Sunday, September 30, 2007

Rokakis on Disastrous Consequences
For Slavic Village of Foreclosure Crisis

'Twenty years ago, the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland was a tightly knit community of first- and second-generation Polish and Czech immigrants. Today, it's in danger of becoming a ghost town, largely because a swarm of speculators, real estate agents, mortgage brokers and lenders saw an opportunity to make a buck there. You could say it was because of them that 12-year-old Asteve' "Cookie" Thomas lost her life on Sept. 1, shot in Slavic Village when she stumbled into the crossfire of suspected drug dealers. The neighborhood wasn't always a haven for criminals -- not until hundreds of foreclosures destabilized the community. Houses (800 at last count) and then entire streets were abandoned. Crime increased as vacant properties offered shelter to people who had a reason to hide...Cities aren't asking for a bailout; they're asking for emergency funds to address the huge costs they've incurred because a private-sector industry was out of control. Congress needs to help the cities that helped make this country great -- cities like Detroit and Cleveland.'
--Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, in a heart-felt article published in today's Washington Post. He proves here again why he would be the best possible choice to serve as mayor of Cleveland, if he could ever somehow work up enough fire in the belly to run.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Body of Knowledge

'Women go after doctors the way we go after models. They want knowledge of the body; we just want the body.'
--Jerry Seinfeld. Go here to review an earlier quote from our leading comedian-philosopher of the sexes.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Cleveland's East-West Divide: An Essay

The October issue of Northern Ohio Live, due in mailboxes and on newstands any moment now, will contain a back-page essay I wrote, on the subject of Cleveland's historic divisions between east and west sides. It's a subject I began engaging with in this space last year here, and the reader comments were so enthusiastic and so interesting that I knew I should return to it. As I note, we now have a south side as well, which of course we've always had. But I don't remember anyone acknowledging or talking about that much until recent years. Anyway, thanks to my friend Jim Kukral, the omnivorous Cleveland-based web evangelist, for parking this file on his server temporarily. Also thanks to Sarah at Live, for finally going ahead and taking the dive with a back-page essay each month, an idea I've been quietly agitating about for a few years. But most of all, thank you dear readers, for joining this conversation occasionally, and thus adding to my knowledge base. I couldn't do it without you.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Thursday Odds & Ends

Here are a few things I've come across lately that I thought worth sharing. Each one hit my interest in some way or another.

The Breast Writer in America. Novelist Phillip Roth, in a rare broadcast interview on NPR's Fresh Air show this week, observed that "the body has been just as much a landscape (for me) as Newark, New Jersey (his hometown)." This is a man, after all, who wrote an entire book in which he imagined being a woman's breast. He also said "a journalist is as different from a novelist as anything can be." Three guesses which type of writer the famously arrogant Roth thinks is superior.

The New Straight Talk Express? Now that John McCain has given up talking straight, perhaps he could cede the nickname of his former campaign bus to a Senate colleague. West Virginia's venerable Senator Robert Byrd, who now ranks as the second-longest serving U.S. Senator in American history, may have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan as a young man. But he does have a distinct way of ignoring all the normal syrupy niceties of the position and instead simply calling things what they are. "Congress has already appropriated $450 billion for this nefarious, infernal war," he said publicly the other day, in response to the White House's official request for yet more billions for Iraq. We could use a little more straight talk like that.

Bing There, Done That. Stanley Bing, the pen name for a CBS p.r. executive, has been writing witty, literate, edgy stuff about corporate life for years, first in a column for Esquire (or was it GQ?) and now in Fortune. I noticed the other day that he also has a blog, where he expands on his fine-tuned ruminations. He also draws an amazing number of comments. Anyway, it's worth checking out.

Logrolling In Our Times Gets a Refresh. It was once famously observed of Sir Christopher Wren, architect of London's St. Paul's Cathedral, that 'if you seek his monument, look around you.' The late, great Spy Magazine was like that in the journalism and magazine field. Even though it's been dead for many years, it was so beloved that people still talk about it more than some magazines that have survived. Co-founders Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter put out a coffee table book about the mag not long ago, and this site archives much of its stuff for fans. But the magazine remains alive in more than just memory banks. Many of its best innovations have since become widely used tropes in media, like the separated-at-birth photos of famous people who look eerily alike. But one of my favorite wicked delights was a regular feature called "Logrolling in Our Times," which documented mediocre writers who mutually showered each others' books in fawning bookcover blurb praise, failing to disclose that their own work had previously been materially advanced by the praise of counterparts. Some bloggers I know are guilty of this. Sometimes it's harmless, other times obnoxious. But always, it reminds me of how Spy would have savaged the practice with its sharp needle.

A Couple of Interesting Citizen-J Initiatives. The Sunlight Foundation does excellent work on trying to induce more transparency in government. One of its most important initiatives is this site, which tracks Congressional earmarks. Those corrupt end runs around the normal legislative process actually figured (at least in a small way) in my deciding to leave a job some years ago. I'll tell that story some day soon. In the meantime, though, do check out this site. And while I haven't yet looked around this Hispanic citizen journalism site much, I do love its great design and especially its catchy name, the Quepassa News Network (Spanish for what's up?)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Anton Zuiker: 'Quiet Visionary' & 'Local Brand'

I've been telling you for years about the humble brilliance of my friend Anton Zuiker, whose life and work embody the highest form of servant leadership. The best part about him is that he's never satisfied: somehow he keeps topping himself. The last time he came through town, he filled me in on the mind-numbing progress of his science blogging conference in North Carolina's Research Triangle. After the initial annual event, which drew scientists from around the country, he landed a sizable foundation grant to help underwrite the second one, scheduled for January (participants will be coming from as far away as Sweden for that one).

So I'm especially pleased that North Carolina's largest newspaper, Charlotte's News & Observer (he lives 150 miles away in Durham) has recognized what a gem he is. In a recent piece, it had this to say about him: "The Web has evolved into a tribal Internet of passionate bloggers like Zuiker, and he has become a sort-of local brand. He's a quiet visionary. He's a low-key doer. He's a let's-get-together-and-see-where-this-goes guy. It's the Zuikers of this new, interwoven world who may play a significant role in determining how far Web 2.0 goes from being a sociable network to a social force...A couple of years ago, Zuiker and several other Triangle bloggers began to reach out to other bloggers in the region to talk about everything from the techie part of creating a blog to content, style and their wide-ranging interests. The group became and would have periodic gatherings, barbecues and even a bowling meet-up."

Last year, he wrote this interesting piece for the same paper. Last week, he hosted a fellow former Northern Ohio Live editor, author Michael Ruhlman, for a food blogging event. Next month, he'll be a presenter at the uniquely stimulating Converge South conference in nearby Greensboro, where he'll talk about yet another of his online initiatives. And he does all this while holding down a fulltime job and being a great dad to two small girls. Like I said--servant leadership.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Born Again by Reading

'When you learn to read you will be born again...and you will never be quite so alone again.'
--the late British author Rumer Godden. You can learn more about her here.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Meeting Readers in New Places

Two of America's best and most important writers, the New York Times' Paul Krugman and the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, now have blogs. Krugman, a world-class economist, shows some commercial savvy by giving his blog the same name as his upcoming book, The Conscience of a Liberal. Hertzberg, an impossibly lucid and passionate writer who once served as a presidential speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, stands out for his elegant style and sensible take on things, even in the talent-rich environment of the New Yorker. I recommend them both.

Meanwhile, has recently launched Wide Open, an interesting experiment in pro-am online collaboration, in which it will host (in unedited fashion) four prominent independent political bloggers. It's the latest example of where the profession is headed: so-called "networked journalism," taking the best of print and online, and independent and traditional journalists, and serving them up in new and imaginative ways. That might make the lazy and/or paranoid hacks in both camps nervous, but so be it. In fact, the guy who coined the networked journalism term, Buzzmachine's Jeff Jarvis, has organized a conference on the subject next month in New York. It will be supported by none other than the visionary McArthur Foundation, famous for its "genius grants." Anyway, good luck to all these geniuses.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Fruitful Miracle

'I believe that reading, in its original essence, is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.'
--Marcel Proust

Friday, September 21, 2007

Get Those Sample Post Mag
Columns In By October 15th

In a new movie, Resurrecting the Champ, Josh Hartnett plays a young sportswriter struggling to break out of the shadow of his famous, deceased father, a radio personality. He finally does so by writing a breakthrough cover piece on a former boxer for the Denver newspaper's Sunday magazine. In a bit of improbable Hollywood far-fetchery (my own coinage), the article gets noticed so widely that he's immediately offered a gig on network TV.

In the real world, network TV producers aren't generally scouring regional newspapers for the next big thing. More to the point, there are precious few newspaper Sunday magazines left standing. As recently as 1990, approximately 50 American newspapers had them. That number was down to about half that by 2000, and now the number is probably closer to a dozen. In Cleveland, the PD closed its magazine in late 2005, following a general trend across the country. The Akron Beacon-Journal closed its magazine years earlier.

But the Washington Post magazine is one of the few that remain, and it's also among the best. As it happens, they're looking for a new columnist. And don't assume that said columnist must live in the National Capital region, the fancy phrase locals use for the D.C. metro area. Why? For years, the Post mag has run regular columns by Jeanne Marie Laskas, a smart, witty writer (she's also a correspondent for GQ), but one who's based in the Pittsburgh area. If there appears to be no geographic restriction, you still must have "a unique and resonant voice," and be able to write "with personality, fresh insight, keen observation and an original take on these tumultuous times." Does that describe you?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

My, How the Republican
Position Has Evolved
'Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.'
-President Abraham Lincoln. You can go here to review an earlier Lincoln quote.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Same Book, Two Very Different Takes

I got a kick out of noting recently that two folks whose views I value happened to review the same book at about the same time. They came down on opposite sides, which was not so surprising, given the fact that they're about as different as two people can possibly be. The book is Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home. My friend Dan Hanson, a.k.a. Great Lakes Geek, finds it a waste of time, writing that "unless you are just getting your first e-mail account, you can skip this disappointing book." Meanwhile, writing in the highbrow New York Review of Books, celebrated author Janet Malcolm argues that, while Send is more instruction manual than book, it offers "excellent instructions" on what she calls a "fraught" exercise and generally "a medium of bad writing." She can get a little silly, arguing that "email is more like a dangerous power tool than like a harmless kitchen appliance." Malcolm is famous for, among other things, her statement that “every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” a reference to the seduction-sellout dynamic which sometimes inevitably happens in serious writing (you're essentially luring a person into revealing more about themselves than they'll ultimately be comfortable seeing in print). Hanson, tech editor of Inside Business, is famous for too many things to mention. You can catch his blog here, which will give you links to his many other online initiatives.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Healthy Question Marks

'In all affairs, it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted.'
--Bertrand Russell. You can go here to sample from the online archives of the noted British philosopher, essayist and peace activist, who died in 1970.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Who Says Old Companies Can't Grow?

While scanning the new Fortune Magazine list of 100 fastest-growing companies the other day, I was shocked to see that a venerable Cleveland company made the list. Among other things, venerable means old, and this company is very old, as these things go--160 years old. Cleveland-Cliffs was founded before the Civil War began (originally under the name Cleveland Iron Co.), and was as instrumental as any company in the town's early growth, shipping iron ore from the Messabi Range in the Upper Midwest to steel plants here and elsewhere, feeding the railroad boom. Eleven years ago, when Crain's Cleveland Business marked Cleveland's 200th anniversary with a giant section on Cleveland business history (spearheaded by my friend Jay Miller, the walking encyclopedia of Cleveland history), I profiled Cliffs and its illustrious history. At that time, if memory serves, it was struggling to remake itself as a dowdy old mining firm, with middling results. It seems the makeover has since gone wonderfully, given that to make the list, a company had to post 25% compounded growth over the last three years. Part of its success is no doubt due to the fact that the steel industry in the U.S. and around the world has rebounded nicely in the last decade, in large part because it's figured out how to operate more flexibly and efficiently, led by giant Mittal Steel. All of that has made the company a frequent source of takeover rumors.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Words, Writing & Books = Humanity

'Among the many worlds which man did not receive as a gift of nature, but which he created with his own spirit, the world of books is the greatest. Every child, scrawling his first letters on his slate and attempting to read for the first time, in so doing, enters an artificial and most complicated world; to know the laws and rules of this world completely and to practice them perfectly, no single human life is long enough. Without words, without writing, and without books there would be no concept of humanity.'
--Hermann Hesse

Friday, September 14, 2007

We Are What We Read

'Reading is experience. A biography of any literary person ought to deal at length with what he read and when, for in some sense, we are what we read.'
--Essayist Joseph Epstein. Earlier, I mentioned him here and here.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Writing Class for Your Consideration

From the fall course schedule for the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland (click here and scroll down to the bottom. But don't forget to check out the other offerings too):

Editors Steve Gleydura from Cleveland Magazine and Sarah Sphar of Northern Ohio Live have teamed up with award-winning journalist and writer John Ettorre to offer this three-session course on the fundamentals of writing for a living. While regional magazine editors provide insight and instruction on how and why they go about choosing free-lancers and on becoming an “expert” on food, business, arts, education, and other magazine fodder, the veteran writer instructs practical skills such as leveraging the Internet, how and where to pitch articles, meeting the deadline, and the value of awards and professional affiliations.
Segments 1 & 2, taught by Sarah Sphar and John Ettorre, respectively, are offered Tuesdays at the Northern Ohio Live (2026 Murray Hill Road #103, Cleveland, 44106), October 16 & 23, 6:30-8:30pm. Segment 3, taught by Steve Gleydura, will be held Tuesday, November 6 (location TBD), 6:30-8:30pm.
$95 for Members
$115 for Nonmembers

Hope at least some of you will be able to join us for this. It's a good chance to hear first-hand from two area magazine editors how to go about writing for their audiences. I'll try to add what might be called the less sugar-coated perspective about magazine writing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Writing is Hell?

'Interviewer: Do you enjoy writing?
William Styron: 'I certainly don't. I get a fine, warm feeling when I'm doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let's face it, writing is hell.'
--From a Paris Review interview with the late Styron, originally published in 1954. Of course, it didn't help that he developed a terrible case of depression, perhaps latent even at that early date. Out of that experience, however, came his powerful book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Many--myself included--consider it possibly the best, bravest and most eloquent book ever written about the subject of depression.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Puzzle Master Coming to Town

If you're into crossword puzzles--and I confess that I'm not and never have been--you can catch the grand guru of the realm, Will Shortz, in Cleveland later this month. Unfortunately, it'll cost you handsomely: tickets for the Cuyahoga County Public Library Foundation fundraiser are $150 each. But then, it's for one of the best possible causes. Shortz is the celebrated crossword editor of the New York Times, as well as the puzzle master of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. I have to admit to a terrible bias when it comes to crossword puzzles (it's not unlike the bias I have against people who insist on letting you know about about their membership in the Mensa Society), or more precisely, those who do them regularly. While I love words as much as anyone, I've always harbored the suspicion that for many puzzle fans, the exercise seems to be at least as much about proclaiming their intellectual bona fides as it is about sharpening their word skills. Am I wrong? Please, crossword puzzle fans (and Mensa folks too), let me hear from you. And by all means, don't hesitate to heap upon me the abuse which I so richly deserve. Shortz, by the way, sounds like a wonderfully delightful guy (he's a native of Indiana), judging by the occasional snatches I see and hear of him on TV & radio.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Best Lead of the Month

'Is it possible that for the past seven years we've gotten President George W. Bush wrong? Is it possible that that effortless stupidity and inexplicable arrogance that have become his hallmark are all just an act? Like Borat--only dumber? Is it possible Bush figured he could accomplish more for the commonweal if he didn't come off as just another responsible, competent world leader? Perhaps he assumed if he assumed the guise of a strutting, bumbling, dim-witted ass, everyone would give him a wide berth, much the way drivers slow down when they see a car swerving madly up ahead. Genius, right? Perhaps Bush was Rove's brain! Perhaps the vice president actually does report to the president. Perhaps Bush doesn't go to bed at 9:30, but instead, like Castro, works through the night in some candlelit aerie in the West Wing, his Promethean intellect humming away as he dots the i's and crosses the t's of his devilishly clever master plan. Maybe he's not the incurious, isolated simpleton the press makes him out to be. Perhaps the president has been playing chess while the rest of us have been playing checkers.'
--from Graydon Carter's editor's letter in the October issue of Vanity Fair, in which he recaptures much of the slashing bite of the late, lamented Spy Magazine, which he co-founded. You can review prior Best Leads of the Month here and here.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Altering Evolution
Through Reading

'We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors' invention could come about only because of the human brain's extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain's ability to be shaped by experience. This plasticity at the heart of the brain's design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become...Learning to read is an almost miraculous story filled with many developmental processes that come together to give the child entry into the teeming underlife of word usable by the child. Socrates and the ancient Indian scholars feared that reading words, rather than hearing and speaking them, would prevent our ability to know their many layers of meaning, sound, function and possibility. In fact, early reading exposes--during the moment of acquisition--how many of the multiple, older structures contribute to each layer as they come together to form the brain's new circuitry for reading. Studying the development of early reading allows us to peek into the underpinnings of our species' accomplishment, beginning with the interrelated processes that prepared the child in the first five years and that expand in different, predictable ways over the rest of the development of reading.'
--From Proust and the Squid--The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Maker's Marvelous Design

'My husband, a laser physicist, tells me that scientists who study particle physics are more likely to become religious. Scientists are notoriously hard to convince of anything. Yet, when these skeptical scientists see the perfect, natural order of the world, they decide, nano and up, that this world was planned. The marvelous design before them becomes the miracle they need to be convinced.'
--Software developer Tamar Sofer, quoted in The Spiritual Brain--A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul

Friday, September 07, 2007

When the Beatles Came To Cleveland

Racial riots weren't the only kind of civic unrest Cleveland endured in the 1960s. There was also a good bit of unruliness over two Beatles concerts staged here, at Public Hall in 1964 and at the old Cleveland Stadium in 1966 (you can see images of the admissions tickets here and here). Given its historic appeal, I was surprised to learn that the generally comprehensive Encyclopedia of Cleveland History doesn't mention either visit. But a new self-published book by a comedian who's relocated to the region recounts the visits in some detail. The bad news: the author writes and organizes information about as well as I perform stand-up comedy. Still, the book (which I've only skimmed) is worthwhile for anyone who's really into either the Beatles or Cleveland history. If that describes you, do check it out when you next find yourself at a bookstore in the region.

For me, at least, the story has an extra layer of sadness, since it describes a time when local radio stations were so firmly entrenched in their community as to be able to almost single-handedly sponsor these concerts (WHK in '64 and WIXY 1260 in '66). Those times are long gone, with the sickening consolidation of local radio into mega-chains that exist solely to scoop up every last advertising dollar (shame on you, Bill Clinton, for allowing it on your watch). And it's just as true for local TV, as I'll describe in coming days, when I write a little about a Ghoulardifest I attended last weekend with some high school pals.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

What's Next?

'We are always looking for the book it is necessary to read next.'
--the late novelist Saul Bellow. You can learn more about the Nobel laureate here, including reading and/or listening to a recording of his acceptance speech upon winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. You can sample from some of the work assembled by the keepers of his flame at the Saul Bellow Society here, or read this tribute Christopher Hitchens wrote to Bellow upon the author's death two years ago.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Wit & Wisdom
Of Muhammad Ali

"'The man said, 'we don't serve negroes.' I said, 'I don't eat them either!' They shouted, 'boy, get out!' I looked at my gold medal and thought: 'this thing ain't worth nothing--it can't even get me a hamburger.'"
--Cassius Clay as a 19-year-old newly minted Olympic gold medalist, as quoted in the new book Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali, the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap. It's a wonderful reminder of the man's unique wit, perseverance and even tenderness. He was once knocked down at a fight in London, the first time ever in his career, by a boxer named Henry Cooper, whom he went on to knock out a round later. "I was momentarily distracted when I saw Cleopatra," he later explained, a reference to the fact that actress Elizabeth Taylor was sitting ringside. He once observed that his toughest fight of all was with his first wife, and joked that sportscaster Howard Cosell wanted to box but could never find a mouth protector large enough. But he also had his father paint the names of former boxing champions (both white and black) on large rocks strewn around the grounds of his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. And when a heckler yelled "nigger draft-dodger" at him while he was speaking at a college, he responded instantly: "...y'know, a long time ago, when I was a little boy, I used to throw rocks at donkey. And my grandma would say, 'Cassius, quit throwing rocks at that donkey, 'cause some day that donkey gonna die and come back and haunt you.' Ladies and gentlemen, I know my grandma was right, because I believe that ass is here tonight.'"