Saturday, November 29, 2008

Writing is All About Rewriting

'I’ve never felt that I have a particular facility at writing interesting prose. I write quite mundane prose. I think where I’m good is between the drafts. I can look at one draft, and I have lots of good ideas for what to do with the next one. '
--the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, in a recent interview with the Paris Review. Earlier, we brought you similar views about the central importance of rewriting from the writers Elmore Leonard and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Three Good Reads

We figure that on this lazy holiday weekend, you might have a bit of extra time to read. So here are three pieces that we think are quite worth your time. An eminent architecture critic argues in the Wall Street Journal that some architects are trying too hard to create iconic buildings. Meanwhile, the current Smithsonian magazine chronicles the attempts to preserve a building that truly is iconic: Istanbul's nearly 1,500-year-old Byzantine masterpiece, the Hagia Sophia. I told you some time ago about my mentor Bill Zinsser's remarkable attempt to recreate of his now-defunct training ground, the New York Herald Tribune. You can now read that entire portion, excerpted recently in the American Scholar. And as a holiday bonus, we bring you a fourth great read: this long and splendid rendering of the vigorously independent-minded writer Gary Wills, from National Catholic Reporter. You can review earlier TGRs here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

We Bring You An Update On Both Kinds of Spam

The good news: there's less spam than there used to be (meaning junk email, not the exotic meat in a can, which is actually becoming more popular in the current economic conditions). The bad news: it may soon bounce back to its earlier levels, or perhaps even exceed them. But I'm happy to report that for us, it's mostly a problem of the past. Ever since we switched to Google mail, we've enjoyed the fact that its highly tuned spam filters have worked wonderfully. But back to the other kind of spam: if you find yourself cutting back on household expenses, don't feel bad. Even Harvard, with its $36-billion endowment, is cutting back on its spending these days.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Have a Joyous
Holiday, Y'All

I briefly considered trying to recount everything I'm thankful for today, at least until my fingers rebelled at the idea of sitting at the terminal for hours, typing away on a holiday instead of enjoying the warmth of family. So let me instead give you the abbreviated version. I'm thankful for a loving spouse, who's both a rock and a refuge. I'm thankful for having work that gives me meaning and direction, and occasionally a chance to touch a heart or two, and remind someone they're not alone in the world. I'm thankful for how my country seems to have finally gotten ahold of itself and decided to take a path back to sanity. I'm thankful for all of you, gentle readers, who continue to shower me with the gift of your attention. Most of all, I'm incredibly thankful for the privilege this holiday of watching two teenage boys we sent off to college just a few short weeks ago return to us as poised young men, so full of heart and zest and soulfullness. What more could anyone really ask?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On the Eve of Thanksgiving, This Spoke
To Us With a Special Clarity & Intensity

'Life is made up not of great sacrifices or duties, but of little things, in which smiles, and kindnesses and small obligations, given habitually, are what win and preserve the heart & secure comfort.'
--Humphry Davy, a 19th-century British chemist and inventor.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Why Talent is Overrated

You can read all about that assertion here. Boy, are we relieved.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Get Up & Try Again

'Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.'
--Chinese proverb

Saturday, November 22, 2008

You Gotta Love the Hard Right

Note the message on the sign held by the guy in the window. This journal of the paleo right wing nicely summarizes what conservatives hold dearest, the only issue they really care about when all is said and done: lower tax rates. That was their answer for everything, and when it also became President Bush's answer for everything, his presidency was effectively over. Like most Americans, we won't miss it a bit. The only problem is he has two months left. His presidency, like the man himself, is forgotten but not gone.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

When Lowbrow Meets Highbrow

'It’s embarrassing to admit, but I guess I’ve been hoping that Philip Roth will look the way he writes. Unbound. Supernal. Or even more stupidly, that the act of looking at Philip Roth will somehow deepen my understanding of his work. I’ve assumed that I’ll take one look at him and think: Philip Fuckin’ ROTH! Instead, I see an unremarkably handsome 75-year-old approaching from a hallway at his publisher’s office, tall, lean, a swimmer, angular and focused face, skin subtly dappled with age, dressed for comfort in a white-collared shirt, brown corduroys, old loafers—a man indifferent to being looked at or to what people make of what they see when they do—and think merely: Huh. That’s Philip Roth.'
From a profile of the formidable novelist in GQ magazine, once itself a formidable magazine, but now sadly reduced to a shell of its former self, dumbed down for non-readers. Anyway, we're glad to see they still occasionally try to tackle serious subjects. We touched on Roth earlier here and here.

Did You Know Today is World Philosophy Day?

Truth be told, neither did we, at least until we came upon a report about it on the BBC webite. But since we fancy ourselves as having at least a mildly philosophical bent, we figured we ought to tip our hat to this special day by linking to the article from the "Auntie Beeb," as the Brits call their national broadcasting system. Then, should the spirit move you, let us know what you thought about it, or about your philosophy classes in college, or the BBC, or Brits, or whatever the hell else you'd care to get off your chest today. After all, it's cheaper than therapy, and far better than thinking about the gathering storm of a bad worldwide recession looming over us.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Living on Its Hint

'A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.'
--Henry David Thoreau. For earlier mentions of the great one, you can go here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chronicle of Higher Education
Recognizes Fingerhut's Impact
As Activist Schools Chancellor

Eric Fingerhut has been on the fast track almost since he was a kid. The energetic Cleveland Heights native graduated from Northwestern University before earning a law degree at Stanford and then returning to Cleveland for a series of early career successes. He helped launch Mike White's successful campaign for mayor from the offices of Cleveland Works, a then-respected nonprofit (which later went out of business after founder David Roth's drug problems came to light). He served as campaign manager and transition director for White before winning a seat of his own in the Ohio Senate, then quickly moved up the ladder by capturing a seat in the U.S. Congress, where he made a modest national impact as a star freshman during the heady early days of the Clinton Administration. He hadn't reached his 35th birthday, yet the New York Times' Maureen Dowd was writing columns about him (once, memorably, poking fun at his fledgling dating efforts) and Bill Clinton was inviting him to ride aboard Air Force One while bending his ear about an energy bill. His future seemed impossibly bright.

But he lost that seat to Steve LaTourette in the crushing mid-term election of 1994 made famous by Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. I'll never forget an election-eve Democratic rally I attended at a union hall in Garfield Heights, which then-Vice President Al Gore attended on crutches. The late Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum was on hand to warmly pass the generational torch to Fingerhut, his fellow Jewish northeast Ohioan. That kind of high-level backing must have made the loss that much more bitter for him.

Afterward, he spent several years in the wilderness, seemingly trying to regain his momentum while he decided what to do next. He practiced some law, managed the nonprofit Center for Community Solutions on an interim basis, ran an entrepreneurial center at Baldwin-Wallace College, and even ran a chronically underfunded campaign for the Senate against George Voinovich in 2004. He was keeping busy, burning off some of his legendary energy (I wish I'd taken video of him waiting in line once at a Heinen's grocery store, juggling a few groceries while manically trying to balance two phone calls). Still, you got the sense that his heart wasn't really in any of these things, and that none of them absorbed his full attention the way being a Congressman once had.

Until now, that is.

In his current job, as chancellor of Ohio schools, he's brought all his earnestness, energy, and policy wonkishness to bear on the state's central challenge--turning around its woeful record on seeing to it that enough of its citizens gain exposure to higher education to make this an employer-friendly state. By all accounts, he's done an extraordinary job selling a comprehensive rethinking of the state's educational system. He's having so much fun, in fact, that intimates say he'll bypass the chance to run for the Senate again when Voinovich's term runs out next year.

Last week, the bible of the higher education industry, the Chronicle of Higher Education, recognized the extraordinary energy that Fingerhut and his boss, Governor Ted Strickland, have injected into the state's educational system. I like the detail about how Strickland proved his seriousness to the state's university presidents by staying for an entire six-hour meeting. Still, the piece notes that his toughest test still lies ahead: how will he and the state respond to the tough economic climate of the next couple of years? Stay tuned.

Monday, November 17, 2008

How the City of Euclid Once Figured
In a Key Supreme Court Zoning Case

The always-interesting libertarian magazine Reason last month published a book review about a 1926 Supreme Court case that set a precedent for zoning laws in American cities. The author calls the case one of the most far-reaching Supreme Court decisions in a century. It involved the village of Euclid, which is now the city of Euclid, an ailing inner-ring eastern suburb of Cleveland. If not for this key decision, the author writes, "most Americans would not be living in zoned cities."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Guns & Cannoli

There's a line from The Godfather that has become famous, even an ironic moral manifesto of sorts. After the Corleone family employee Clemenza oversees the execution of a turncoat, he calmly tells his associate to "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." It's a line you'll see referenced often in pop culture. The writer Sarah Vowell reflects on its meaning here, and Slate magazine explains why mob hit men are instructed to drop their guns at the scene of the crime. You can see the movie clip here.

But watching some of it again last night (for what, the 200th, 300th time?), I remembered that there's a line I like even more. While Michael is hiding out in Sicily, after killing a rival mobster and a corrupt police captain, he stumbles across a beautiful girl while on a walk in the hills. Their eyes lock for several seconds before she turns away and rejoins her family. His native bodyguard warns him, however, that "in Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns." He didn't listen, of course, later marrying the girl. But enough about me and my Godfather fixation. What's your favorite line from the movie?

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Default Position
Should Be Listening

'Don't speak unless you can improve on the silence.'
--Spanish proverb

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Take the Banned Books Quiz

We've often enthused about librarians here, including this recent post. We think they're among the top unsung heroes of the culture (not the idiot culture; the real one). So to belatedly honor their trade group, the American Library Association, we bring you the group's Banned Book quiz, courtesy of Britain's Guardian newspaper. Let us know how you did.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Three Good Reads

The Washington Post magazine chronicles a sad situation that wouldn't be necessary if this wealthy nation had its act together on health care. New York magazine takes an appropriately skeptical look at the writer and contrarian guru Malcolm Gladwell. And the newish Conde Nast business magazine Portfolio finds just the right writer to narrate the forces behind the meltdown on Wall Street. As a bonus, we bring you this brilliant Vanity Fair look at how the New York Times has heroically persisted in its Iraq war coverage even in the face of the public's general indifference. You can review earlier TGRs here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

We Love Chagrin Falls Too

'It’s easy to see why visitors to downtown Chagrin Falls might think they’re in the middle of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s back lot half a century or so ago: This village ––located just 18 miles southeast of Cleveland –– embodies small-town Americana, reminiscent of those whimsical Andy Hardy films of the 1940s. It’s no stretch to imagine Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney window-shopping on Main Street or sipping a soda (today, it would be a smoothie) at Ben & Jerry’s or munching on caramel crunch from the Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop.'
--from a recent article in Ohio Magazine.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Seth Godin on Resisting
The Forces of Mediocrity

'There's a myth that all you need to do is outline your vision and prove it's right, and then quite suddenly, people will line up and support you. In fact, the opposite is true. Remarkable vision and genuine insight are always met with resistance. And when you start to make progress, your efforts are met with even more resistance. Products, services, career paths--whatever it is, the forces for mediocrity will align to stop you, forgiving no errors and never backing down until it's over. If it were any other way, it would be easy. And if it were any other way, everyone would do it, and your work would ultimately be devalued. The yin and yang are clear: without people pushing against your quest to do something worth talking about, it's unlikely to be worth the journey. Persist.'
--from Tribes--We Need You to Lead Us, by Seth Godin.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Here Are Some of the Leading Ideas
For Helping Struggling Homeowners

After weeks of concerted attention by the feds on bailing out banks and other financial institutions, we've now moved on to plans to bail out the major automakers. But on his blog, New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera, an ace in ever possible phase of the game, outlines some of the leading plans for finally paying attention to the forgotten class: distressed homeowners. It feels good to know that we'll soon have an administration that will be in the market for the best governance ideas, even if they come via a distinguished member of the media.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Here's a List of Top Irritating Phrases;
What Makes Your Most Irritating List?

Britain's Telegraph newspaper brings us word of a list of most irritating phrases, as compiled by researchers at Oxford University. It prompted a flurry of reader responses, more than 2,400 at latest count. We'd love to hear your list, gentle reader.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Campus Visit is a Pointed Reminder
Of What Sets Great Teachers Apart

Today I got to enjoy my semi-annual visit to Dr. Dick Hendrickson's literary journalism class at John Carroll. I wrote about my earlier visits, in 2004 and in 2006. But each time it feels new and refreshing, because of course the students are always new and refreshing. One highlight this year was meeting Jenna Lo Castro, a star writer for the campus paper, the Carroll News, whose work I'd occasionally read, and whom I had also read about when the JCU alumni magazine profiled her (scroll to pg. 26). You can sample her columns here and check out her blog for the JCU Admissions Office here. Anyway, in that profile, she touchingly recounts what a fine mentor Dick (known as Dr. H around campus) has been to her.

She isn't the first student to feel that way, and she won't be the last. It was lovely as always to watch his light and loving touch with students. It reminded me once more of an old truism: great teachers get inside our heads not merely because they serve up good information (however crucial that is), but also because they love their students even more than they love their subject. A tip of the hat to great teachers like Dick, who remind us that in learning, the head only takes you so far. Combining head and heart is what it's really all about.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Best Short Cut is the Long Way

'I got tenure a year earlier than people usually do. That seemed to impress other junior faculty members. 'Wow, you got tenure early,' they'd say to me. 'What was your secret?' I said, 'It's pretty simple--call me any Friday night in my office at 10 o'clock and I'll tell you (this was before I had a family). A lot of people want a short cut. I find the best short cut is the long way, which is basically two words: work hard. As I see it, if you work more hours than somebody else, during those hours you learn more about your craft. That can make you more efficient, more able, even happier. Hard work is like compound interest in the bank. The rewards build faster.'
--From The Last Lecture, by the late Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch. If you haven't yet watched the actual lecture, you can watch it here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Good Cartoon is Worth a Thousand Words...
Sorry, but we're going to need another day to absorb all this history in the making. Meanwhile, we thought this classic Jeff Darcy toon spoke more eloquently than anything we might add to the mix of commentary just now. If our pronounced Lincoln weakness is showing, so be it. Note the "terrorist fist jab," as the idiot provocateurs at Fox News would call it.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Of Everything We've Seen or Read,
This Best Represents Our Thoughts
As Obama is About to Make History

'Obama is a smart man. He is a decent man. He is an undangerous man, in the manner of all pragmatists and opportunists. He reveres reason, though he often confuses it with conversation. His domestic goals are good, though the titans of American finance, the greedy geniuses of Wall Street, may have made many of those goals fantastic. He will see to it that some liberalism survives at the Supreme Court. This leaves only the rest of the world. What a time for a novice! I dread the prospect of Obama's West Wing education in foreign policy: even when he spoke well about these matters in the debates, it all sounded so new to him, so light. He must not mistake the global adulation of his person with the end of anti-Americanism. And he must not mistake his hope for the world with his analysis of the world. But OK, then: Obama, and another anxious visit to the ballot box, with--in the stinging words of Du Bois--"a hope not hopeless but unhopeful."'
--You can read the entire column here. This one bears reading, too.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Two SCK Open Houses For Nonprofs
Offer Tips on Better Leveraging Web

Are you involved in a nonprofit organization that's trying to better leverage the Internet (or perhaps you know one that is)? If so, consider spending a few hours at the SCK Design open houses later this month, where a few of us will be fielding questions about our areas of expertise. I'll be taking part in the first one, on November 14th, but there's another one the following week. You can learn more about the sessions and RSVP here. Hope to see a few of you there.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Stirring Up Trouble
Has One Advantage:
It Yields Knowledge

'The troubles deep in the pot are known only by the spoon.'
--old Italian proverb

Saturday, November 01, 2008

R.I.P., Studs
The great bard of the Windy City, Studs Terkel, died yesterday. You can sample from these obituaries. He was a man of remarkable brio and longevity (he died at 96), and we loved him for that, as we tried to point out in these earlier mentions. His life's work is also a vivid reminder of the principal we mentioned the other day, that it's never too late to start writing. His first book was published when he was in his mid-50s, and his latest is due out this month. Rest well, dear Studs. You've earned it.