Sunday, March 26, 2006

We're Three Years Old

Three years ago today, I distinctly remember thinking that things had hit a crossroads.

That was true for me personally, as well as for my country. A week earlier, the U.S. military had marched into a war in Iraq that really didn’t make much sense, and need not have happened. At least that's what I thought then, and nothing has changed my mind since.

As for me, I was burned out and bummed out. I was flat-out depressed about the state of journalism in my hometown, with so-called “alternative weeklies” gone all to hell (becoming part of chains and often acting as clueless and lost as the big corporate media they were created to critique and challenge). It had forced me a few years before that to begin to seriously investigate web-based publishing as a way around those hurdles. I'd been bewitched by its possibilities ever since the mid-'90s, at least since reading a long piece in my favorite magazine, the New Yorker, written by one of my favorite writers, Ken Auletta, about one of my favorite people, Michael Kinsley.

In this illuminating piece, Auletta brilliantly described how the longtime print legend (who had been editor of The New Republic in its glory days) went on a voyage of discovery about the possibilities of web publishing, as founding editor of I soon spent almost a year, mostly self-funded when I didn't have much in the way of funds, further investigating that and how I might do it myself. That led to a couple of wild ventures finding me, including one (archived here) in which I briefly oversaw a half-million editorial budget to develop web content. It ran out of venture funding quickly, but not before I had absorbed about 60 years worth of education about the web in six months. That, and another later venture proved to be too big and too fancy. All I really needed or wanted was to publish my own writing on the web, but it didn't seem to be in the cards. I went back to other things.

My work was suffering, though. Three years ago, I was beginning to drift off in different directions, some more interesting than others. But there was little coherence to the various things I was doing. Most importantly, I was bringing no joy to the work, and it showed.

Still, I continued to read widely from the web. On March 26th of '03, I noticed that Gary Hart had begun a blog. I knew it was time for me to do the same—I figured I had at least as much to say, and lots more experience saying it (he’s long since given up and gone on to other things). With the free tools now available, I didn't need a webmaster or a budget. All I had to do was pay for my own time with other projects, which I knew I could do.

But what to call it?

I spent precious little time thinking about that. I wanted a name that would be large enough to cover most of what I did and cared about, but still specific enough to give readers a sense of what they could expect from the experience. On some level, I think I also at least dimly understood that this name could well become the name under which my entire writing practice (which includes journalism, the right bit of judiciously selected marketing communications, book ghostwriting, teaching and mentoring) could one day be housed. After possibly five minutes of thinking about it, I chose Working With Words. While I didn’t know what I was beginning, I still knew enough to understand that it would be an adventure of sorts, and that it would all be pursued squarely in the spirit of my uber mentor, Bill Zinsser. And so in my first entry I nodded to both.

I have of course written of many things in the three years since I began, but this entry on April 10th, just two weeks into it, brought them all together, in a kind of pleasing harmonic convergence. I noted that a single discordant voice in the media, NPR correspondent Ann Garrels, seemed at odds with the rest of her media colleagues in describing the scene in Iraq. It went like this:

The world and all its media are awash today in images of victory in Baghdad, and they all seem to center on that now-famous toppled statue of Saddam. It led all the newschannels, was repeated on continuous loop on the 24-hour cable stations, and a color photo was above the fold of today's N.Y. Times, once known as the "gray lady" before switching to color not so very long ago.That single image, of course, was supplemented by all the related scenes of crowds jubilantly whooping it up, kissing each other and U.S. soldiers when they weren't hauling off as much looted booty as they could carry. You had to look, watch or listen pretty hard to find a subtler reality that wasn't remotely consistent with what you thought you had learned from all those TV and even print images. The veteran war correspondent Anne Garrels, asked this morning on NPR about the mood in Baghdad, said that actually the city's mood was "subdued," and that most people were actually fearful, largely staying home in worried anticipation of what might happen next. And so it would seem that in a vast city of about five million people (roughly the size of Philadelphia), all those celebratory photos and TV footage didn't really suggest the larger reality. Sorry, I hate to be a contrarian here, but I'll have to trust the veteran Anne G.--whom I've watched and listened to for perhaps 20 years, and who is forced because of the medium in which she works to go well beyond the compelling visual image--to tell me what's really going on there.

Today, I especially like that entry, not only because it seems at least a tad prophetic, but also because it shows that we can discern much about life and about the future, if only we know which voices to listen to more closely than others. Ann Garrels later went on to write a fine book about the war. But she typifies the kind of experienced journalistic voice, armed with a finely tuned BS detector, a deep sense of history and an independent streak that forces her to do her own homework, that Working With Words likes to celebrate. And her home, NPR, one of the ever-shrinking number of places that still encourages those things, has only gotten better since (thank you, Mrs. Krok). Which is why I like to celebrate that organization every chance I get.

I’ve used this forum to call attention to great writing and storytelling, to encourage those who are just beginning to those at the top of their games, from people I know to those I’d only admired as a reader. I’ve tested my beliefs, advocated on behalf of a few causes and institutions I like, thought out loud, and posed questions I was myself trying to answer. In the process, I've found a few answers, but even more interesting questions. These things travel in circular rather than linear fashion, after all.

When, last fall, I added photos and the ability for readers to leave comments, it opened an entirely new window on this conversation. Now, I could add the haunting, ghostly visage of Thoreau to the words one day, or inject the face of the jaunty, eternally bemused Mark Twain the next. I could pepper the proceedings with the image of a cover from a book or magazine I wanted to recommend, or throw in Hillary Clinton's face just for the sheer bloody hell of it. And through the comments, I could let readers sound off directly on what they had just read, pose questions for me or others, or just say hello. And have they ever.

The viral nature of this medium, and the power of Google, has enlivened things immensely. Unlike just about every other blogger I’ve ever known or heard about, I have never known for a moment what my readership traffic is, how many people visit and when. But I hear from my audience in other ways. I'm constantly heartened by running into people who know me through my blog (and others who knew me from another life but have been reunited through stumbling over it). I’ve heard from New York Times reporters (during the power outage of August ’03) who wrongly assumed I was a techie just because I had a blog. I’ve even had the good fortune to have this blog be the missing link in returning some family heirlooms to a friend (he left them behind in his home after selling it, and the buyers had been trying to find him ever since. When I wrote about him, they found it through Google, and asked me to forward a note to him).

It’s a rare gift to be able to make one’s living from arranging words. No matter how long I do it, I’ll never take it for granted, not for a second. After all, I know too many people who dream of such a life. Judging from the writer’s magazines one flips through at the bookstore (and extrapolating from the writing conferences I've attended), there are literally millions in this country alone. While most of them may well harbor unreal notions of what such a life entails, there is no getting around the fact that those who can do it should count themselves among the truly blessed. And I do.

Someone once asked me when I decided I would become a writer, for which I had a stock answer: writers (myself included) tend to discover they are writers more than set out with a plan to become one. But the more I thought about it, the more pat that answer seemed to be, and the more I figured I owed someone a better answer next time. In time, I came to remember the first time I told someone about my writing plans.

It was more than 20 years ago, and I was in Italy with my then-girlfriend, now wife. We spent six gorgeous summer weeks backpacking through Europe, two weeks of it staying with my grandmother, in her 15th-century hilltop village overlooking the Adriatic. It was a place of impossible contrasts, with charming old women silently sweeping out the ancient church, the "Duomo" as they called it, seemingly in 24-hour volunteer shifts, while a few hundred yards below, thousands of German tourists outfitted in the latest fashions vied for an open spot on the beach to pitch their umbrellas.

I was taking it all in on a sun-soaked, windswept back porch of a distant cousin whom I had never met before, but who now seemed closer to me than a sister after just 48 hours together. And her mom, knowing I had graduated from college not long before, asked me about my career plans. The Abbruzi sky was cloudless that day, the Adriatic sea lapping at the coastline in all its azure-blue perfection.

“Escritor,” I said, making a squiggly motion with my fingers as if writing, just in case I had chosen the wrong word (as it turns out, I had added an “e” at the front that didn’t belong). I couldn’t have known what that really meant at the time, but there it was: I’d made my intentions public.

In the years since, the Lord has heaped more on my writing plate than I could have ever known to ask for in the first place. More humbling still, I have the feeling that this work is only just now beginning to get interesting, as I emerge from my more than two decades of writing apprenticeship—that long, painful march when one learns the basics of one's chosen trade--and begin taking things up a notch. And this modest piece of virtual real estate, Working With Words, has helped make it all happen. It's given focus to my work, tied together various strands and disparate audiences. It has nourished my many sides—writer, editor, teacher, critic, mentor and crank—even as it has helped me find new audiences and, best of all, has knitted me more closely with likeminded friends and fellow civic agitators/innovators. Our work and fun--there is no easy way to distinguish between the two--is only just beginning.

I’m looking forward to the next three years.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

From First George W to Current George W:
A Study in the Decline of Presidential Vision

This progression of lofty thoughts from a number of U.S. presidents says it all.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Doctor Will See You Now

'If you haven't been practicing creativity as a lifestyle, don't expect to be creative on demand. It's unfair to the brain. A lot of creativity is about preparation.'
--my friend Jack Ricchiuto, the Following Your Bliss guru, speaking (and brilliantly, I might add) at a writer's conference last year.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Advantage to the Least Dignified

'There is some advantage in being the humblest, cheapest, least dignified man in the village, so that the very stable boys shall damn you. Methinks I enjoy that advantage to an unusual extent.'
--Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

They're On Sabattical, But We'll Wait

A couple of friends who are powerful thinkers, doers and communicators in their very different (but thoroughly compatible) niches have gone on long blogging sabatticals. Here's hoping that both Ron Copfer and Mary Beth Matthews get back to their blogs when they're good and ready to do so. Their insights are so valuable because their activities are so varied and vital, so I want to cut them the maximum break possible. Ron is one of the region's leading web entrepreneurs, and also likes to stick his nose in the political realm from time to time, when he's not sounding off in regional policy planning councils. MB is, hands-down, our leading figure to bear witness from inside the front lines of the urban classroom. I'm hungering to learn what they're both thinking on a bunch of issues. Then again, maybe that's all the excuse I'd need to invite them both to lunch sometime and hear about it all in person. But given their energy, those could well prove to be two of the longest lunches in recorded history.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Childrens Defense Fund's Edelman at JCU:
Jail is Fast Becoming New Form of Slavery

With America stubbornly refusing to spend the relatively modest amounts it would take to make it a developed nation insofar as meeting the basic needs of poor children, incarceration is becoming the new form of slavery in this country, the Childrens Defense Fund's Marian Wright Edelman said last week in an appearance at John Carroll University.

The Plain Dealer publicized her March 13th visit in a brief squib beforehand, but apparently never covered her remarks.

Her visit was part of the usual multiculti affairs sort of thing, but it drew an impressive crowd of at least 200. And this is an institution, unfortunately, in much need of her message. John Carroll's new president is said to be particularly embarrassed by a couple of high-profile racial incidents on campus soon after he took over, and he recently announced a plan to fund 100 inner-city high school kids on full scholarships, by far the most ambitious move JCU has ever made in that direction. It's all the more impressive because it comes at a time when the university is being forced to cut its budget.

But neither that new minority scholarship investment nor the university's decision to sponsor City Club programs (another good move, I think) will be enough in themselves to get this university fully engaged with the region's challenges, as any self-respecting Jesuit institution should and must be. The Gund Foundation's #2 official, Bob Jaquay, a JCU graduate, has been known to complain that John Carroll is just "not part of the conversation" about the region (he should know--he's in the middle of most of it). And downtown Cleveland councilman Joe Cimperman, also a John Carroll grad, once told me how disappointed he was in then-president Ed Glynn for having wasted a meeting with then-Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell, which he had arranged, mostly chit-chatting about trivia.

Edelman's group, the Children's Defense Fund, is spending considerable time in Ohio just now. In June, it expects to release a report, to be called "The Cradle to Prison Pipeline," which uses Ohio as one of just two states being examined for the way it incarcerates minorities. She gave an early peak at the findings: "Ohio ends up not looking good at all. I hope you'll raise a ruckus."

The CDF's founder said "we're criminalizing children at earlier and earlier ages, who clearly just need some help." She said that some juvenile judges her organization has talked to say they sometimes can't initially see the kids they're sentencing, because they're not old enough or tall enough to appear above the sightline of the bench.

Edelman, who is married to the one-time JFK aide Peter Edelman (who once resigned his post as assistant secretary for health and human services in the Clinton administration in protest over welfare reform), drew applause when she complained that the U.S. can find $8.8 billion in next year's budget for the failed "Star Wars" missile defense program but not enough to meet poor childrens' basic needs. "We do not have a money problem in America, but we do have a morals and values problem...The budget is really the rorschach test--you just follow the money, and you'll find out what we really believe." She drew the largest applause of the evening when she decried Republican attempts to replace federal poverty programs with charity. "The Constitution doesn't say 'with liberty and charity for all.' It says 'with liberty and justice...'"

President Bush's "faith-based" initiative program, she concluded, is just one big shell game. "They're taking it from one place (in the budget) and putting it in another. Meanwhile, they're cutting tens of billions of dollars from the safety net."

Monday, March 20, 2006

A Dozen Years Later, TNR Changes its Mind

The cover teaser says it all: 'TNR's Health Care Flip-Flop.' In this week's New Republic, the magazine re-thinks its 1994 opposition to universal health care coverage with a strongly written editorial whose headline puts it bluntly: "Moral Imperative." Here, in part, is what it says:
'Over the last 25 years, liberalism has lost both its good name and its sway over politics. But it is liberalism's loss of imagination that is most disheartening. Since President Clinton's health care plan unraveled in 1994--a debacle that this magazine, regretably, abetted--liberals have grown chastened and confused, afraid to think big ideas. Such reticence had its proper time and place; large-scale politically substantive failures demand introspection, not to mention humility. But it is time to be ambitious again. And the place to begin is the very spot where liberalism left off a decade ago: Guaranteeing every American citizen acces to affordable, high-quality medical care. The familiar name for this idea is 'univesal health care,' a term that, however accurate, drains the concept of its moral resonance. Alone among the most developed nations, the U.S. allows nearly 16% of its population--46 million people--to go without health insurance.'

Take a bow, TNR. The reference to its one-time abetting of the opposition to what was then called "Hillarycare" was an article the magazine ran (over much internal opposition) in 1994. Entitled "No Exit," it was written by Elizabeth McCaughy, a fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute. The article was so widely read and commented upon that it truly did play a crucial role in stopping the plan. As Slate's media critic Jack Shafer recently wrote, with the explosion of outlets carrying political commentary, TNR can never hope to reclaim the kind of central role it once played at the intersection of politics and the media. But it's still good that the editors have decided to rethink at least some of their move to the right in recent years.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

On Being True to the Dreams of One's Youth

In the current issue of the Catholic intellectual journal First Things, Notre Dame philosophy professor Ralph McInerny, author of the popular Father Dowling mysteries, writes beautifully about his years-long writing apprenticeship. The essay is adapted from his upcoming autobiography, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You: My Life & Pastimes.
'And so it began. In the basement was a workbench, unlikely to serve its original purpose for me. It became my desk. It was L-shaped. I plunked my typewriter on the short leg of the L and, standing, began. Every night after we put the kids to bed, I would go downstairs and write from 10 until about 2 in the morning. The markets I was chiefly interested in were Redbook, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping.'

He ends this way:
'Perhaps it was the economic spur that turned me into a professional writer and drove my nightly, dogged efforts in the basement of our house on Portage Avenue, learning to write publishable stories, but after I gained my immediate objective and had us out of debt, I continued to write at what might seem a frantic pace. If I asked myself how many novels I have published, I could not answer--and I do not really want to know. Herman Melville's career, after knowing highs, went into decline and he was all but forgotten when he wrote his late novella Billy Budd. In his portable writing desk there was found a motto: Be true to the dreams of your youth. I like to think it sustained him as he wrote on in undeserved obscurity. Finally, that is what any writer does, return again and again to the original aspiration that came to him when young. It is the writing, producing a well-made story, that counts. All the rest is gravy.'

Saturday, March 18, 2006

How Sabbath's Rock Poetry
Stirred the Soul of Miles B

I'd be hard-pressed to think of a subject I care less about than heavy metal rock music. Maybe gardening and the history of urology would ordinarily bore me even more, but it's close. And yet great writing has the unique ability to make one care about any subject at all, either because it evokes memories and explores themes that are more universal to the human experience, or because it uses language in such gorgeously evocative ways that it grabs you and doesn't let you go. Or both.

Working With Words reader and occasional commenter Milenko Budimir, a.k.a. Miles B, (click here and scroll down to read his poem "Rustbelt Romance") has just published one such bit of writing in the current issue of Northern Ohio Live. It's a stunning tribute to the band Black Sabbath (on the occasion of its induction into the Rock Hall) and what its lyrics meant to him as a working-class kid. Because the piece is not online, I'll reprint it in its entirety below (good for you for publishing such wonderful stuff, Sarah Sphar). I hope this piece is one day reprinted in an anthology of the best writing to come from this town. It's really that melt-in-your-mouth good. Just listen to it:
This month, after years of being overlooked, turned away and being rejected seven different times, Black Sabbath will finally be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I, for one, welcome them. And I think the four blokes from Birmingham, England--known as the "workshop of the world" during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution--would understand Cleveland.

While noted for its showmanship and horror-movie imagery, what really set Sabbath apart from other bands of the early 1970s was its unmistakable sound: the menacing weight and raw power that laid the foundation for heavy metal, with Ozzy Osbourne's otherworldly voice hovering over it all.

Maybe it was having their early lives forged in a town surrounded by the sounds of industry, but whatever it was, the world that music opened up was darker and seemed closer to the reality that I and many of the working people around me knew so well. The band's lead guitarist, Tony Iommi, who lost the tips of two fingers in an industrial accident, was someone I could understand. Hell, some of my father's best friends had missing fingers. I understood what Black Sabbath was signing about in
"Killing Yourself to Live," because I could look at my father working six days a week, and it made sense.

Oddly enough, mixed with the usual adolescent rebellion, it let me see my parents in a different, almost sympathetic light. For the most part, my friends and I were not from the affluent or upper middle class, were not considered well off. We were the sons of machinists and housewives, factor workers, Vietnam vets, bookies, hardscrabble entrepreneurs whose parents and grandparents hailed from lands with Slavic tongues

It all made sense somehow.

Many times, I'd lie alone on my bed in the dark, oversized Sony headphones cupping my ears, a single red LED light glowing from the stereo, and lose myself in the music. It made me understand something essential about the world. Something that no sugary pop song could ever do. That sometimes things don't work out for the best. That maybe, yes, drugs and alcohol seem like the only way to deal with your rotten life. It was like getting advice from a big brother or an older friend who understands, yet doesn't condemn.

The world isn't fair, they were saying, and people often get crushed under the weight of their lives or their work, or by dumb luck. And yet, despite it all, it's worth carrying on, surviving to live another day.

And for that insight learned so long ago, Black Sabbath has my eternal thanks.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Some Stats on St. Pat's

Did you know that 34 million Americans claim Irish ancestry? (I thought there were that many on the near west side of Cleveland alone). Or that in three states (Delaware, Massachusetts and New Hampshire) more people claim Irish ancestry than any other? These and other facts and figures can be found in this research assembled by the U.S. Census Bureau. Who says the federal government isn't responsive to your most urgent needs?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

March Madness: The Book Review

College hoops' annual tournament begins today, culminating later this month with the Final Four championship weekend. I reviewed John Feinstein's book about the annual festivities, Last Dance, for the Christian Science Monitor. More book reviews for that august publication, which I've long admired as a reader, but which I've never written for, are on their way. Next up: American Gospel, a book by Newsweek's managing editor Jon Meacham on the faith of our founding fathers. And speaking of the Monitor, do say a prayer for their reporter Jill Carroll, who remains in captivity in Iraq more than two months after she was kidnapped. Read the update here.

Monday, March 13, 2006

How Many Have You Read?

I'm gearing up for another trip to New York City next month, so thoughts of all my favorite Manhattan places are beginning to fill the mind during unexpected moments. And few take a back seat to the jewel of Fifth Avenue and 42nd St., the New York Public Library, guarded by those iconic twin stone lions at either side of the front door. The immense reading room, with its intricately scalloped ceiling and its hundreds of green banker's lamps is a thing of beauty, its grandeur and vibrancy difficult to explain. Just make sure you see it sometime soon, if you haven't already. The library's website contains this page listing 25 especially memorable books from 2005. How many have you read? All I'll admit to is that I have a whole lot left to discover from that list myself.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Yet Another Must-Read Book
On Bush Gang's Incompetence

The authors of a new book on the American invasion and occupation of Iraq were just interviewed by Tim Russert this morning on NBC's Meet the Press. Judging by their credentials and by the interview, this would appear to be yet one more important book to add to the growing bookcase of inside acounts about the White House gang that can't seem to do anything right.

Michael Gordon is the chief military correspondent for the New York Times, and his co-author Bernard Trainor is a retired U.S. Army general and an analyst for NBC News. They write about the five "grievious errors" made by the American military since the war began, nearly three years ago (though on the interview, they name only one--underestimating the opponent and failing to understand all the country's ethnic groups).

Gordon was especially succinct. "In my view, the American security establishment basically fought the last war," he told Russert. Gen. Trainor laid much of the blame on Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld. This all comes down to his philosophy as a businessman to do things in the most efficient manner possibly, meaning in this context with the fewest number of troops. "The military, of course, is conservative--if one is good, three is better," he noted. But should the military have pushed back harder against Rumsfeld and insisted on higher troop levels? he was asked. His answer: "Rumsfeld is a tough hombre, and he wears you down" with his style of constant questioning. Still, he ultimately conceded, the military should have fought harder to get enough soldiers to stabilize the country.

The interview (and one would presume the book itself, whose official release date is this Tuesday) was brutal on the administration and all its cronies. But the segment did end on a possible note of optimism. General Trainor said that after the recent mosque bombing, Iraqis on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide "saw a vision of the future," a vision of real civil war, which they didn't like. And so perhaps that worst-case scenario might still be averted.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Taking Pride in Our
Permanent Minority

'Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.'
--Mark Twain

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Promising Public Policy Blog

Some of my fellow bloggers and readers may have come across it already, but it was news to me until yesterday that the Center for Community Solutions now has a
blog, and has had one since last November. Good for them, I say. I'm going to make an educated guess that it's the brainchild of Rosyln Bucy Miller (who's listed as one of the authors), who has been the leading force behind its marketing outreach for years, and more recently has led its fundraising efforts. This group, which traces its roots to 1913, was until recently called the Federation for Community Planning (though dubbed the Community for Federation Planning in some circles, a joking reference to its at times inward-looking orientation), and it vied for regional leadership of the nonprofit sector with United Way and its predecessors for decades, narrowly escaping a forced merger at one point. In recent years, it has been at least a temporary home to some well-connected politicos, including Eric Fingerhut (who briefly served as an interim director after losing his seat in Congress) and Joanne Boscia, better known as Mrs. Mike White, who served as its chair for some time. Here's hoping the group uses this new communications vehicle to explore and advocate for necessary changes in the ailing social infrastructure dedicated to the disadvantaged.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Is Bush Losing It?

After Ronald Reagan left office, presidential historians, political journalists and other analysts of the presidency purported to have seen early signs of the onset of Reagan's eventual Alzheimer's disease. Could George W. Bush be following the Gipper in that department? If so, then this story may be remembered as the first tangible sign of it. Either that, or he's merely out to lunch.

Newsweek & Wolcott Hit High Notes

Newsweeklies have been a dying category for years. Time, the grandaddy of the bunch, the institution that invented the format, remains (just barely) the flagship of the largest media company in the world (sister pub People has a far higher readership and makes lots more money). And while it's still probably the best of the Big Three, it can never come close to the agenda-setting role it once played in the news media. U.S. News & World Report is of course the poor cousin of the trio. Owned by the idiot developer Mort Zuckerman, it took one last grasp at respectability a decade ago, hiring the respected Jim Fallows as editor. He cleaned house and tried to turn the ship around, but the experiment went bust after just a couple of years when Zuckerman tired of his employee's Ivy League journalism tutorial and sent him packing. Now the mag is mostly known for its annual college rankings, which produce millions in ad revenue but have been widely condemned for doing serious harm to higher education.

But Newsweek may be the biggest mystery of all. It's owned by the Washington Post Company, which is pretty good at journalism. But they've let the magazine flail around in recent years, trying to find itself by dressing up in Serious Journalism while chasing this or that passing middle class fad. The cover packages often draw titters in journalism, seeming to alternate between big, solemn coverage of pseudo trends (inevitably tarted up as the New This or the New That) or soft porn for the masses, masquerading as medical stories (funny, but breast cancer and the like always seem to get top billing). But really: Who needs all that stuff when the downmarket TV beckons?

But Newsweek partially redeemed itself last week, by producing one of its best roundup articles in years,
this stylish and well-reported piece about the mysterious soul of Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, it seems to take a half dozen of the mag's biggest guns to pull it off (see all the reporters' taglines at the end of the piece). The best part of the article: we learn that Cheney has had seven press secretaries, all apparently thoroughly scared of the guy. One was once asked if the Veep attended church on Sunday. "The spokesperson confessed she really couldn't ask the veep: the question was just 'too personal.'"

Meanwhile, Vanity Fair's ace columnist James Wolcott, who cut his teeth at the Village Voice many years ago, just keeps getting better and better. I think his column is now invariably the best thing in an otherwise very good magazine. That's partly because VF's former marquee columnist, Chris Hitchens, has been off his game for the last couple years while he's been off his rocker about the Iraq war and the Bush Administration (and media columnist Michael Wolff has never regained that must-read buzz that won him a National Magazine award back when he was writing weekly in New York Magazine). But it's also because Wolcott is a unique and remarkable talent: a polished stylist and also an incomparable cultural critic, one who routinely tackles the biggest subjects with the sharpest pen. While his VF columns are easily his best work, he also does a hell of a job on his blog. For proof, check
this coverage of the Oscars, which I found more interesting than anything I read anywhere else, online or off.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Every Writer a Thief

'Every writer is a thief, though some of us are more clever than others at disguising our robberies. The reason writers are such slow readers is that we are ceaselessly searching for things we can steal and then pass off as our own: a natty bit of syntax, a seamless transition, a metaphor that jumps to its target like an arrow shot from an aluminum crossbow.'
--from master essayist Joseph Epstein, the former editor of American Scholar, writing in The Weekly Standard.

UPDATE: Here's a nice overview, from the New York Observer's Media Mob column/blog, of the details of the real journalistic fabricators and plagiarists.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Some Tidbits That Caught My Eye at Week's End

Let the 'Trial' Begin. I say good for these kids. At the very least, they should learn something, and a whole lot more than from those mock UN debates that schools are so enamored of. Maybe the whole country will slowly begin following their lead and begin waking up from this six-year nightmare, holding this renegade administration to account.

Here's How Not to Search for a Mentor. From the casually brilliant guru of viral marketing, Seth Godin, comes a harrowing tale of a young author's search for a mentor gone bad. This made me alternately laugh and cringe. Just try to make sure you never do anything similarly bone-headed.

George Costanza is Now a....Writer. Jason Alexander, who achieved massive fame by playing my favorite character on Seinfeld, George, is apparently trying his hand at a new discipline. The poor guy has had some trouble finding his next thing (a couple of failed series). And because of his lack of ownership in the show, he's not growing nearly as rich on the rerun residuals as the show's two developers, Seinfeld and Larry David. But George always knew how to make lemonade from lemons, and his alter ego seems to have done so too. I noticed that he wrote a fun little piece a couple of weeks ago in the L.A. Times magazine. It isn't brilliant or laugh out loud funny (as his character always is to me). But it's just plain nicely done. In style and voice it reminds me just a bit of Woody Allen's celebrated ventures into comic writing in the New Yorker many years ago. Anyway, the piece made me look forward to more of the same from him. As George would say, at the top of his lungs as he charges out Jerry's apartment door and down the hall: "I'm back, baby, I'm baaack!"

A Lovely Reminder That Spring Will Come,
And that Dazzling Writers Are in Our Midst

'There's something about sunshine and writing -- that early morning golden and quiet stillness. There's something about that yellow wake-up call that fills the imagination like a comfortable cup of coffee. It nudges the little spirit -- that muse or garden gnome or faery or whatever it is that slips ideas into your head, deposits them like quirky, unexpected postcards when your brain is not crammed with to-do list chores. Before alarm clocks buzz, toasters pop, newspapers slap concrete porches, traffic shoves into the fast lane...there's a window of Om. Time when the mind can whisper those ideas that marinate during the night. Uninterrupted. And this morning, in particular, "Delilah the Dell" is drinking them up.'
--from an impossibly lovely passage in my friend Kristen Hampshire's blog, Write Life. To view more of her wondrous stuff, be on the lookout for the young bard of Lakewood's byline in Cleveland Magazine, Smart Business, Inside Business, Entrepreneur Magazine, the PD, Fortune Small Business and many other pubs. She's a dynamo, and always worth reading.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

To Be the Best Writer You Can Be,
He Recommends Hitting the Sauce

'Many people -- and I think I am one of them -- are more productive when they've had a little to drink. I find if I drink two or three brandies, I'm far better able to write.'--David Ogilvy

For the last several weeks, I've been helping a large advertising agency redevelop a website for one of its clients, a Fortune 500 company (I'll add a link when it goes live, perhaps in a couple of weeks). It's been both a fun and demanding project (not mutually exclusive concepts) in which I've learned much and met some marvelous people. But one thing struck me early on: this agency, in a business where staff is routinely expected to sometimes work long hours depending on project demands, has plenty of free consumables (food and beverages, including free esspresso machines) on hand to take the edge off. So far so good. But I was still a bit taken aback to see that beer was among the freebies. That is, until I came across the above quote yesterday in an email newsletter, from a man who's considered the father of the advertising business. If he says it works, who are we mere mortals to argue? I'm just glad the brandy has been updated to beer for the current generation.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Alan Alda for President

At the height of its popularity, which seems a very long time ago, the TV program West Wing functioned almost as a form of video catharsis for liberals and progressives. Sure, we had a deeply ignorant frat boy who somehow weasled his way into the Oval Office, which was an embarrassing stain on our national pride and our sense of ourselves as a smart, progressive people. But at least we always had the whip-smart, Nobel-winning, wearing-his-heart-on-his sleeve Jed Bartlett to fall back on, a reminder of the kind of best-of-us brilliance we could have in the White House if only we were better at selecting presidents. For me, at least, it seemed more than a little pathetic to cling to such a thin reed in the face of the brutal reality, but if it worked for others, god bless 'em, I figured.

I haven't thought about that show in quite a while, and neither have a lot of others, judging by the fact that NBC recently decided to pull the plug at the end of this (it's seventh) season. I'm surely not alone in believing that the show lost most of its zing after the monomaniacal Aaron Sorkin (who nursed a nasty drug habit for years) stopped writing the scripts. Or possibly the show's central theme--that our best national qualities not only should but can be reflected in our highest leaders--finally created too much cognitive dissonance, given the brutal realities of the gang that now occupies the White House. Probably, it was some of each.

Still, I do flip across the show's repeats occasionally, and yesterday I stopped for a moment to watch. Alan Alda, who played a Republican Senator who hoped to succeed Bartlett in the White House, was accepting the party's presidential nomination, and he surprised his Democratic antagonists (who were watching on TV) with some uncharacteristic grace and eloquence about the office. He called the presidency more than a series of policy statements and political positions. "It's a stewardship, a sacred trust." Which of course it is.

But here was my next thought: do you think the deeply, even proudly unreflective George W. Bush has ever stopped for one moment in the last six years to considered his job in that way?