizes that children have a few things adults have: a brain, for instance; soul; a sense of rhythm; a genuine sense of humor. The new material is delivered with high standards by actual human beings with musical pedigrees, not stuffed animals or puppets or cartoons, and the musicians employ an eclectic range of styles, from calypso to punk, bluegrass to new wave.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Cool Cleveland Cleans Up in SPJ's First Online Awards

My blogging pals, uber-blogger George Nemeth chief among them, understandably grow weary of my relentless message about how bloggers (at least the serious ones) have more in common with traditional journalism than they'd like to admit, or perhaps even recognize. A particularly spirited discussion has broken out this morning over PD editor Doug Clifton's incredibly awkward, even ham-handed, attempt to up the ante in a showdown with the Newhouse chain's attorneys (and their ultimate clients, the owners) over a couple of stories being held out of legal concerns (more about which later). But against that backdrop, some other news is especially well-timed. This year's SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) 2005 Best in Ohio awards have just been announced, and they include the first-ever awards for the category of online journalism. It's an important category, and it was an important statement for SPJ to make in adding it this year. I'm proud to call myself a member today, in large part because of it. SPJ continues to let down its hair, grow ever further from its roots as a band of censorious ethics police prigs and is instead slowly taking on a more central role in grappling with the ever-tougher, ever-grayer issues at the intersection of journalism and civic affairs.

And guess what? My friend George's second child (Brewedfreshdaily is his first baby), the e-letter Cool Cleveland, which he serves as chief information officer, cleaned up, winning four of the six online awards, including best general news site in the state. Take a bow, Thomas, George and especially Tish, who has toiled perhaps hardest and longest, and who has just left Cleveland for a job in Chicago. This award should have a proud place on your resume for the next 20 years, overworked-and-underappreciated Tish. For the rest of the CC crew, I would expect this is only the start of bigger things. Just please find a good editor, will ya? Or at least the best one you can afford.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Sly Humor from a Canuck-Turned-Clevelander

This sly post by Jerry Ritcey about the Karl Rove leaking incident would have fit nicely into the old Spy Magazine. This guy just keeps getting better and better.

'This is the Teacher for Me'

On the first day of my workshop with Angela Carter, in my sophomore year, Carter was charged with reducing the number of would-be participants in her class to 14. Maybe 30 people were in the room, and she stood before us and tried to take questions. Some young guy in the back, rather too full of himself, raised his hand and, with a sort of withering skepticism, asked, "well, what's your work like?" You have to have heard Carter speak to know how funny the next moment was. She had a reedy and somewhat thin British voice, toward the upper end of the scale, and she paused a lot when she spoke. There were a lot of ums and ahs. Before she replied, she cocked her head and said "um" once or twice. Then she said, "my work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis." The room emptied out at the break, and I'm not sure a quorum of 14 returned. Maybe only 11 or 12. Carter did not conduct her workshop in the manner now familiar. She didn't care if anyone brought in work, and she was content to give disquisitions on how Mozart's The Magic Flute made it impossible to imitate folkoric material in fiction. She was proud of having seen Pink Floyd play back in swinging London, she liked the Doors, and she thought Franklin Roosevelt was the only American President worth talking about. I remember that she also once boasted that she rarely made eye contact. I thought, "this teacher is for me."
--Author Rick Moody, recalling a late writing teacher at Brown University, in a piece on writers and their mentors in the new Atlantic Monthly fiction issue.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

A Freshness in the Center of the Chest

There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teachers says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.
There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox.
A freshness in the center of the chest.
This other intelligence does not turn yellow
or stagnate. It's fluid and it doesn't move
from outside to inside through the conduits
of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.
--translated from 'Two Kinds of Intelligence,'
by the 13th century Afghan poet, Rumi

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Notes from the Frat Boy Pharmaceutical Rep Circuit

'The importance of food in pharmaceutical sales cannot be overstated. The way to a man's heart may be through his stomach, but the way to a doctor's heart went straight through his office staff's collective stomach. Whether morning (cinnamon rolls, Danish, bagles, doughnuts) or afternoon (candy, cake, ice cream) medical office personnel ate as if winter hibernation was two days away and they had gotten a late start. Drug reps did everything they could to aid their cause. Some offices grew so accustomed to receiving free goodies they refused entry to reps arriving empty-handed, prompting salespeople to establish an identity by bringing the same treat every time. One colleague from my training class handed out Blow Pops to every medical employee he saw, while another gave out cookies decorated with purple "Zithromax" strips. Branding oneself was not limited to Pfizer personnel, however; my arch-nemesis the Biaxin guy baked cookes for all his pediatric offices. As much as I hate to admit, it, homemade treats from a man in his mid-40s proved to be a formidable obstacle to my efforts to buy the love of those women. Cattily, I'd tell nurses 'no matter how yummy they are, those cookies can't get rid of Biaxin's metallic taste.' My research found chocolate to be the best motivator for female office staff members. Consequently, I became the M&M's Guy.'
--from "Hard Sell--The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman," a not uninteresting roman a clef by the self-described #1 Pfizer sales rep, a boorish Notre Dame grad who, with a frat boy's arrogance, recounts how he gamed the system and outsmarted everyone during his tenure there. The yucks continue on the back cover: "Transitioning to a literary career, he fears he will have fewer opportunities for naps as a writer than he did as a drug rep."

Playing is Fun, Practice is Work

Asked about his famous penchant for driving himself hard in practice (a habit he shares with Lebron James) in a cover interview in the August
issue of Cigar Aficianado, Michael Jordan had this to say:

'I was taught to do it that way by my parents, and by the way they approached their daily activities. It wasn't half-assed. So I practiced like I played. So when I played, playing was fun. Practice is work. You're working on the idiosyncracies of what your game needs, so when the game comes, you showcase it and you utilize it. You build your game on it. Practice wasn't just a place to take time off. You work on things in practice. On shooting , on going left or on using your left hand--those types of things that help you get better.'

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Language of Business

'Let's face it: business today is drowning in bullshit. We try to impress (or confuse) investors with inflated letters to shareholders. We punish customers with intrusive, hype-filled, self-aggrandizing product literature. We send elephantine progress reports to employees that shed less than two watts of light on the big issues or hard truths. The average white collar worker goes to the office every morning, plugs into email, dials into voicemail, and walks into meetings only to be deluged by hype and corporatespeak:
After extensive analysis of the economic factors and trends facing our industry, we have concluded that a restructuring is essential to maintaining competitive position. A task force has been assembled to review the issues and opportunities and they will report back with a work plan for implementing the mission-critical changes necessary to transform our company into a more agile, customer-focused enterprise.

He sees right through it, too, because these contrived communications are the exact opposite of the natural conversations he engages in everywhere else. Outside of work, he has a fundamentally different kind of conversation--a human one, with stories and color. Informal, spontaneous, warm, funny and real. Then he hops online and the natural unfiltered dialogue continues in chat rooms, message boards, blogs and instant messaging. Even his virtual life is more real than his office life. There is a gigantic disconnect between these real, authentic conversations and the artificial voice of the business executives and managers at every level. Their messages lack humanity in a world that craves more of it. Between meetings, memos and managers, we've lost the art of conversation. Bull has become the language of business. But most businesspeople stumble forward in a haze. They copy and paste and crank out hollow and vapid communications that beomce the butt of jokes as soon as they leave the email server. Even worse they get ignored. They're full of jargon, they say very little--and most important--these messages are out of touch, arrogant and condescending. And everyone knows this, except for the idiot hitting the send button.'
--from "Why Businesspeople Speak Like Idiots--A Bullfighter's Guide"

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Taking Our Time

'People always ask how much of your time is spent researching and how much of your time is spent on writing? But nobody ever asks me how much time I spend thinking. And writing is thinking.'
--Historian David McCullough on NPR's Diane Rehm show yesterday, justifying why he never apologizes for using a manual Royal typewriter, which he bought second-hand in 1965, and which he called "a magnificent piece of American machinery, built in 1940."

No Juice. On this, my 20th wedding anniversary (dinner out with the wife tonight, and treats and gifts later), my thoughts are also with my pal and SPJ colleague, Denise Polverine, editor of Ohio's most heavily visited website, It carried this announcement today: "Special Edition. Important message to our readers: July 6--a power outage at our hosting facility continues to disrupt our service. We will provide news updates on this special version of the site until we can restore to normal service. We are also posting stories from Today's Edition of the Plain Dealer below." I won't try to capture any thoughts about what a 20th anniversary feels like, till I've digested it some. That could take hours, days or weeks. Who really knows? After all, I'm a magazine writer in the great tradition of the wine company that once liked to exclaim in its TV ads: no wine before its time. Here at Working With Words, we feel the same about undigested fragments of thought, feeling and emotion. When it's done, you'll get it. And not a moment before...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Eloquence at Commencement

If we have any annual traditions here at Working With Words, one is surely to spotlight our favorite college commencement speech each spring. In years past, we've pointed you to great commencement speeches by Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and the writer's writer William Zinsser. This year, as always, we poked around the web and various other sources, online and off, and after all that looking around, one speech clearly stood head and shoulders over the rest, hipster novelist David Foster Wallace's address to Kenyon College in Ohio. Salon's Laura Miller once called him a "recovering smart aleck," and if so, he's made a fine recovery. Throughout this speech, he does, in fact, often seem to be headed for some bit of silliness, only to suddenly veer off at the last moment to make a serious point that can leave you a bit stunned by its beauty and honesty. Anyone who can write this speech surely must be capable of writing a great novel, so I plan on soon reading his reputed 1,000-word masterpiece, Infinite Jest.
Rather than linking to the transcription found elsewhere, we decided to reprint it in its entirety here, just in case the link is later taken down. I hope you'll find this spoken essay half as interesting and uplifting as I did. In any event, here's David Foster Wallace at Kenyon on May 21st:

If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.
Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.
By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
You get the idea.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
"This is water."
"This is water."
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Just a Few Hours Away by Car, But Light Years Removed In Enlightenment

'Businesspeople don't need to understand designers better. They need to be designers.'
--Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management