Friday, April 30, 2004

Chas Thinks I've Lost It

I've often pointed in the past to Chas Rich as an interesting voice in the regional blog world. And after mentioning yesterday the reactions to my outburst about Pat Tillman's death, I noticed today that Chas also weighed in about it on his blog. He thinks I've lost it. Hell, maybe he's right. But I do admire how he goes with his gut and lets me have it full throttle, ignoring the fact that I've written admiringly of him in the past. Which is precisely as it should be, and which makes him a real writer. Out of contention and debate comes some higher level of insight. So do keep firing away, Chas...

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Quick Hits

Remember that neat little online tool I mentioned way back near the beginning of the Iraqi war? Cost of War is a continuously updating device which shows the estimated U.S. cost of the conflict, taken from Congressional Budget Office estimates. And by those reckonings, we're at more than $112 billion and counting. I figure that's 112 billion reasons to go to the polls this November. But of course, there are other kinds of costs. And tomorrow night on ABC's Nightline, you can tune in to see that accounting: a photo of all the U.S. military personnel who have died in the line of duty. That's causing pained howls from the usual suspects, who would prefer that Americans continue to be kept in the dark as much as possible on the real costs of this needless war.

A Tip of the Hat to Two Colleagues. I always tell people that cream really rises to the top in the blogging world. And the longer you read these things, the fewer you come to rely upon as worthwhile in your busy life. Bill Callahan's Cleveland Diary had an excellent dissection of some dreary Ch. 5 stupidity, appropriately titled "Moron Media." And Marc over at the incomparable Bruce Blog did yeoman's work last week of blowing the whistle on a type that's all too familiar these days: a slimy p.r. guy who was pretending to be something he's not. Marc recounts how, as a representative of some companies, Jim Cox tried to get his two cents into some planning decisions, pretending to be there as merely a concerned citizen. Cox is familiar to anyone who has watched the Cleveland scene for any length of time. He also showed up to a joint meeting a month or so ago of the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Writers' Union, passing himself off as merely a writer there to get some ideas.

Online Wanderlust Tool. I've long since stopped being easily impressed by finding the latest incredible new tool online that helps one do their work or live their life more quickly or easily. These things, after all, proliferate like rats. But every once in a while I make an exception, when I come across something so wonderful, which has the potential to open up whole new worlds of inquiry or merely satisfy some curiosity, and for free. I'd say this new Map Machine from National Geographic easily fits that bill. Check it out and let me know what you think...

And speaking of reader response, that little outburst I had last Friday in the wake of learning that the heroic former NFL star Pat Tillman had died in combat touched off what has now become the most commented-upon item ever in Working of Words (it doesn't take much, since I don't have a comment section, and people actually have to send me an email to sound off). It got no fewer than a half dozen responses, which for this organization qualifies as a flooded mailroom. And my friend Anton, who linked to it, sent along a note from one of his readers, pointing out that Tillman died not in Iraq but in Afghanistan, suggesting that that might change the thrust of the point about how Tillman died in vain (the obvious point being that while Iraq didn't need to happen, it's harder to argue with what we did in Afghanistan). Point well taken, expect for this: by pulling lots of resources and attention from Afghanistan in order to focus on the phony war in Iraq, the Bush gang put the troops that remained there at far greater risk. If we had simply focused on going after those who had really struck the U.S. on 9/11, rather than cooking up imaginary opponents, Tillman might well be alive today. So my ornery outrage stands.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

A Priceless Lesson on Teaching Reverence

If you've been reading this space for any time at all, you've perhaps noticed that I think of National Public Radio as a unique national treasure. In an era of increasing media fragmentation, we no longer all settle around the hearth and watch any of those Dad's Old Buick Anchors, Tom, Dan and Peter. Nor do we all read the same papers or get our news from the same websites. On the other hand, just about every intelligent, thinking, feeling American has NPR in common these days. It's slowly become our de facto common media touchstone, the only thing we've all heard, read or listened to along with most everyone else (with CNN maybe a close second, and the NYTimes probably, sadly, a distant third). Which gives it a kind of network effect--the more people who use it, the more useful and important it becomes, the more central an institution it is in our lives.

But that's happened for a good reason: the programming is brilliant! Every day, nearly hourly sometime, there are such marvelous, illuminating, thought-provoking ideas imparted, most with the kind of graceful literary brevity that's the mark of all wonderful communication of any kind. My favorite NPR moment this month occurred on the afternoon program Talk of the Nation on April 6th. Host Neil Conan was interviewing the author of a book on Japanese native and Seattle Mariner superstar baseball player Ichiro Suzuki. Not a topic that would ordinarily leave you expecting to have to pull off the road in order to listen more closely and take notes, but I did.

The author explained how Ichiro's dad, a serious Buddhist, purchased the young Ichiro the best, most-expensive glove he could buy at the time, to his wife's initial horror. How could you spend so much on a toy? she wanted to know. 'It's not a toy, it's a tool of education,' he calmly responded. And he taught his son to treat it as such, respecting it, oiling it regularly and otherwise tending to it as he might a central tool of his trade (which of course it soon would become). After having learned in childhood to treat his glove with so much respect, the author concluded his story, "it makes it hard for (Ichiro) to come into the dugout now, put it on the seat, and watch Brett Boone sit on it."

Faulkner once observed that if he were ever to write the perfect story, he would have nothing left to do but "break my pencil and die." I figure this story about Ichiro is pretty close to the pencil-breaking range. And it comes courtesy of NPR, simply the best and most important media organization in America. So even if you can't afford a Joan Kroc-sized $200 million bequest, please do remember them at pledge time. It'll be the best investment in literacy for the ear that you'll ever make...

Friday, April 23, 2004

One Death Has Turned My Anger at Bush Crowd to Rage

When this blog was just a few days old, last April to be specific, I wrote about the tragic death of the talented and influential journalist Michael Kelly, who died as an embedded observor of his second Iraqi conflict. It was one of the first deaths of the war, and it sent shock waves throughout the small community of people who care about great writing and reporting. He was a superstar in that world, but then it's a modest little world, relatively speaking. But this morning brings the even more haunting news of the death of a guy who will quickly become a much larger martyr to the savage arrogance of this ignorant gang that occupies the upper rungs of our government.

Pat Tillman became an instant American folk hero last year when he walked away from a million-dollar-plus-a-year contract as an NFL cornerback to quietly volunteer to serve as an $18,000-a-year Army Ranger. He told friends that he was shaken by the events of 9/11 and felt the need to pay back some of the advantages he had been given. As far as I know, he NEVER spoke to a single member of the media about his uniquely inspiring decision, thus earning even a greater measure of respect--awe, really--from those who watched this incredible story unfold. Through his initial selflessness and his subsequent insistence on avoiding all attention, he became the embodiment of what patriotism is, or should be, all about.

Now, in death, he will offer one last incredible, mind-numbing service to his country: illustrating to even the dimmest among us that this war has been a disaster unique in American history, for which the architects must pay with their jobs and then their reputations, their names dragged through the mud of history as the bullies and cowards they are. As the tart-tongued Ariana Huffington observes today in Salon, speaking of the shocking disclosures in the new Bob Woodward book, the shame isn't reserved solely for the obvious moral villains of the drama such as Boy Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, but also for the secondary tier of advisors who knew better but didn't speak up: "Woodward's portrait of this last group is particularly damning: an assemblage of cowards and sycophants who knew full well that the truth was being sacrificed on the altar of Dick Cheney's "fevered" obsession with Saddam, but who did nothing to stop the butchery. A very special Circle of Hell must be reserved for them."

Indeed, there's plenty of blame to go around. But that's for other days (and elections). Today is Pat Tillman's day. May this brave and inspiring American accomplish in death what even he could not do in life: teach us lessons about the inevitable limits of powerful people's cleverness, and about their almost unlimited potential to do the world harm.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Roldo as Pitchman!

I came across this little gem last year, and have somehow never used it till now. Perhaps I was saving it for just the right time. And today feels like that time. Anyway, check out this bizarre little testimonial from Cleveland's Old Testament Angry Prophet and his wife Ann, for a company that installs new kitchen cabinets no less. When I first saw it, I laughed so hard that I nearly choked. And I needed a good laugh today.

Ann, by the way, is due to retire any day now from her long years of yeoman's work in the Cleveland Museum of Art's splendid library. The St. Louis native, who I swear is the most stunningly pretty AARP-eligible woman I've ever seen, keeps our caped crusader in good health and high spirits. The love birds' appointment viewing: Everbody Loves Raymond. Anyway, congratulations on your retirement Ann. Hope to be seeing you two in lots more commercials for products you enjoy...

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

A Glimpse of the Right Wing Echo Chamber

You've no doubt heard about and read about the right-wing echo chamber we have in this country, the way that conservative politicians, media outlets and activists reinforce whatever talking points or outrages of the hour about the enemy through an amazing transmission belt that is forever feeding slop into the public consciousness. But it's not every day that you get to see it in action right here in Northeastern Ohio. But I was so blessed not long ago. Here's what happened.

Through kids' hoops circles, I know a guy named Howie Chizek. Cavaliers' fans remember him reverently for his years as the public address announcer at the old Richfield Coliseum, where he used his rich baritone to make years of bad basketball somewhat more palatable. He no longer has that job, but he has kept another longtime gig which isn't quite so high-profile to Clevelanders, because it's as a talk radio on a low-power Akron station (WNIR, 100 FM) which can't be picked up in much of this area. But Howie loves his job. He's proud of his longevity--more than 30 years on the air with the same show, and even occasionally takes credit for having paved the way for Rush Limbaugh's success, by proving that a conservative talk radio monologue is commercially viable. I found that boast so ambitious that it made me laugh when he first alluded to it.

Still, you can't help but like Howie. He's a simple guy who knows what he thinks and what he likes, and we used to occasionally engage in some sly verbal sparring about politics while sitting back and watching freshman Ignatius basketball, and grade-school CYO games before that. I would buttress my positions on various issue by encouraging him to read various articles in such magazines as the New Republic, but he'd wave that away. Like a lot of people, Howie wasn't in need of any more facts to figure out what he thinks. You might say that he's mostly impervious to new information that doesn't conform to what he already knows, or thinks he knows (and I say that not unkindly). In short, I've always found him a fascinating character study.

But a couple of months ago he got even more fascinating. One day, after Matt Drudge had "broken" a "world exclusive" story about how John Kerry had his own brewing intern sex scandal, Howie made sure, through an intermediary of course, that I was aware of that situation. He must have handed our mutual friend a story about it to give to me that evening. And he no doubt talked about it on the air all day for several days. There was only one problem: the story completely fell apart when real reporters began to check it. The girl publicly said it wasn't true, and even Drudge had to retreat (although the goofball still hasn't taken it down from his site. It's still here).

So remember, folks. Next time you find yourself blindly believing something you've seen, heard or read in "the media," do yourself a favor, and consider the source. They're not all alike in their level of fidelity to facts.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Writing on the Brain

There are few more accomplished essayists now writing in the English language than Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar and for years a writing teacher at Northwestern University. Part of that I would attribute to his impossibly learned nature, and another to his singularly lucid style. But as he notes in this brilliant little piece on the sources of the writing instinct, simply keeping at the craft through years, even decades of focused apprenticeship, provides much of the answer. In this piece, he considers the notions of writing and other artistic expression as being a response to depression or a form of therapy for inner brokeness, and mostly dismisses both. Instead, he wonderfully riffs on what first made him want to write at the age of 20, more than a half century ago. "As a young would-be writer, I harbored no elevated notions of bringing truth or beauty into the world. Instead I wanted ardently to bring me into the world, to call me to its attention." I think that will ring true for most serious writers who are honest about the early sources of their inspiration, which had little to do with what prissy English teachers (mostly non-writers) would grandly refer to as "the muse." Mostly, the will to write is generally an assertion of pure ego, an insistence that one has something to say that others ought to hear, even if it's only one other person sitting alone in a room reading one's words. Even if it's merely a tender love note sent to your trembling sweetheart. Call it a foolish, proud, even silly idea, as it often is. Hell, call it therapy for the soul if you prefer. Just don't stop doing it, if that's what you were meant to, called to, do.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Mansfield the Marvelous

I was running a bit late to our 7 a.m. breakfast this morning at that refreshing little oasis in the hood--the 55th Street Diner--but I wasn't worried. I knew my friend Mansfield Frazier would simply go ahead and order if he was hungry enough, and also be comfortably working the room, as befits his abundant people skills and status as the east side's reigning newspaper editor.

The paper which he edits, City News, has fallen on hard times, as minority pubs in this town have for as long as I've been watching. Only this one is different: it's been a critical success, largely owing to his skills, but a financial flop, for complicated reasons we won't get into just now (but may well soon). Mansfield jokes that with the money side of the house tottering (they skipped a print issue last week, but it was nevertheless on the web!), he'd lose the entire remaining skeleton staff if he turned off the machine that dispenses free popcorn.

I've written about Mansfield before in this space, though not at enough length to remotely do him justice. To me, he's a tangible thowback to the old and nearly vanished breed of community editor, a tough, no-bullshit guy with an open-door policy who's one-third assistant mayor, one-third union hiring hall and one-third social worker with a too-big heart. Mostly, he's the conscience of his community (and his easy accessibility to readers serves as a sharp contrast to the alt-weekly Free Times and Scene, whose yuppified staffs are cossetted behind locked doors, in office set-ups where the receptionist seems to function more like a security guard than anything. If any crazed reader wants to get to Mansfield, he's right there for the taking). And the fact that he performs this role after spending some time in prison (and getting a wonderful book out of it) merely adds to his street smarts and knowledge of matters of the heart. For me, it also helps make him a person of extreme, nearly theological interest.

Like all mayors, he's got the hard-won knowledge of only those who have spent decades walking his neighborhood, pressing the flesh and listening to his constituents (though he's subsequently reflected on all of this information in ways that few politicians have). And he also knew everyone before they could add on the adult guises of later life--everyone from onetime street hustler and numbers-runner-for-the-Mob Don King to any black Cleveland politician you can imagine. He sees through all the packaging because he knew them back when, and he probably remembers which block they were raised on and who their parents were. And he brings all of that slowly won knowledge and insight to his writing and to the other writing that appears in his paper. And of course there are the assorted additional community roles he plays, including helping Cleveland's mayor with the city's community re-entry program for ex-offenders

In his office, amid all the piles of papers and bric-a-brac accumulated during a colorful life, there's a special place reserved for an arresting old black and white portrait of an elderly gentlemen. It depicts his grandfather, who was a slave. But ask him about it, and 40 minutes later--after the phone has rung five times and six people have stuck their head in to ask a favor or deliver a story tip--the conversation won't be about his colorful past. Instead, Mansfield and his bubbly energy, insatiable curiosity and quick brain will have moved on, to places not yet seen or things not yet learned. He's considering doing a book on a family he knows (long story, as usual) in Mississippi. It contains five generations of women, and he thinks it might be an excellent entry into some subjects that interest him. If ever I'm in need of an energy boost or some perspective about the relative importance of minor roadblocks, I only need to spend five minutes with Mansfield. And all is quickly right with the world once more. For that, I feel a special kind of blessing today.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Six Hundred And One Reasons--And Counting

That's the current U.S. military death toll in Iraq--but it doesn't include Iraqi civilians nor American civilians, an overlooked category until they became targets of bestial mobs. How many more reasons do we need to evict this heinous crowd of lying, scheming thugs from our White House? How many more intelligent, non-hysterical people have to observe that this crowd actually outdoes the Nixon White House in deception and secrecy before we resolve to get our country back?

Maybe Kerry Does Have Some Backbone After All. Check this out. John Kerry did a ballsy thing yesterday: obliquely asking the question: why is GWB's oft-cited Christian faith, which he uses to such splendid political/rhetorical effect, seem to be utterly missing in any of his policies, decisions or other official actions? But the writer engages in the usual brainless elite media jive by using "religion" (an utterly fallible human construct) as her organizing word rather than "faith" (which is about something else altogether). And that allows some of the attention to be diverted to a meaningless question, whether Kerry's pro-choice stance is similarly hypocritical for a Catholic, simply because some eminently fallible human clerics have decided that abortion is a sin? The way this story is set up allows the writer to couch everything in the traditionally banal he-said/she-said, faux-balanced format. But the question remains: does the fiftyish frat boy George Bush really believe in the Christian god and the Bible, and if so, why isn't that ever reflected in his actions? An excellent question to allude to, Mr. Kerry, and I congratulate you on your ballsiness in doing so. And don't worry, there will be plenty of time for Kerry to defend his position on abortion, as he of course should...

And Speaking of Banal Journospeak... Talkingpointsmemo's Josh Marshall nicely gives it the back of his hand today. He notes that "Here we are again in this alternative universe in which it's front page news that Colin Powell has conceded that some of his testimony before the UN Security Council early last year was based on intelligence that was not 'that solid.' I also hear that Pope has conceded that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. But I'm not sure that development garnered equal press coverage." Just one more good example of how the major media's timidness about pointing out that the emporer has no clothes leads to some bizarre results...

Another Reminder that Google is Imperfect. Our local blogging colleague, the ever-alert Canadian expat Jerry, duly notes this imperfect Google search.

Finally, a Spoof Not to Be Missed. Check out this hilarious send-up on this site, which basically functions as the American media's water cooler and leading internal critic. There are plenty of inside jokes sprinkled throughout the parody, but if you're hip enough to be reading Working With Words, I trust that you'll get most of them.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Another Gem by Michael Lewis

How could I have forgotten to mention all week the phenomenal piece by author extraordinaire Michael Lewis, the cover story in last week's New York Times Magazine? Please, before it's behind walls and available online only for a price, do me a favor and print it out and put it aside for whenever you have a moment to sit and read a long, wonderful piece of writing. If you care about athletics, kids or education, or if you simply have an interest in the sources of human motivation and how people are induced to stretch to achieve anything, this piece is for you.

Lewis has been a favorite writer for years, perhaps since he first took on the large subject of billionaire investor Warren Buffet, the "Oracle of Omaha," in a cover piece in The New Republic more than a dozen years ago (not long after the one-time stockbroker wrote a devastating Wall Street roman a clef, Liar's Poker). The New Orleans native has since had something of a rocket ride to fame and prominence with a series of high-profile books, articles and life events (such as his marriage to one-time MTV diva Tabitha Soren). But beneath all the glitter and gossip column fodder is a writer of astonishing brilliance, a guy who can outreport most and then also outwrite them, a combination which tends to yield writing worth reading.

But it all begins with his tremendous curiosity. He has produced a number of wonderful books, most recently a sublime study of the economics of major league baseball and the Oakland A's, Moneyball, simply because he follows his curiosity where it leads, as he notes in this interview. But with this latest piece on his high school baseball coach, I think he has now topped even the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell as simply the best nonfiction literary journalist in America. And that's saying something...

Friday, April 02, 2004

'Borderless & Without Edit' Indeed

This little gem needs no comment from me. Drudge is a complete ass, a pathetic journalistic-wannabe, and at times a right-wing thug. Or more precisely, a too-willing boy-toy dupe of lots of right-wing thugs. Still, none of that erases the fact that he's helped usher in an era in which most adults have forever put aside their childishly naive and passive habit of depending on big corporate media to serve up everything they need to know to be properly functioning citizens. Now they can easily become educated about public affairs, if only they'll do the modest work to seek out a range of diverse sources and voices, many of which are on the web. Enuf said about that for today. Now back into your dark little hole you go, Matt...

Who Said Internet Forums Aren't Enlightening? In the mid-'90s, online conversational forums, like the pioneering The Well (later folded into the online zine Salon) were supposed to be all the rage, and a killer app. But they've mostly taken a back seat--way, way in the back--to other more interesting, more adaptable conversational tools--like blogs, for instance (please duly note my bias). Sometimes their wishy washiness is a function of the lack of intelligent comments they seem to draw from various posters, others more a product of the clumsiness of the particular tool (which is's problem, I'd say). But that only means that the effective online forums one comes across too rarely these days tend to stand out that much more. I'd say Steve Fitzgerald's Lakewood Buzz easily qualifies as one of the better ones. Just check out this enlightening discussion from his evidently bright, discerning readers on the Fingerhut-Voinovich Senate race. And note how the moderator (presumably Steve himself) gently but firmly butts in to keep the conversation on track. Take a bow, Steve, for a site that I think is simply the leading local example, a Mercedes among misfits, in combining true online journalism with passionate community conversation and empowerment. And as long as you're checking out his Lakewood Buzz site (which I simply insist that you do), why not also take a gander at his equally compelling blog about all things Lakewood, on You'll find it here.

The Softer Side of Ayatollah Ashcroft. Jeffrey Rosen is a smart, subtle writer. A lawyer and law professor at George Washington University, the guy for years has still somehow found a way to regularly produce streams of thoughtful, well-written pieces on the law and law-related subjects, mostly for the New Republic. And so when I noticed that he recently decided to tackle the subject of Attorney General John Ashcroft, this time for the Atlantic Monthly, I read the piece closely, since his byline guaranteed that it would be an intellectually honest attempt to take a fresh look at all the evidence about his subject. Unfortunately, I'm afraid to say, I was pretty disappointed. Rosen tries his best to deliver a revisionist critique that John A. has been misunderstood, and that he's actually a more complicated character than has been suggested by his uniformly bad press. I wasn't really persuaded; instead, I think he got spun by a campaign-related mandate to soften the image of a guy whose very name has become something of an automatic invitation for booing by the Kerry campaign, and for good reasons. But I do feel a bit of pity for Ashcroft. I think his hard-right fundamentalist father did a number on him, and now we're all paying the price (though perhaps only for a few more months). But take a look at it yourself and tell me if you think I'm wrong (and as you may remember from my many shots at the domestic Ayatollah, I do have my deep biases about this guy).

Dorothy Does Cleveland. If you're smart and self-assured enough to be reading this, I would guess that, like me, you also have more than your share of wild, impulsive, partly lost/partly wandelust-struck old pals who alternately delight and disappoint you. But whenever they resurface, as they always do, it's a cause for deep celebration of the soul. And this week I got two such blasts. The first came from my friend Dorothy, who not so long ago was a serious comer in Cleveland, a young powerbroker in the foundation world, running a Cleveland Foundation-connected group called Grantmakers Forum (which, as I used to tease her, entailed regularly convening trust fund folk to hear which ephemeral bleeding-heart cause should be their guilty-conscience flavor of the month).

Anyway, as she hit 40, still single and perhaps not so happy about that, she did the smart thing: got off the career elevator and sought out some serious personal renewal. She went off to Harvard for a graduate program, then moved to Washington, D.C. and did who knows what. I'm not so sure what she's been doing, cause she decided to opt out of staying in touch with most of her friends. But I knew her (and liked her) well enough to guess that if I just kept the door open enough, with the occasional reassuring voicemail or email, she might ultimately take up the offer to renew the conversation (and isn't that what good friendships really come down to?). Which she did in an email out of the blue yesterday, giving a few of us 24 hours notice that she'll be at Nighttown (the wonderfully sophisticated east side jazz club/watering hole/restaurant on Cedar Hill, a favorite of the literary set, in part because its very name is a literary allusion) this evening around happy hour. And so I've cancelled everything and I'll head off to see my old pal, feeling not unlike that Old Testament farmer who eagerly welcomes back the prodigal son. I can't wait to lay eyes on her, but I'll stifle the urge to try to engage in Kremlinology, and learn in just an hour or two how happy she really is in this new life of hers. I'll do my best to jettison that stifling-dad side of me that tries to get to the bottom of assessing everyone's mental state (at least those I care about), and just enjoy the moment, reveling in her company. The rest will fall away like talcum powder in a strong breeze.