Friday, April 29, 2005

Is Your Work Noun or Verb?

In a recent post on his blog, permission marketing guru Seth Godin again shows why he's so consistently though-provoking. The guy seems congenitally unable to write an uninteresting thought. But decide for yourself:
I had two great seminars in my office this week. Not only do cool people show up, but it pushes me to think hard about new ways to talk about things that work. Today, we talked about nouns and verbs. Investments are a noun. Investing is a verb.Paint is a noun. Painting is a verb. A gift is a noun. Shopping for or giving one is a verb. People care much more about verbs than nouns. They care about things that move, that are happening, that change. They care about experiences and events and the way things make us feel. Nouns just sit there, inanimate lumps. Verbs are about wants and desires and wishes. Is your website a noun or a verb?What about your management style or the services you offer? A few years ago, the rage was to turn products into services. Then it was to turn services into products. I think the next big thing is to turn nouns into verbs.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Why Literary Journalism is the Hot Ticket Among American Writers

'American reality always outstrips the imagination.'
--British literary novelist Ian McEwan, echoing a theme that Tom Wolff has been harping on for years

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Economist: Delay Must Go

The British newsweekly The Economist is rightly revered for its brilliant reporting, crisp editing and all-around sensible and sophisticated take on the world. The current issue offers yet another reason why it's held in such high esteem by smart readers. Let me quote from the closing passage on a piece arguing that it's time for the sleazeball strongman Tom Delay to step down:
'Many Republicans see no harm in America's more businesslike party cozying up to business. But Delay Inc. should raise questions for all sorts of people on the right. For social conservatives committed to moral government: why are they now in bed with the likes of (lobbyist) Mr. Abrahmhoff? For small-government types: why are they hand-in-glove with the pork procurers who have pushed up federal spending? For free-market Reaganauts: why have the Gipper's heirs given so much power to people bent on twising government to favor special interests? For the American right, K Street conservatism is the political version of steroids: it confers short-term strength at the expense of long-term health problems. The Republicans took over Congress in 1994 in part because they skillfully used attacks on individual politicians to suggest that the Democrats were soft on corruption. The Republicans are vulnerable to exactly this treatment. From that perspective, getting rid of Mr. Delay is only a first step. But it is a good place to start.'

Meanwhile, in an illuminating interview published in the current issue of The Progressive, journalistic icon Sy Hersch (the thinking man's Bob Woodward, you might call him) authoritatively sounds off on the continuing controversy over whether Bush II's outrages were worse than Nixon's. A couple of months ago, I suggested here that the Bush crowd's crimes hadn't yet risen to the level of Nixon's, but my friend Roldo Bartimole subsequently convinced me in an email exchange that I was wrong about that. And Hersch reprises some of those arguments here:
'I think what's going on right now--and I'm not talking about the legal implications--is much more dangerous (than Nixon). Nixon clearly broke the law in the coverup of Watergate and hush money payments. That was all criminal activity. With these guys, we're not talking about the kind of common crimes that Nixon committed. I can't tell you whether they are technically breaking the law, but basically the American government has been hijacked by neoconservatives. They are taking an awful lot of national security operations into the White House.'

Friday, April 22, 2005

God Does Not Shout

'While being so busy running my own life, I become oblivious to the gentle movements of the spirit of God within me, pointing me in directions quite different from my own. It requires a lot of inner solitude and silence to become aware of these divine movements. God does not shout, scream, or push. The spirit of God is soft and gentle like a small voice or a light breeze.'
--the late Henri Nouwen, S.J., in his book, Here and Now--Living in the Spirit

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Writing as Obsessive-Compulsiveness

'Writing is an obsessive/compulsive disorder, not unlike excessive hand-washing or tooth-grinding. I cannot help myself. And so, yes, I do try to write each day, and when things go well, I fulfill that goal. In fact, my ideal days are those when I am not teaching or travelling to promote books but rather ensconced in the mountains or behind my desk at home with a project before me, whether it be a story or novel. To enter the flow of a work and feel it coming to fruition is a real joy, but, of course, a joy one cannot hope to experience every day.'
Novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle, in an
interview with the excellent British bookzine Bookmunch

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Portrait of the World's First Billionaire in Training

'Much of the time, he was closeted in his office, where he had oil prices chalked on a blackboard. He paced this spartan office, hands laced behind his back. Periodically, he emerged from his lair, mounted a high stool, and studied ledgers, scribbling calculations on pad and paper (during meetings, he was a restless doodler and note taker). Frequently, he stared out the window, motionless as an idol, gazing at the sky for fifteen minutes at a stretch. He once asked rhetorically, "Do not many of us who fail to achieve because we lack concentration--the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?' Rockefeller adhered to a fixed schedule, moving through the day in a frictionless manner. He never wasted time on frivolities. Even his daily breaks--the midmorning snack of crackers and milk and the posprandial nap--were designed to conserve energy and help him to strike an ideal balance between his physical and mental forces. As he remarked, "it is not good to keep all the forces at tension all the time.'
--From Ron Chernow's magisterial Titan--The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., perhaps one of the best biographies ever written, and easily among the finest historical portraits of early Cleveland

Why Middle Age is a Blessing for Writers

'A curious thing happened to me, personally and as a writer--I do make some slight distinction--when I entered my late forties, that time zone I reluctantly acknowledge as the onset of middle age. Quite suddenly, at least so it seems in retrospect, my relation to my own past changed. How can I describe it? It was as if that past, especially the events and feelings of my younger years, has taken a half-step back, had overnight, with no effort on my part, arranged itself into a perspective. No, 'perspective' is not quite right, for that suggests a fixed, even static arrangement. Rather, these materials had, without losing their animation or their savor, become available to me. They were there to be looked at and handled without emotional murkiness, complicating regrets, sadness and so on.'
--Sven Birkerts, in the current issue of Poets and Writers

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Smoke From the Chimney

So we have a new pope. The white smoke from the chimney, signalling a selection, is a neat bit of stagecraft, blending an ancient tradition with a very modern camera-ready moment. But let's be honest: only a dying institution chooses a 78-year-old as its leader. And Cardinal Ratzinger is no mere doddering priest. As the church's official doctrinal watchdog, he has served the same role as the infamous "theoretician" Mikhail Suslov once served in the old Soviet Union, blowing the whistle on apostates and others who dare to deviate from the official policy set down by a group of ultra-conservative old fools. As for the idea of a German being named pope, I must admit that feels odd, a feeling not unlike that of an elderly Jew who refuses on principal to buy a BMW or Mercedes, even 60 years after the Holocaust.

This new pope once wrote a famous official document, in which he concluded that there is salvation only in Christ. The Catholic hierarchy's real problem, the central issue that dogs them and which will not go away, is that too many intelligent Catholics already understood that all by themselves. They understood that they don't need any intermediaries between them and their god, but merely a Bible and a quiet place to pray. They don't need dissembling bishops, like ours in Cleveland, who must hire a slick p.r. firm (Dix & Eaton) to help explain away their own clerical deeds and misdeeds. And so these people, millions of them and growing all the time, remain cultural Catholics, people who are often steeped in the comforting rituals of their earlier years, but who are still moving in their hearts toward a more simple, less authoritarian form of...Christianity.

The extraordinary spectacle of endless coverage of a dead pope is in some senses a ridiculous one, a product more of our modern cult of personality than our capacity for authentic faith. John Paul II was of course in many senses a unique world-historical figure, a brave and good man who used his voice for good causes. Who among us couldn't be moved by that historic photo of the pope alone in the prison cell with his would-be assassin, issuing his quiet forgiveness. It's the very embodiment of the heart-felt pastoral touch. JP2 was a miracle worker one-on-one. But when he moved to the macro, he was a different person. Like much of the hierarchy he represented, he was a bitter reactionary, seemingly just as intent on stamping out loving dissent as any Soviet oligarch ever was. More importantly, he was merely a man, a fact which all the official proclamations about "papal infallibility" could not change.

The tottering edifice of this Catholic hierarchy certainly has deeper and wider roots than Communism ever did. But sooner or later, it too will suffer the ravages of a simple dynamic, the human heart's insistence on being free and seeking its own answers, with whatever divine intervention it chooses to seek. Neither Dix & Eaton, the bishop nor the entire majesty of the Roman Curia can change that.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Stripping it Down to the Essentials

'Because I'm good at it.'
--the writer Flannery O'Connor, when asked by an interviewer why she writes.

'A writer's successes bring him more than praise, publication, or money: they also help him toward confidence. With each success, writers, like stunt riders and ballet dancers, learn to dare more.'
--John Gardner, a writer, social activist and founder of Common Cause

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Angry Prophet of the 21st-Century Economy

I've written about my friend Sandy Woodthorpe before. She's been a writer for years, and a fine one. She even published a remarkable op-ed essay a few months ago in the Boston Globe about her hunt for work, the occasion of my last entry about her. But it perhaps wasn't until today, when I visited her Survival Dance site, that I really understood what a powerful pen she wields. This piece is haunting in its rawness and disgust with our culture's myopia. With her indulgence, I've decided that rather than simply linking to it, where you may not find it as she adds later posts, I'd reprint it whole. I invite you to read all of what follows. And then I challenge you to go back to your life, ignoring its message. I, for one, find that impossible. She titles it "Wooden Ships":

I got a job. It's part-time, temporary, on contract. But I got a job. Many people out there don’t have jobs. Or they got jobs and they can’t even make ends meet. If you are working all day, you don’t see these people. I notice them less and less, but when somebody arrives on your doorstep . . . well, there they are.

Tonight as I was walking back to the house after dumping kitchen scraps on the compost pile, a guy was walking up the driveway. He met me by the side door. Did I need the gutters cleaned? He’d do them for $35. He explained he was out of work and in need of cash. Knew who lived in my house years before. He dropped a lot of names I didn’t know and quite a few I did. He did a fair job of describing credentials without showing any. He was persistent.

It was starting to get dark. I said I didn’t like the idea of him going up on a ladder. He didn’t like the idea of the wisteria about to pull down the gutter on the one side of the house. I said I had been working day and night last year and it got away from me – I could take care of that after it blooms this year. How about if he did something I couldn’t do myself. If he was careful, I finally said, he could unclog the downspouts on the West side of the house. We came to an agreement on the price, and he promised that he wasn’t going to break his neck on my property.

His wife was waiting in the van on the street. He told her to pull into the driveway, then he got his ladders off the top. While he worked, his wife and I talked. They lost their jobs 3 years ago – their companies had moved operations elsewhere. At ages 44 and 51, they are candidates that few companies will consider, even if they could find openings for jobs like the ones they lost. (She was a top-earning telemarketer in a call center for OfficeMax and he was a toolmaker and machine shop repairman.) Between the two of them, they used to make around $50K.

Life changed drastically when they were suddenly let go. They applied everywhere, but couldn't find jobs that paid anything near what they were earning. They had married young and had a small family, now grown up. It was just the two of them and they had finally been able to enjoy some comforts. Faced with a mortgage and the household bills, they did what I did - cobbled together income from a bunch of jobs. They took anything that came up or anything they could dig up.

But they couldn’t keep up. They lost the house. They relied on friends and relatives to put them up. Three years later, they are living in a converted garage in Fairport. The van has all sorts of mechanical problems that Mike can fix – when he can afford the parts. They didn’t say much about what they now call home. But they are determined to get out of this trouble. They aren’t sitting there waiting for a helping hand. They’ll do any kind of work that pays. Yesterday, in the rain and sleet, they distributed 1000 flyers for a new coffeeshop - for $20. I found one rubberbanded to the door knob when I got home from work.

Mike and Kim seemingly appeared out of nowhere. But they aren’t strangers to this town. They have roots here. They won’t disappear. They are neighbors that live a few blocks around the corner from me. I paid Mike in cash and got his address and a phone number where I could leave a message if I need more stuff done.

When I was looking for laid-off workers to speak at my free trade presentations last fall, they were busy hustling income. Too busy, probably, to come speak, even if I had met them back then. They are part of the “other” Ohio – the one that Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney never inquired about when they visited the Buckeye state last year. No, no. Optimistically, they made grand proclamations about the economic recovery and cried alligator tears for the unfortunates taking the brunt of their ill-conceived trade and budget policies. People like Mike and Kim don’t exist in their world, or in their consciousness. Even regular people can't relate. If I go to the job and tell my coworkers about this tomorrow, they’ll give me the glazed look. They may comment sympathetically. But this hasn't touched them personally. Yet.

This experience may never touch everyone at the same time, and the extent to which it touches people will depend on many factors. But I believe it's going to happen everywhere. It’s going to happen sure as shit because as jobs flow to foreign countries and we let in more foreigners, and we keep importing more than we export, it couldn’t not happen. Christ, it's just insane. The whole damn country is in debt - the governments, the financial institutions, the people (except for the ones raking in the stock options while they languish in prison without gourmet dinners – sorry, Martha.) Oh yeah. A gnarly global hairball is about to get coughed up. Yet people go about their business as if nothing is wrong.

Well, it is wrong. And, the sooner the moralists (who are more worried at the moment about a dying woman’s feeding tube) wake up and admit it’s wrong, and admit they were wrong to put their faith in these SOBs who are stealing us blind, the better chance we'll have. In fact, they had better pray they wake up in time to turn things around.

I filled out a survey recently that asked what sorts of jobs this area needs the most. I clicked on “jobs for non-college educated workers, manual labor.” Screw the technology crap. You can own all kinds of geeky techno-gadgets, but if you can’t pump water, heat and light your home, power factories and hospitals – you are up shit crick. Forget the paddle. Start rowing with your hands.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

On Tapping 'Fountains of Unorthodox Ideas'

‘The ease with which we routinely string together appropriate words during a conversation should leave no doubt that our brains are fundamentally creative. What scientists are trying to discover is why the engine of inspiration seems to be always in high gear in some people while others struggle…The right hemisphere’s divergent thinking underlies our ability to be creative. Curiosity, love of experimentation, playfulness, risk taking, mental flexibility, metaphorical thinking, aesthetics—all these qualities play a central role. But why does creativity remain so elusive? Everyone has a right hemisphere, so we all should be fountains of unorthodox ideas. Consider that most children abound in innovative energy: a table and an old blanket transform into a medieval fortress, while the vacuum cleaner becomes the knight’s horse and a yardstick a sword. Research suggests that we start our young lives as creativity engines but that our talent is gradually repressed. Schools place overwhelming emphasis on teaching children to solve problems correctly, not creatively. This skewed system dominates our first 20 years of life: tests, grades, college admission, degrees and job placements demand and reward targeted logical thinking, factual competence, and language and math skills—all purviews of the left brain. The propensity for convergent thinking becomes increasingly internalized, at the cost of creative potential.’
--From a cover story on cognitive research and creativity in the current issue of Scientific American Mind

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Quality of His Mind

'Writers we admire and re-read are absorbed into the fine print of our consciousness, into the white noise of our thoughts, and in this sense, they can never die. Saul Bellow started publishing in the 1940's, and his work spreads across the century he helped to define. He also redefined the novel, broadened it, liberated it, made it warm with human sense and wit and grand purpose. Henry James once proposed an obvious but helpful truth: "the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer." We are saying farewell to a mind of unrivalled quality. He opened our universe a little more. We owe him everything.'
--From British novelist Ian McEwan's touching
send-off to Saul Bellow, in last week's NYT

Monday, April 04, 2005

PD Breaks 52-Year Pulitzer Dry Spell

We've just learned this morning that Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz (click here for her online column archive) has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, only the second Pulitzer in the newspaper's history. The foundation that oversees the awards, housed at Columbia University, is expected to make a formal announcement later today. Contrary to general belief, the PD has won one Pulitzer already, way back in 1953, in the editorial cartoon category. But that hasn't prevented dozens of commentators and journalists over the years from routinely repeating the erroneous information that the paper is without a Pulitzer in its history.

Schultz is a special writer. After divorcing her one-time law professor, she subsequently raised her daughter mostly alone, while pursuing a freelance writing career. She joined the PD as a reporter in 1993, becoming a columnist nearly three years ago. The last couple of years have been busy for her: she married Congressman Sherrod Brown, won a Batten prize for her feature writing and a Robert F. Kennedy prize for social justice reporting, and also became a Pulitzer finalist. Raised in a blue collar family in Ashtabula, she has written often and well about the challenges of those at the lower reaches of the economy. Her campaign against restaurants and other service institutions that divert tips from the wait staff caused a special stir, and led many embarrassed establishments to reform their practices. She became the first in her family to attend college, graduating from Kent State University with a journalism degree.

Over the years, her outspoken feminism and unabashed bleeding-heart liberalism has made her something of a target among conservatives. She's written occasionally about the mounds of hate mail she receives. Earlier this year, Ch. 19 "news" mistakenly reported that she was among several PD columnists to be fired from the paper. But she's not without her detractors even among those in journalism. In a Cleveland Magazine profile a couple of years ago, written by PD contributor Kathleen Murphy Colan (a piece which itself subsequently won a journalism award), Schultz was described as an often difficult, occasionally intimidating newsroom figure who was known to sometimes throw her weight around to get what she wanted.

But mostly, this Pulitzer represents a recognition by the national journalism fraternity that the PD and other Newhouse-owned papers have turned something of a corner. Reviled and dismissed for years by their counterparts in the industry for a lack of quality and a heavy-handed domination of the newsroom by the business side (once an especially chronic problem in Cleveland), the Newhouse chain in recent years has won grudging respect for a change of attitude without which this Pulitzer would never have been awarded (the chain now even has a representative on the Pulitzer selection board, the editor of the Times-Picayune, Jim Amoss). Even as publicly owned chains such as the once-respected Knight-Ridder have gone through several rounds of painful cost-cutting, the privately owned Newhouse chain has gone in the other direction, steadily recruiting to its major papers (in Cleveland, Portland, Oregon and New Orleans) nationally respected top editors from elsewhere, who have slowly but unmistakably raised the respect level of these properties by gaining additional independence from the business side. The PD recruited Doug Clifton to the top job from Knight-Ridder's well-regarded Miami Herald, and he in turn recruited Stuart Warner from K-R's Akron Beacon Journal, where he had been part of a Pulitzer-winning team. Warner subsequently became Schultz's editor. The Portland Oregonian even added an ombudsman some time ago, and only yesterday, the PD announced it was doing the same (even though the choice of Ted Diadiun was unusual insofar as he is a longtime member of the top editorial staff, rather than someone with a degree of independence).

Many of these changes can be attributed to Steve Newhouse, the 40ish, Yale-educated son of Donald (the brother who has historically overseen the chain's newspapers, while his brother S.I. oversaw its more glamorous magazine properties). If one person (other than Connie, of course) can be said to have helped win this award, which is the clubby journalism world's top honor and chief method for signalling its collective approval, it is he. He is said to have steadily gained increasing management responsibilities in recent years, and he has pushed for the kinds of operational changes at the family-owned papers that would make the Newhouse name something other than a synonym for poor-quality newspapering. In that, he has begun to make real headway, and this Pulitzer is high-profile proof of that.

I say, congratulations all around.