Monday, July 19, 2004

Chalk it Up to Those Harsh Russian Winters
'Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.'
--the elderly monk Staretz Zosima, in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov, speaking to a wealthy woman who tells him she often dreams of dedicating her life to service to the poor, but who hesitates out of worries over their likely ingratitude (item via an article on Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, in the current Sojourner's Magazine).  

Friday, July 16, 2004

News You Can Use
We spend a lot of time here at Working With Words trying to ascertain what you need to, and want to, know. And in the course of our surveying, we've found that 86% of our readers are HUGE Bill O'Reilly fans. Which is only natural, of course, BECAUSE WE ARE TOO! We love how wily old Bill judiciously weighs his subjects, cannily bringing you both sides of a topic. He's great TV, of course, but also really enlightening journalism.
But having said that, we think you'd be cheated of all the intellectual bounty he has to offer if you only enjoy him on TV. C'mon, there's so much more to the guy! Hell, do you realize that you too could read the books he calls his favorites? You could actually go to the library or the bookstore today, and walk out 10 minutes later with the very books that Bill has identified as his favorites.
But how would I learn about such a list, you ask? Sure, I could call Fox, but would I ever get through to the guy? Pretty unlikely. Well, we feel your pain, dear readers. So look no further: you've come to the right place!! We have done the research for you, and by merely clicking here, you can learn about all of Bill's fav books, and actually read them yourself. Can you even believe your good fortune?

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Floating the Dump-Cheney Baloon

Things have gotten so bad for the Republican ticket that the party is slyly raising the issue of possibly dumping the potty-mouthed, ailing-hearted Veep, who has really been running the country for three and a half years, mostly into the ground.

Dick Cheney, whom Jon Stewart once referred to as "the human embodiment of a grumble," is truly a piece of work, my friends. Why even bother writing fiction when you have such a real-life character as he to simply describe? What novelist is imaginative enough to summon such a person?

Here's a guy, a quiet Wyoming native, who begins his career climb as the cooly efficient young chief of staff for one of the most-moderate, most-decent presidents in U.S. history, Gerald Ford. And 30 years later, he has become the living embodiment of the Ugly American, a cowardly man who dodged the draft himself but who nevertheless has the balls to publicly question the patriotism of a certifiable war hero named John Kerry. Who is the intellectual architect of an administration whose FCC (rightly or wrongly, depending on your view) cracks down on mild indecency on the airwaves but who then personally tells a sitting U.S. Senator to "go fuck yourself" on the hallowed floor of the Senate! Perhaps only his shrink can explain how one keeps intellectual company with vicious neocons who would savagely dismiss his own lesbian daughter's humanity (what, precisely, does he tell that poor woman in private?) Average Americans, who are shrewd enough to spot a ringer, have awarded him with a disastrous 21% approval rating, according to the latest polls, which are finally getting the attention of even this dimwitted gang in the White House.

But I hope to god they keep the Old Grumble right where we can see him. Because if they do, we'll get the unique and historic treat, come early October, of seeing this vile ignoramus try to debate a truly charismatic, optimistic guy named John Edwards. The Veep debate will be on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, and the competition for tickets should be intense (I'm told that our influential colleague Sandy Piderit, whose dean is hoping to keep her from jumping to Harvard or Stanford B Schools for a seven-figure pay package, has been given 100 to distribute as she sees fit. Just slip your ticket request, wrapped in a newly minted $100 bill, under her office door). And we'll see if the supposedly callow "Breck Girl" (as the Times' increasingly shrill and daft columnist Maureen Dowd calls Edwards) can keep up with this wily old Beltway veteran. Unfortunately for Dick, in this venue, the two gladiators won't be able to fall back upon their wealthy connections or their vast network of informants sprinkled throughout the vast federal bureaucracy. They won't be able to set up rogue operations to feed them the information they want. And they won't be able to keep the door closed as they gather cabals of industry lobbyists to draft the legislation which is supposed to regulate their industries. They can cut all the sleazy wink-wink deals they want with old cronies who now sit on the Supreme Court, but it won't help them a bit here.

In a public debate, all they can rely on are their brains, their hearts, their records and their ability to articulate all of that into some coherent narrative about why a democratic people should trust their team, and them, to lead them into the future. I think the Bush-Cheney re-election machine is rightly beginning to worry if grim old Dick is up to that task.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

A Boy and His Lobster: In Silent Communion, As God Intended

Not much time to write today, at least not in this venue. A lot going on, my friends, and all of it's good. After shipping off the final version of a fun little story for August's Northern Ohio Live only in the pre-dawn hours of Monday, its talented and hyperefficient editor, Kathy DeLong, was kind enough to buzz me only a day later (yesterday), inviting me to stop by to see the dazzling story design by my longtime friend and colleague, Live's art director and resident mordant wit, Ben Small (with whom I've now been collaborating in a couple of venues for going on a decade). Anyway, it's beautiful--Ben once more proves why he cleans up each year during publication awards season. I'll tell you more about that story as we get closer to publication.

Elsewhere, the latest dad's column for Cleveland/Akron Family is now posted on the web. It's about my youngest, Patrick, and his catalytic first brush with thespian fame. Working under the first commandment of good parenting (keep things as precisely balanced as possible in the attention department, because those kids are keeping constant score even if you're not), the next column (written but not yet published) is about his brother Michael. And then I plan to give my readers a rest, not mentioning my boys much for some months to come.

But those are readers of the dad's columns (which may well soon be running in various other markets across the country--stay posted for that). Alas, you faithful readers of Working With Words can't get off that easily. How would you feel if I neglected to relate the Michael- eating-lobster story from our recent too-short vacation in Maine?

Well, maybe it's not a full story. Hell, it may not even rise to the level of anecdote. But I did get a chance to take him to the neighborhood Lobster "shack" (not to be confused with fullblown restaurant). This is a place which, in keeping with the finest flinty Yankee traditions of no-nonsense semi-rural New England, cuts to the chase and focuses its attention on the only things that matter: those perfect little pink-hued wonders, clad in shells as thick (this summer at least) as armor. The tables are park benches covered in ragged plastic tablecloths, the "silverware" is plastic, but the lobster sublime. (Check out this nice Atlantic Monthly piece, an interview with the author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, about "the transcendent dining experience" of gobbling lobsters, once considered a "low class meal for the poor and unrefined").

Anyway, Patrick and Jule were otherwise occupied that day, but Michael quickly agreed to a run up to the shack with the old man. I chose not to eat just then, preferring to pay full attention to my eldest go mano a mano with this creature whose last known address was perhaps the bottom of Casco Bay. I watched in delight as he wordlessly tore into that bad boy, occasionally splattering me with errant drops of sea water as he expertly wielded the metal tool used in cracking the shell, before coaxing the smallest pieces of meat from their hiding places with another specialized lobster-eating instrument. He would occasionally pause to look up, waiting for me to say something. When I didn't, he cooly returned to business, yanking out another chunk of sweet succulence, dabbing it with butter and ushering it into his mouth.

When it comes to visiting the ocean, I can take or leave the beach. But I'll keep that mental picture of a serious boy efficiently doing what god intended him to do, eating lobster, pasted in my mental scrapbook for a long time.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Baseball's Home Run King, Sans Posse

For me, Hank Aaron has always been a uniquely evocative story, illustrative of so many interesting themes large and small. Certainly his journey entails race. During his epic chase of icon Babe Ruth's career home run record in the mid-'70s, the quiet man was brutalized in a way that made it clear for anyone who doubted it that America still suffered from a crippling racial divide. Baseball's then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn even skipped seeing the record-setting game, leaving an indelible stain on his reputation. On a more serious note, the FBI field office racked up plenty of overtime screening his mail for a river of death threats and ugly racial epithets that poured in from hundreds of haters who couldn't abide Hammering Hank's presumtious gall to try to surpass an American icon. Records are made to be broken, but apparently not this one.

But on a less obvious but perhaps more interesting level, Aaron is also a story about Job-like endurance and the triumph of a blue-collar work ethic. Here was a guy who slowly and unspectacularly kept hitting lots of home runs year after year, silently stalking the louder legend of Ruth. And he did so while playing not in the country's media capital, like Ruth, but rather in the relative backwaters of Milwaukee and Atlanta, where there are rather fewer middle-aged hack sportswriters trying desperately to recapture their youth by writing endless elegies to their sports heroes. Hank didn't drink and didn't carouse. He was never very quotable about baseball, much less about larger social issues. He simply wanted to let his work speak for itself. And for some, it shouted.

All of which is why I only wish I could have been in Houston yesterday to witness an unprecedented scene: the 14 living men who have gained entry into the elite club of Major Leaguers who have hit at least 500 homers in their career (another six are dead) gathered together before the game to be honored. The names represent a who's who of the game's history. But Aaron was at the top of the glittering list.

But come to think of it, I would have rather been on hand to see an even more telling Aaron moment, which--befitting his style--unfolded with far less pomp and circumstance, in fact with none. The Washington Post reports that Hammering Hank unassumingly, with no entourage in sight, recently (the story is vague about when) dropped off his uniform to the Smithsonian. He simply strolled into the National Museum of American History carrying a garment bag, handed it over to a curator, and signed autographs for a few no doubt awe-struck fans who happened to recognize him. And then he was off. His lifelong rival Willie Mays was famously nicknamed the Say Hey kid. Hank has become the Say Not Much Man. But for me at least, his quiet demeanor is more eloquent than any American pastime poetry summoned by a thousand Brooklyn natives laboring to rediscover their personal Boys of Summer.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

How 'Holy Shit' Has Escalated to the F Word

Bob Woodward is famous for a lot of things, but in the journalism trade, one of them is his "holy shit" comment. A number of years ago he observed that his goal is to produce the kind of stories that would cause a reader to mutter aloud the words 'holy shit' as they read along. As Slate media critic Jack Shafer has observed, that came back to haunt him as an editor, when he was duped by the infamous Janet Cooke story about a non-existent eight-year-old heroin addict. But now the bar has apparently been raised higher for readers muttering profanities. L.A. Weekly reports that at the giant June book expo in Chicago, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said that in a book "what I'm looking for here is the fuck factor. I want them to stop every three or four lines and say, 'Fuck!'" Is it possible that the old boy has briefly lost his marbles since becoming the subject of rough treatment in the press for his having taken a finder's fee of 100K from a Hollywood producer? Working With Words has responded by sending old sweeping-maned Graydon a bar of soap with which he can wash out his potty mouth...

Then again, maybe it was just some bad water in the VF water cooler in early summer. A month before that outburst, and also in Chicago, VF media columnist Michael Wolff, who generally alternates between brilliance and complete idiocy, chose the latter in a talk to journalism students at Northwestern University's Medill School. You'll have to read this entire short piece in the student newspaper to understand how ridiculous he was here. But at least he was honest, telling the kids: "I have no pearls of wisdom." From winning a National Magazine Award for a series of splendid media columns in New York Magazine to becoming a self-described "billionaire's mascot" is quite a trick, Mike. And remember: this is only the version that he approved for publication, bizarrely acting as a censor when talking to would-be journalists. Sounds like he'll feel right at home at Vanity Fair.

Posthumous Productivity. Do you feel as if you never get as much writing published as you'd like? Despair not: the Wall Street Journal reports that the latest trend to hit book publishing is bringing out books after the author dies. "Robert Ludlum died in 2001, but his productivity did not suffer for it," we learn. A half-dozen turgid thrillers have sprung forth since then, with a little help from other writers. A less-well-known author of teen thrillers, V.C. Andrews, has been dead even longer, since 1986. But not to worry. "She's been more prolific dead than alive." See, there's hope for you yet, even if you might not get to enjoy it here on Earth.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Clinton, All 25 Pounds of Him

Okay, so all the white noise from the first week or two of his book launch has quieted a bit. The tables full of his groaning, door-stopper of a memoir have mostly been placed back from the entrance to most bookstores, and it's possible to actually experience a full day of media monitoring and come across fewer than 37 stories about Slick Willy and his first rough draft of his own history.

He's admitted in various interviews that that's the nickname that he always hated worst. And of course only a dumb-as-doornails neanderthal Republican--of which we unfortunately appear to have about 70 million in this country--would say that his presidency, for all its misdemeanor pecadillos, isn't looking pretty good in light of the Cheney Gang and their unprecedented hijacking attempt of an entire country, its traditions and constitution.

But will you (or I) actually purchase that damn book and read it? I've yet to decide. There are so many already purchased and yet unread standing ahead of it, some whispering and others shouting to be heard. Eventually, of course, I will (though probably after it hits the discount table, cause I'm cheap). In the meantime, ever-stalwart Slate, political wonkery's favorite online gathering place, has published this helpful cheat sheet for the best highlights of the book.

But for my money, the best take on the whole thing came in a June 25th Wall Street Journal review of the Clinton book. Mark Steyn rightly complains that he's outraged that the publisher, after shelling out a $10-million advance, let Clinton get away with "dead pol-speak" such as his "inappropriate encounter" with the full-bodied enchantress Monica, she of the famously besmirched blue dress. Instead, he suggested that the ex-prez should have penned something like this, and I quote: "The shaft of light from the dying sun through the Oval Office window caught the swell of her bosom as she slid the extra-large pepperoni across the desk. I knew it was wrong. I'd penciled in that evening for bringing peace to Northern Ireland, but what the hell, the two sides of that troubled island's sectarian conflict were seperated by as deep a divide as the plunging cleavage now beckoning from her low-cut angora sweater. Ulster could wait."

Gee, wish I'd written that...

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Thoughts to Power Your Day, From a Trio of Serious Female Pens

'I want to write but more than that I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.'--Anne Frank

'Writing is fueled by your creative life force...which once unleashed has its own mysterious power, just as words themselves do.'--Caroline Joy Adams

'Writing is an act of cherishing. It is an act of love.'
--Julia Cameron

Now get back to work, y'all....

Friday, July 02, 2004

Ocean Breezes

We're coming to you today, and for the remainder of the holiday weekend, from beautiful Ocean Park, Maine, once a Baptist summer retreat (no alcohol permitted to this day) and now a unique blend of modern Southern Maine tourism and Victorian seaside gentility. My boys and their nearly 20 cousins on their mom's side represent the fifth generation to have descended each summer on this tiny outpost along windswept Saco Bay. And after a century of faithful pilgrimage, they even have a central place at which to converge: my in-law's impossibly wonderful restored 1881 Victorian bed & breakfast, Billow House.

This Valhalla has everything one could want: there's an appealingly tacky old boardwalk-and-amusement-park town just next door in Old Orchard Beach, a place known mostly today for the thousands of scantilly clad Canucks who decamp each summer. But even this place is soaked in history: Jack Kennedy's parents met on the beach here, and Charles Lindbergh made a stunt landing as part of a victory tour after his historic cross-Atlantic flight in the Twenties.

We're situated almost precisely between the wonderfully restored Old Port section of Portland to the north and to the south the lavish upscale Martha Stewart-like town of Kennebunkport, known these days mostly as the site of the Bush family's ancestral summer home, Walker's Point. It's off on its own peninsula, and is surely one of the most magnificently positioned private homes in America. The famous L.L. Bean store, open 24 hours a day, is a 20-minute drive. After more than 20 years of coming here each year, I've barely begun to explore the cultural and historic richness of what lies just within a 25-mile radius. But I plan to keep working on it.