Saturday, August 30, 2008

Maybe The Best Explanation We've Seen
For Why It's Always Best to Avoid Cliches

'Phrases are like furniture. For a short time they are comfortable or even brilliant, but it doesn't take long for them to become shabby. Cliches are okay once in a blue moon, but the very definition of cliche argues against their use: "a trite, overused expression." Overreliance on cliches can be a sign of weak writing because it usually means you couldn't think of a creative way to get your point across and instead you lazily borrowed a phrase someone else created years ago. Is avoiding someone like the plague really relevant today, or would it touch your readers lives more if you said "he's as welcome as a Nigerian spammer."? The next time you are tempted to write a cliche, think about how much you believe the checker at the grocery store wants you to "have a nice day," and try again.'
--From the lively and compelling book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, by a writer with the impossibly cinematic name of Mignon Fogarty. She hosts weekly five-minute podcasts on I-Tunes, which you can find on her website. You can learn more about her and her philosophies by watching this brief video profile. The main reason for her huge success, we think, in addition to a combination of smart packaging and expert knowledge, is something crucial she says on the video: "I think it's important to make language fun."

Friday, August 29, 2008

I Finally Look Like a Movie Star

Matt Damon, that is. But he has a better excuse. He's apparently preparing for an upcoming role that called for a few extra pounds around the middle. I think it's safe to say that this is the first and last time we'll feel the need to link to pulpy US Magazine. But it seemed appropriate today.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

R.I.P., Rip Ruhlman

I never met Michael Ruhlman's dad, but judging by the man and the writer his son has become, and also by Michael's account of his life, he must have been quite a person. This poetic tribute to his dad prompted a huge outpouring of sympathetic comments on Michael's blog. If you know the Cleveland-based writer or his work, perhaps you'll want to leave a note yourself.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Plain Dealer's Website,, Finally
Gets A Redesign. Our Early Take: Pretty Good

Okay, it was an hour and one minute late, at least by our clock. For the last few days, boasted that it would be launching a redesigned site at noon Wednesday. We began looking for it about then, and kept hitting refresh every few minutes. Finally, at a minute past 1 p.m., there it was. We'll of course get deeper into it in coming days and let you know what we think as we see it more clearly (I'm guessing, for instance, that it will employ even more video, since the paper's marketing chief has been telling everyone that he commands his own TV station), but the early take is that it's pretty good, however loooooong overdue this refresh was. That's in large part a reflection of how bad and cluttered it has been. Its clumsy navigation had become an almost universally reviled element of the site, something one could hear complaints about from just about anyone you asked. And the bizarre policy of taking down articles after a couple of weeks (which I hope has ended) flies in the face of the industry norm, and only makes for less inventory, or virtual real estate, on which to place ads, let alone the very real problems it poses to those trying to find archived news and information.

But in fairness, you really can't blame the locals--they've been handicapped by the Newhouse chain's insistence on sticking with a very bad single web format used for years at all their papers. That uniformity hasn't changed, apparently. I checked
this page, which has links to all the chain's other papers (top left, under "regional websites), and the same refreshed format can be found on all of them.

We've been holding our breath a little, out of concern that the redesign would make for a worse rather than better experience, as so often tends to be the case in these things. After all, one of our favorite and most essential websites,
Romenesko's ubiquitous journalism site housed at the Poynter Institute, just got redesigned this week, and I'd be surprised if most fans of that site didn't share my horror over how it seems to have been almost defaced by white space gone mad. The reality is it takes the eye some time to adjust to a new look for our most cherished sites (not that anyone I've ever known or talked to cherished, you understand), just as it's hard to see one's favorite print magazine undergo a redesign. You bitch and moan at first, but eventually you get used to it, and then you forget what the old one even looked like, and why it seemed to matter so much at the time. In the end, it's the substance that really matters. How it's dressed (that is, designed) isn't unimportant. Just far less important.

After all, as my friend Roldo Bartimole likes to recall, back in the day, The Nation was so eager to get started in its weekly denunciations of the latest political/social outrages, that it would forget about the design, and simply begin the article text on the cover. That kind of sustained fervancy is what keeps us coming back. If it looks nice, so much the better.

UPDATE: Thanks to the peerless uber-journalist Jim Romensko for his link to this post. And welcome again, fellow Romenesko readers.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Is Racism the Central Reason Why
This Race For President is So Tight?

Over the weekend,'s editor
Jacob Weisberg flatly said yes. Yesterday, in the New York Times opinion page, Matt Bai flatly said no. We think Bai's argument is far stronger than Weisberg's simplistic take, which was a little over the top. He ends the piece with what can only be labeled a bizarre overreach, arguing that an Obama loss would represent nothing less than a sign of America's decline. "To the rest of the world, a rejection of the promise he represents wouldn't just be an odd choice by the United States. It would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation's historical decline." We'll be charitable and hold open the possibility that Weisberg is just trying to get readers' attention in late August with a dash of hyperbole.

Bai, on the other hand, pursues a logical argument rather than an hysterical one. "While it’s entirely possible that Mr. Obama’s race is costing him some support, it’s also true that the electorate that voted in the last two presidential elections was almost symmetrically divided between the two parties. It would defy the laws of politics if, at this early stage of the campaign, moderate Republicans and conservative independents were to reject Mr. McCain (a candidate many of them preferred back in 2000) simply because they don’t like George W. Bush. Second, Mr. Obama faces genuine obstacles that are more salient than skin color. By any historical measure, he has remarkably little governing experience and almost none in foreign policy. And he represents not only a racial milestone in American life, but also a stark generational shift. It’s hard to extricate these things from Obama’s blackness."

Either way, the Washington Post
reports today that a lot of Democratic convention delegates from swing states are growing increasingly nervous about the job that lies ahead. After all, even Michelle Obama, to her credit, admitted in a video played before her speech to the convention last night that when she first met her future husband, her initial reaction was "what kind of name is that?"

Monday, August 25, 2008

Are You a Retrosexual?

This checklist will help you decide. We liked the reference to Barbasol, and especially liked the third item on the list: "a retrosexual never acknowledges he is in a relationship." Spoken like a true male, we thought. And speaking of retro sex, we were tickled to learn recently that that great absurdist illustrated manual of '70s sexuality, The Joy of Sex, will soon be published in updated fashion. You had to be a kid in the repressed '70s to appreciate how wild and lascivious that book seemed when we adolescents first came upon it, complete with those weirdly compelling pencil drawings of the amorous couple engaged in, well...coupling. I don't know how girls felt about it (if indeed they felt anything at all), but I can safely say that millions of adolescent American boys treated it like illicit samizdat literature, to be hungrily glimpsed in bookstores or (if you were really lucky) consumed at greater leisure in a friend's home, snuck from their parents' hiding place when the coast was clear. It's hard to imagine today, with the ubiquity of porn on the Internet, how electrifying this all seemed at the time. I had forgotten all about it, in fact, until I came across the aforementioned news account, which included a reprinting of one of those iconic sketches. For just a moment, it vividly reminded me of what it felt like to be a 15-year-old, peach-fuzzed, girl-crazy kid.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Empty Nest for Real

Almost three years ago, I wrote a parenting column about an early glimpse of what an empty nest might be like, after both our boys had begun their college careers. This weekend, we get to see what the real thing feels like. This past week, we moved one son into the dorms at Kent State and the other into St. Louis University for his freshman year. SLU is an amazing school with a striking campus. Its gleaming facilities, bustling setting (in the city) and overall school spirit and energy put its sister Jesuit school John Carroll to shame. On the way back, we listened to Jeffrey Toobin's book about the Supreme Court, The Nine. You can see him in person on September 26th at the City Club.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ohio May Be Slipping From Obama's Grasp

A new round of polling shows that McCain is now a slight favorite to win Ohio, which makes Obama's once-commanding national lead in the all-important electoral college that much more tenuous. At the same time, the candidates' head-to-head appearance in pastor Rick Warren's church last weekend shows why McCain challenged his rival to a series of town meetings (and perhaps why Obama declined). It also suggests what I've known all along: that those who think Obama's cool and cerebral style equates to an easy victory over his older opponent in the crucial trio of autumn debates just may be in for the surprise of their life.
The Economist, meanwhile, kicked off a series of detailed studies of a handful of states expected to be bellwether battlegrounds with this interesting look at Ohio. It argues that the state "reeks of normality"--not so much in a strictly statistical sense as in "a deeper psychological sense." You can review some earlier thoughts and links to this subject here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Our Favorite Quote of the Week

'Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.'
--the late financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch. To review earlier FQOTW, go here, here and here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Best Lead of the Month

'I am a New Age skeptic. I used to be a New Age cynic, so this change shows how far I have come in opening my mind to things I do not understand. I no longer dismiss channeling and crystals and acupuncture as so much hocus-pocus, nor do I embrace these practices. I simply await proof.'
--from this piece on how physical space and emotions intersect, in the always-interesting Scientific American. You can review earlier best leads here

Saturday, August 16, 2008

It's That Time of Year Again...

It's been called--accurately, I think--St. Patrick's Day for Italians. But characteristically for a culture of such excess, we do it over five days rather than one (and have to stifle the urge to think that proves we're five times better than the Irish). Hardened fans know it simply as "The Feast." The full name is Feast of the Assumption, which is tied to some ancient Catholic dogma about the "virgin Mary" (gotta have that virgin in there, even for moms) ascending into heavenly glory. (Masochists can learn more about that here). There may be a handful of older folk for whom that still resonates, but for the rest of us, this is essentially a giant cultural festival, a celebration of a way of life and an ethnic tradition (including, naturally, what is by far the greatest cuisine on Earth) that an entire neighborhood has stubbornly clung to for more than century, while also nicely blending in just enough cosmopolitanism (from art galleries to students from nearby CWRU) to make this easily one of Cleveland's most interesting neighborhoods.

This year's festivities are the 110th year it's played out in Cleveland's Little Italy, as civilians tend to call it, or Murray Hill, as we more often refer to it. As I wrote two years ago, I have an even deeper tie to the event, given that my dad plays each year in the featured band. My old pal Dan Hanson, the formidable and energetic Great Lakes Geek, nicely reposted that piece on his Cleveland Seniors site (he also maintains more than two dozen local sites on various ethnic groups in Cleveland, just click on them under groups along the left side of this site), and last night he took some video of the band that he'll no doubt post soon on YouTube. We'll bring you that link when it's up. Meanwhile, you have two more chances to catch the band in action this weekend, this evening (beginning around 7) and tomorrow evening, beginning at 6 p.m., when they'll play along with a chorale group dressed in colorful authentic garb.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Our Favorite Book Title, Part 14

Thursday, August 14, 2008

More Than One Way to See New Things

'The voyage of discovery is not about seeing new landscapes, it's about having new eyes.'
--Marcel Proust. To review earlier mentions of the languid Mr. Proust, you can go here, here and here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Good News
About Bad News

'It’s not the world that’s got so much worse, but the news coverage that’s got so much better.'
—G. K. Chesterton. The late British author was profiled this summer by the New Yorker (you'll find a brief online abstract here, but you'll have to head to the library stacks for the entire piece). Through an odd sequence of events that I've never quite gotten to the bottom of, but hope to soon, the John Carroll University library contains what was (and perhaps still is) reputedly the largest collection of Chesterton materials in the world. We shudder to think of how much truer this prescient statement has become in the decades since he uttered it. His work lives on through the Chesterton Society, which (naturally) has a blog, as well as a small Cleveland contingent.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Thought for the Day

'Imagination is intelligence having fun.'
--Albert Einstein. Thanks to Leslie Yerkes for flagging this lovely and powerfully evocative quote from the great one. To learn more about Leslie, go here. You can go here and here for earlier mentions of our favorite physicist/imagination guru.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Three Good Reads

In yesterday's New York Times Magazine, the incomparable Matt Bai explored the subtle and less-subtle changes that America's black leadership would face should Obama become president. Fortune offers this remarkable look at a uniquely influential but little-known mentor to half of Silicon Valley's most successful CEOs. Vanity Fair's Bryan Burrough, an alum of the Wall Street Journal and author of several sublime books on business subjects, connects the dots like no one else I've seen in explaining what the recent meltdown of investment bank Bear Stearns means for Wall Street and the larger economy. As a bonus, the WSJ nicely delves into how cities are using high gas prices to reconsider issues of urban density. You can review earlier iterations of TGRs here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Diary of a Mensch

The uniquely down-to-earth actor Paul Newman may be dying of cancer. The Cleveland native left the family sporting goods business behind for immortality on the screen (we especially loved him in Cool Hand Luke and The Verdict, and a couple years ago we highlighted this classic bit of dialogue from the movie Hud). In the late '60s and early '70s, he was second only to John Wayne as a box office draw. But Old Blue Eyes has become equally larger than life in some quarters for his charitable good works. This nicely comprehensive Vanity Fair tribute puts the total proceeds to charity over the years from his Newman's Own operations at about $250 million (it included support of his favorite leftie pub, The Nation). The piece also nicely fleshes out how his lifelong embrace of regular guyism has made him such an enduring legend, possibly even eclipsing his fame from his movie career (from which he retired last year). My favorite story from this piece is about a camp for kids he founded in the mid-80s.
Around 1985 he came up with the idea for a summer camp for children with life-threatening diseases: cancer, sickle-cell anemia, H.I.V./aids. He envisioned the camp as a place where kids can experience the joys of childhood without compromising their medical needs. Campers would pay nothing. The idea popped into his head one morning, and Newman told Life magazine in 1988, “I’ve had friends who died young. Life is whimsical. Longevity is an incredible gift, and some people don’t get to enjoy it.” Newman named the camp the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, after Butch Cassidy’s group of outlaws. He wanted the site—300 sweeping, wooded acres in Ashford, Connecticut, with a big lake fronting the property—to be unconventionally designed, like a Western town Butch might have lived in...This past year, at one of the usual meetings of parents and children at the original camp, Newman showed up; crowds pressed close. The mother of one little girl spoke to Ray Lamontagne, the head of the camp’s board. Her daughter wanted to tell Paul Newman something, but she couldn’t get over to him because she was in a wheelchair. Lamontagne fought his way through the crowd and brought Newman back to the little girl, and he knelt down by her wheelchair. “For the first time in my life I have a friend,” the little girl told him. “I’ve never had a friend before, because I’ve been in a wheelchair most of my life, so kids avoided me. So thank you, Mr. Newman, for this camp.” Newman had tears in his eyes.
People like this don't come along every day. May his final days be filled with all the love and tenderness that he showed for so many over his long and fruitful life.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Tragedy of Home Foreclosure
Takes An Even More Tragic Turn

You knew it would come to this eventually. The Boston Globe reports that a woman facing foreclosure on her home committed suicide last month. The 53-year-old shot herself to death with her husband's high-powered rifle 90 minutes before the house was set to go to auction. To compound the tragedy, the auction had already been postponed. She left a note instructing her family to take the life insurance money and save the house. The harrowing story prompted the editors of the Harvard Business Review to write this on the publication's blog: "It’s widely debated whether business has a moral dimension. Many argue vehemently that it doesn’t—a position that becomes harder to defend when that lack of morality turns garish and unseemly. Throughout the mortgage crisis, predatory practice has been in full flower, an entire industry Ponzi chain of ungoverned greed and unfixed accountability. The human consequences of predation are coming home to roost, and it is tempting to see them as the outcome of evil."

Friday, August 08, 2008

Even in the Midst of an Historic Fed Investigation,
We Get The Same Old Broken Cleveland Politics,
This Time in Selection of Convention Center Site

The timing really couldn't be better. Less than two weeks after the feds sweep through Cleveland with media-friendly raids as part of a sprawling public corruption probe (about which we'll have more later) and the same week as Forbes Magazine lists Cleveland as among the fastest dying cities in America, the official word comes down yesterday that the panel charged with selecting the site for the proposed convention center and medical mart thinks it should be placed near Forest City's Tower City development. After months of pretending to take other sites seriously, it did what old Cleveland hands always knew it would do, given the power of Sam Miller & Co. over the proceedings. The PD account of all this was so credulous that it read like a quick rewrite from the GCP press releases, executed by a summer intern (again, no surprises). My friend Bill Callahan says it best here. The utterly broken dynamics in this tired old town make it very hard to be a mere skeptic rather than a hardened cynic. It also makes it hard for parents such as me to recommend that their kids think about staying here and building a career in this region. It may just be terminally broken. But enough about what I think. We want to hear your take.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Favorite Quote of the Week

'There will always be a place for the journalist who can craft a story better than anyone else, but there will be a bigger place for the journalist who can help media consumers find the information they want.'
--Journalism professor Clyde Bentley, during a presentation a couple of weeks ago at the Future of Journalism conference at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Late and Lamented Urban Dialect
Lives Once More, Only Now as a Blog

We've written before about a smart, sassy regional publication with a unique voice, Urban Dialect, which predictably went out of business a few years ago (predictable because its young, earnest and passionate crew of founders was sure that editorial excellence would eventually lead to sufficient advertising support. It doesn't, unless you pay extraordinary attention to sales, which they didn't. It's the oldest story in publishing, alas). Anyway, the founders (including my friend Clarence, whom I've written about here and here) were further embittered when the Cleveland Foundation's oh-so-safe-and-mainstream Civic Innovation Lab failed to provide funding, as anyone could have predicted. The other main co-founder, Daniel Gray Kontar, who worked for a time at Catalyst Cleveland, eventually headed for California to begin work on a doctorate, where he remains to this day.

Anyway, we're glad that it's finally just been revived on the web as a blog. We don't expect that the online-only version will ever quite reach the kind of critical mass of sustained excellence that once caused even the vaunted Columbia Journalism Review to take note of their efforts, as it did in 2003, but we'll take whatever we can get. Good luck on it, folks. We'll be watching with interest.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Fall Word Lover's Retreat:
A Save-That-Date Bulletin

In the craftsmanship tradition of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and the spirit of Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, join John Ettorre and Claudia Taller at Idlewyld Bed & Breakfast in historic Lakeside, Ohio on Friday, October 3 through Sunday, October 5.

In the more than 30 years since its publication, William Zinsser's On Writing Well has come to be a philosophical and spiritual touchstone for writers everywhere. Its core message--about simplicity, authenticity and the importance of developing craft in one's writing—has been absorbed by two generations of appreciative writers. Along with The Artist's Way, it will serve as the intellectual backbone for our retreat.

The environment for our weekend will only be enhanced by the location. Lakeside, Ohio, along the shores of Lake Erie, is the closest thing you'll find to Maine in the Midwest. The town's well-preserved 19th century feel evokes a quieter, more gracious era. Lakeside's motto—"nurturing mind, body and spirit"—is a perfect description for the focus of our retreat-by-the-sea. And Idlewyld Bed & Breakfast, where we'll be staying, is a uniquely charming century-old structure, though updated with all the modern comforts. But the most comfortable touch of all is the personal warmth that our hosts, proprietors Dan & Joan, provide.

Friday supper, Saturday breakfast and lunch, and Sunday breakfast will be served. This itinerary is subject to change, and outside speakers may be added. For updated information, call Claudia at 440.554.6406, or write

Cost: $90 until August 15, $105 until September 5, and $115 until September 20. Cost does not include the cost of a discounted room at the Idlewyld; please e-mail Claudia for room selection and the total cost for the weekend will be quoted. Rooms range from $55 to $100/night; you may consider sharing a room to save. Mail registration with a check made payable to Claudia Taller to Igniting Possibilities Events, 26408 Chapel Hill Drive, North Olmsted, Ohio 44070.

You'll find a nice write-up of our Lakeside retreat in May on Claudia's blog

Monday, August 04, 2008

Who Says There's No Good News in the Paper?

This story in today's NYT give the lie to that hoary old line about no good news in the paper anymore. It's wonderfully written, timely, and full of hope for the future. I learned something about wind power, and even more about Nebraska and the Great Plains. And so will you if you read the piece.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Another Ambitious Author Who Imagines
He'll Be Putting JFK Conspiracies To Rest

We're nearing the 45th anniversary of the JFK assassination, that iconic moment of lost innocence for the Baby Boom generation. And it seems we're barely any closer to solving the puzzle than we've ever been. Yet another ambitious author is at work on a book--a dozen years in the making, with no end in sight yet--that he imagines will finally put the argument to rest. How charmingly naive of him. For our part, we're persuaded by the fact that a very thorough Congressional investigation in the 1970s (overseen by former Congressman Lou Stokes) concluded that there was probably a conspiracy behind the assassination. Naturally, it couldn't prove it, either, which has only further fueled doubt and suspicion for millions. So what do you think about the case?