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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Wide Open is closed shut

Let me add my voice to the cacophony of bloggers lamenting the events of the past 24 hours that resulted in the implosion of The Plain Dealer's experiment with bloggers on its Web site.

I'll let Jill, Jeff and Tom explain the details of what happened. In a nutshell, the PD did not think through this Wide Open experiment with bloggers. It held the bloggers (whom it hired to write in a partisan fashion about the issues) to the same standards to which it would hold newsroom journalists.

I won't presume to speak for the four bloggers who participated, but my guess is if the PD wanted them to work as "journalists" they would have been less likely to join in the experiment. Their charge was fundamentally different from those working in the newsroom. They were paid for their partisan views and those views (two conservative, two liberal) were supposedly balanced. It was naive of the PD editors to believe that partisan bloggers would not have contributed to or worked for some campaign.

The PD has a bigger problem on its hands in that the public, specifically the blogging public, has discovered how political power holds sway over editorial product. That's a PR problem for Ohio's Largest Daily. No matter how valid or invalid were Congressman Steven LaTourette's complaints, the public perception is that the PD caved because a public official, who should have a thicker skin about such things, whined about unfair treatment.

I'll be honest. I'm not a political blogger and I rarely spend much time reading political blogs. They are not my cup of tea. For the most part, my dissatisfaction in the experiment largely stems from the reality that the arguments routinely fell along partisan lines. I find reading such diatribes tiresome and not informative enough to convince one way or another to support any one side.

There were exceptions—moments when real, honest, authentic dialogue took place and it usually revolved around issues other than politics, such as religion. Of course one could argue that the religious questions were also political, but the comments really tried to dig deeper into the why, which made compelling reading. Credit is due to the four bloggers who took those issues and addressed them in such an intelligent fashion.

Maybe the experiment started with the wrong kind of blogger. Politics are always fraught with questions of ethics, conflict and bias. Some of the best political blogging, after all, comes from people within the political system. I've not had a problem with blogger transparency on this issue, but I know others have.

Maybe what the PD should've done was start such a new/old media experiment with more feature-ish topics—books, food, arts, education, religion.

I had high hopes that such a collaboration would work. Hopefully, this doesn't turn traditional media off of the experiment for good, but rather provides lessons for how to do better in the future.

UPDATE: Here are some links to more on this story:

Poynter Institute E-Media Tidbits

Bad American


Daily Bellwether

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Love it when...

...a story I'm working on that I was maybe lukewarm on at first turns out to be filled with the surprises that get the creative juices flowing. It's one of the reasons why I love writing people profiles, and it's one of the reasons why I try NOT to prejudge a story.

"Only by being tough-minded have writers gotten anyplace in this business"

The last minute and a half of this video provides a great commentary on writers. Although he's talking about the Writers Guild as it relates to screenwriters, Marc Norman (he of the Oscar-winning screenplay "Shakespeare in Love) also provides an interesting commentary on how writers, and what they value in terms of job satisfaction, differ from other employees.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Three days, three books, three reviews

On my desk this morning are three books I've read since Monday. I'm not sure to what I should attribute my sudden surge in reading. I've learned not to question it and just run with it when it strikes. I guess with UPS dropping off upcoming titles, some of them proved too irresistible not to dive into.

"Sister Wendy on Prayer," by Sister Wendy Beckett
Harmony Books (November 6, 2007), 144 pages

If you only know of Sister Wendy Beckett from her PBS/BBC series on art, you should get to know her through this book. Writing about prayer is so difficult because it is so individual. She begins by letting readers know just what a struggle it was to write this book.

But her struggle works, particularly near the end and she finds her sea legs and writes simply and logically about prayer.

I'll admit that my interest in reading this slim volume is personal indeed. I've always felt a failure at prayer. I'm not one to sit still for an hour and allow myself to be with God. I'm always trying to multi-task my way through.

Sister Wendy writes, "It is not difficult to intellectualize about prayer. Like love, beauty and motherhood, it quickly sets our eloquence aflow. It is not difficult, but it is perfectly futile." She goes further to suggest that it can even be harmful.


Because writing, thinking, talking, reading and longing for prayer keeps us from actually praying. She challenges us to discover what it is we really want from prayer. Because the fundamental reason for prayer—and what makes it so simple—is that we want to be possessed by God.

"Knock and it shall be opened to you." God doesn't want to trick us so prayer is the last thing we should feel discouraged about.

Throughout her book, Sister Wendy refers to a selection of paintings that for her speak of prayer. Those paintings are in the book and she describes, in her wonderfully accessible way, how those paintings describe various aspects of prayer.

Her writing is challenging in places. Do we make room for prayer in our lives? Is it a priority? Or is it something we try to fit in while doing other things (as it has traditionally been for me). But she also explains its utter simplicity. Here are a few of my favorites:

On peace:
"All too often people say, 'I was too sick to pray' or 'I was too worried to pray.' Rather we should say, 'My prayer today is of a sick and worried person.' It is you God wants to take to Himself in prayer, and if that is a you with shingles or a you with marriage problems, He is compassionate toward His child, but does not demand that the reality of life be discarded. You cannot step out of your real life with all its tensions into 'a peace.' God does not want you to. It would be a state of unreality."
On penance:
"One sometimes gets the impression that these saints were canonized because of their physical penances. Forget about love and prayer: one can deduce these, the reasoning goes, from the extremes to which they brought their bodies. Fast until you faint? You must love God. Go without sleep? Ah, what devotion! Today we are more dubious about these penitential extravaganzas. We still love them; we are deeply impressed by them. They still seem to bear their own credentials blazing bright on their foreheads, yet we have perhaps come to realize the element here of the extraordinary, the UFO, that essentially impresses us, not because it comes from God, but because it is bizarre, a seemingly spiritual version of the poltergeist. True faith is something very much deeper."
On holiness:
"To be perfect is to be complete. God is perfect in that He is completely the Godhead. There is one God and He is completely Himself. But there is not one humanity. We are all human in different ways. And, for us, perfection—to me rather an off-putting noun—can mean only becoming completely what we are meant to be. Each of us is called to an individual fulfillment that only God understands."
But enough "talk" about prayer.

"Black Olives," by Martha Tod Dudman
Simon & Schuster (February 5, 2008), 192 pages

If I remember correctly, this was one of those books I checked off on my reviewer checklist. I'm not usually one to review fiction, but the theme of middle-aged love appealed to me.

"Black Olives" is a fast read, but it's emotional and unpleasant in places. It reads more like a short story than a novel in that it involves one evening in time, albeit with glances back at a 10-year relationship.

Nine months after their painful breakup, Victoria spots her ex-boyfriend while looking at the olive bar of the Maine grocery store where they live. She's thrown into a panic because she wanted to see him again when SHE was ready. David, the boyfriend, doesn't see her because he's too busy getting his coffee beans.

In an unlikely (though who am I to say?) turn of events, she compulsively goes to his unlocked car in the parking lot and climbs into the back seat under his sweaters, rain gear and other stuff piled on the floor. She's inhaling the smell of him, when the actual him gets into the car.

She's stuck and rides with him to several more spots before he eventually arrives at his home. She gets out of the car and stays in the garage until he leaves again, which is when she walks through his home.

Throughout this episode she is visiting the places and spaces of their relationship. She's not an altogether appealing person, but neither is he. They are both divorced with children from previous marriages. At the point of the story they are also both in their 50s, he with a grandchild and she with two grown children.

He wants to marry her and she doesn't want to be tied down. They maintain separate homes and lives yet still share a decade together. There's, I suppose, is a modern relationship, but he wants more.

Most of the novel is an interior monologue and she replays the scenes of their life together. Maybe she's trying to figure out at what point things went south. And maybe she's trying to identify where she could have responded differently. There are times when the tone is downright annoying. She becomes that friend you dread who goes on and on about sour relationship. But like a train wreck, you read on because truly this could be any of us. While Victoria shows us a secure businesswoman and mother, she becomes insecure in her love life, questioning everything including whether or not she should have bought sexier panties.

That insecurity comes to her at the moment of the breakup, when she begins questioning him and herself about events in their relationship.
"And then I thought—well, if she just has brown hair, and she doesn't even have big breasts, then what's the point of it? What could she have? What could it be that would make that particular vagina, that pair of eyes, that set of lips, any better/different/sexier than the ones I've got?
"Does she know about me?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said. But what would he have told her? Not the dear things. Not the big things. He wouldn't have told her about the time, after my operation, when I lay in the hospital bed in Bangor and he sat there all day long with his laptop and book, just being there in the room with me so that, whenever I rolled out of the fog of my opiated stupor, he was right there, with his familiar shirt on, with his laptop, sitting in the hospital chair.

You're still here, I said. I didn't know what time it was. Time had gotten all blurry and strange and stretched out by the drugs and the pain in between the drugs.

Of course, he told me, looking up. Where else would I be? he asked me. And I knew he would always be there, right there in the room with me."
It's a revelation to her that she has become what she dreaded in others. And only after that point of self-discovery can she truly begin to move on with her life.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead Books (May 2007), 367 pages

It's not the writing, though it is simple and straightforward, it's the story that moved me quickly through "A Thousand Splendid Suns." While the story happens largely in my lifetime, it seems almost from another century. The differences between my years and those of Mariam and Laila are incomparable.

That the story takes place in Afghanistan—a place where my earliest knowledge of its existence was sitting in Mr. Hatfield's sixth-grade classroom at Brantner Elementary in Cincinnati, watching as Soviet tanks invaded—is so central to the events of today and yet still so foreign makes it even more compelling.

It's a breezy read interrupted with some disturbing violence. In his first novel, "The Kite Runner," Hosseini presented some coincidences, which were frankly too hard to imagine ever happening. That's storytelling laziness. It's my primary problem with authors like Dan Brown, who drive you through a fast-paced interesting narrative only to neatly wrap up the details with a mix of uninspired and unrealistic coincidences.

There's a little of that here, but it's not nearly so offensive. In the end, this story contains more of the hope—for women and for a country—than Hossein's first book. A good story.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A slab of sadness

Wanted to share this excerpt from an as-yet-to-be-released novel I'm reading called Black Olives by Martha Tod Dudman, coming in February 2008 from Simon & Schuster.
"What did other people do? I wondered. Losing spouses to divorce, to Alzheimer's, to death? How do they survive after such enormous losses? That sudden, abrupt amputation and then after that, everything off-kilter forever. How do you walk without that arm you're so used to? How do you keep your balance? The sharp pain that feels unending, without dimension, limitless, and then the ache and the ache and the ache that goes on and on; that comes in a wave and recedes and comes back and then comes back again. It was underneath everything—that sadness. Right under all the surface emotions: delight, detail, determination. There it was—the sadness—a big, spongy slab of it.

Why did I still think that happiness was something I could acquire—like a new dress? Why did I think happiness would just come to me if I behaved myself, worked hard, ate right, kept clean and got enough exercise? Happiness comes when you least expect it, not on order."

Contemplating wholeness in clay

From Friday's Catholic Universe Bulletin:
Nun's sculpture explores our oneness

By Wendy A. Hoke

In the corner of Notre Dame Sister Megan Dull’s ceramics studio at TerraVista Studio is the bust of a bald woman in a mauve glaze with various henna-like patterns imprinted in her figure. “Sister Image: The Revelations of All We Never Know” is marked NFS (not for sale).

She calls the piece her inspiration and explains that it was a turning point in her art.

While enrolled in a master’s of fine arts program in the mid-1990s, Sister Dull hit a roadblock. Everything she knew about conveying ideas as a teacher stemmed from the head.

But she was studying art, and the origination of art is somewhere deeper.

“For the first half of the program I didn’t know how to work,” Sister Dull says. “My stomach would be in knots. When it came to working with figures, I wanted to come up with the important idea. But you can’t start there.”

Her sister, a photographer, attempted suicide. The sculpture is about her sister, about scars and suffering rising to the surface. It was an emotional process, but also eye-opening.

“I realized that my work doesn’t have to come from my head, but here,” she says pointing to her gut.

Today, her work is largely sculptural and reflects her response to the world. “Art of any kind can invoke a visceral response that can cause people to shift or transform their thinking,” she says.

“A profound communion with the cosmos is my connection with the sacred,” she says. Art, spirituality, environmentalism, feminism are all themes in her work.

She keeps a sketchbook that she admits is often difficult to fill with her schedule of teaching at Notre Dame College of Ohio and Ursuline College, community life and the studio. Twice yearly retreats give her the time to explore ideas and fill her sketchbook.

While on retreat, she grabs her tent and lives outside, giving her the freedom to commune with God and nature in a way that her everyday life usually limits.

However, she is also open to inspiration.

While visiting The Cleveland Museum of Art several years ago, she came across the stargazer figurine, which dates from 3,000 BC and is the oldest depiction of a human figure in the museum’s collection. Excited by what she saw, she made a quick sketch. Back at her studio, she made a mold so she could repeat the figure in her sculptures.

Her response to the stargazer figure, like her response to art and ideas, is intuitive. “For me, that stargazer is a potent image of human reality. She comes from a time in which human survival demanded a greater sensitivity to the earth’s movements and patterns.”

The result is her “Sacred Threshold Series” using the stargazer detail. While the work symbolizes oneness with the cosmos, Sister Dull is always fascinated by how others respond.

“I do the work, step back and say, ‘Here’s what I think of this piece’ and then wait for others to share their response because it’s always something different,” she says.

Images of stars, water, earth, greenery and women are found throughout her work.

But it’s more than what is visible, it’s also her spirituality that comes through, almost as if she allows the energy to feed into her hands and literally shape her work, such as her figure of St. Francis of Assisi.

“I’m preoccupied with portals and that goes back to my MFA experience, which was the door to my work. At first that door was locked to me. I had to dig deeper to unlock the door.”

Once she made her breakthrough with figures, she wanted to do work with a sense of scale and significance. The results are the stacks outside the doors to TerraVista that combine images of Persephone, deep-diving fish, dream imagery and passages—all those symbols of human beings striving for wholeness.

Her choice of materials is deliberate. “Clay is stone broken down in stream beds into fine particles and is part of the whole geological process that takes eons to make. It may break after it’s fired, but it will never return to a soft state and will outlast us all.”

Megan Dull’s artwork is on view at TerraVista Studio, 1400 E. 30th Street, #401. TerraVista is open by appointment. Call (216) 523-1387.

Hoke is a freelance writer.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Possibility in blank pages

"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." — Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov

Monday, October 15, 2007

Is your loyalty to news or newsprint?

When I first saw the teaser about Roy Peter Clark's column on Poynter newsletter, I laughed--uproariously! The premise of an article that says it's our duty to read print newspapers is what is utterly wrong with traditional journalism today. As a group we are very un-Darwinian. Clark writes:
"I confess that I don't spend as much time as I used to reading the newspaper -- any newspaper.

I'm making a promise to myself, and now to you, to reverse this trend. The future of journalism, not just newspapers, depends upon such loyalty. And now I pose this challenge to you: It is your duty as a journalist and a citizen to read the newspaper -- emphasis on paper, not pixels."
Why is it our duty to read newspapers on paper?
"There is one overriding question about the future of journalism that no one can yet answer: How will we pay for it? Who will pay for good reporters and editors? Who will pay to station them in statehouses, or send them to cover wars and disasters? Who will finance important investigations in support of the public's health and safety?"
There are, at this writing, 83 responses to Clark's column, which for a Poynter column is HUGE, I mean HUGE feedback. If you don't want to read through all 83, he has summarized and categorized the feedback for easy reading. Comments break down into:

My duty is... (not a loyalty to newsprint)
Force the future
Follow the money
The Kodak analogy
Serve the audience
My paper abandoned me
And finally, The silver lining (we are reading and consuming news, just not in newsprint)

Check it out -- and let Clark and Poynter know where you stand.

Wide Open discussion

I'm sure the minds behind the PD's Wide Open blog envisioned a forum where great discussion took place, where arguments could be made from both sides with such finesse that readers would flock and jump at the opportunity to join the fray.

It's taking a while, but I think what I see there today between Jill and Dave is a fascinating example of how blogs can encourage dialogue. Sadly, the focus of the conversation is Ann Coulter, but I think the questions raised and the arguments being made make for good reading.

On another sad note is word of St. Peter Church "assimilating" into the cathedral. Never have I been to a Catholic Mass that spoke to me more deeply than that of St. Peter's. It is a huge loss. I am sorry we're not able to support it regularly as a family. Perhaps we should have made more of an effort to do so.

All of these churches closing downtown...what happens to the buildings? The artwork? The families? The tradition? The stories? Maybe that's what we need to do now. Gather the stories of these parishes before they leave us forever.

Friday, October 12, 2007

It's only football, right?

When we walked into the Westlake offices of Orthopedic Associates yesterday, there was a football player and his parents in front of us. Ryan smiled and nodded to the kid and said, "Hey."

"What's up?" he said, nodding back.

As Ryan explained to me after we checked in, he was the freshmen QB for Fairview who also broke his collarbone at about the same time as Ryan. He knows this because Bay played Fairview last week and the two injured QBs had the chance to chat at games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They shared their mutual frustration at missing their first high school season.

It's been eight weeks since Ryan broke his collarbone. Back in August, this was the week we envisioned him coming back. But time and healing changes your perspective somewhat and we went into this appointment knowing that it was unlikely he would get clearance to return to play.

Ryan was OK with that. We talked a lot about how he plays with an intensity that could put himself at greater risk of re-fracturing. Although it's not his throwing arm, we worried about him running with the ball because he lowers his left shoulder when delivering a pop (he has a tendency to run through people instead of around them, a remnant of his early years of playing fullback).

With basketball season approaching, we just couldn't risk him losing another season. Ryan is a competitor and he needs to have a healthy, constructive outlet for that competitiveness. I certainly can't have him coming home after school all winter and torturing his younger brothers because he's pissed he can't play.

The doctor praised him for his mature decision and then showed us the progression of x-rays to see how he's healing. Since the fracture was so severe, the bones are not joined end to end, but instead overlap with new bone forming all around the break. The latest x-ray showed a good amount of new bone healing the injury. It looks good, but not good enough to take the contact of football.

He got the clearance to attend open gyms and prepare for basketball. He continues his lifting/rehab program in the weight room and he cheers his teammates from the sideline.

But that didn't make coming home after the freshmen game last night any easier. "This is the game I was supposed to come back," he said. "I can't believe I'm missing the whole season."

Neither can we, but we know it's for the best.

While this has been a life lesson for Ryan, it has also been a good one for Danny and I as well. Football isn't everything, we certainly know that, but it means so much to him and he works so hard at it. There's really no way you can effectively play the game unless you are committed 110 percent. It requires so much of players and takes even more from them.

We cheer for the team with great enthusiasm, but it isn't the same. I watch him from the stands as he carries footballs under each arm like a security blanket. I watch his mood shift from elation to frustration and back again. He pats teammates on the shoulder, fills water bottles and high-fives players when they've made a great play. He paces the sideline and in his restlessness I know he would give his left kidney to be out on that field. Sometimes I think I can will him recovered.

But I can't.

It's hard to be helpless, but we're trying to keep it all in perspective. It's only football. He's otherwise healthy, doing well in school, has good friends and is a good kid.

Last night, Danny finally put words to what I've been feeling, "I just miss watching him play." Me, too.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Does parental pressure hurt teen athletes?

While cleaning out my pitches file, I found this story that I tried and nearly placed at several magazines. I'd still like to do this piece because it's an important topic for teens and parents of teens. If you have any feedback on the topic or suggestions on where to take this, feel free to comment. I've added a little more from my notes than what was included in the original pitch.

One-dimensional athletes
How pressure to succeed from parents, coaches and themselves may be hurting our kids
By Wendy A. Hoke
Fourteen-year-old Joe excels at basketball and football and loves playing both. But his parents are discouraging him from going out for the football team, not because of the time it consumes, but because they think he has a better shot of getting a college scholarship in basketball. So in addition to his school team, Joe also plays AAU basketball in the off-season and takes private instruction from a local basketball instructor and former pro.

Great planning on the parents’ part? Not necessarily, say many experts, who believe grown-ups should resist the urge to push kids into sports specialization. They aren't the only ones tempering the idea.

At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons in February, panelists sounded the alarm of rising overuse injuries in children as young as age 4. In the care of adolescents and pre-adolescents, orthopedics are seeing injuries that stem from year-round participation wearing on young bones. “They never get a chance to rest,” says Thomas Clanton, team doctor for the NBA’s Houston Rockets.

Dr. Michael Connor, a California State University Psychology Professor who has counseled male and female athletes at the high school, club, collegiate and professional level for more than 15 years, agrees. “Athletics as a nice way to round kids out seems to be lost,” says Dr. Connor. Indeed, specialization may set both parents and children up for disappointment and dilute interest in recreational exercise.

“As parents do we want to develop healthy lifelong habits of movement and enjoyment of physical activity?” asks Dr. John McCarthy, Director of the Institute for Athletic Coach Education at Boston University, or are we raising little super-athletes. “Unfortunately society is pushing sport into a professional level.”

What's driving that pressure? Connor believes the motivation is often financial, translating into hopes for a college scholarship. However, some parents will spend more money in help and training to gear up their child for that college scholarship than they would for college tuition.

The push toward specialization is also clouded by the rose-colored glasses parents often wear.

“Parents often see their kids as more talented than they are,” Dr. Connor says. Most parents have no sense of how unlikely it is that there kid will ever play college or pro sports, he says.

When teens make the decision to specialize in one sport exclusively, he says, the pressures are coming primarily from parents. He also notes that overly enthusiastic parents may not properly gauge their child’s interest in a particular sport: "Kids may be saying that this is what they want, but I'm not convinced that they are making an informed decision. Often, they've been coached into believing this by their parents.”

Specialization isn't always what colleges are after. As a former recruiter for college teams, Dr. McCarthy says he would look for athletes who could play multiple sports because of their growth potential. Those who specialized early may not be able to adapt to suit a college team's needs.

Still, focusing on one sport may not always be harmful. A whole generation of kids have yet to grow up and show us whether or not such activity is good for their overall health in the long run, says Dr. Susan Joy, head of women's sports medicine at The Cleveland Clinic. But that impact may be presenting itself now as the orthopedics convening earlier this year in San Diego discussed.

So how do you ensure that sports specialization is right for your children and how to do you encourage your child to do it safely?

Steady As She Goes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children who engage in one sporting activity exclusively for nine months of the year should take the remaining three months to rest or engage in another activity. Experts also say that children need one day off per week. “They need that time off to allow their muscles to regenerate and recuperate,” Dr. Joy says.

Spread Out Success. Kids who excel at a sport at a young age do not necessarily mature into that sport. “Make sure your child doesn't hinge his or her self-worth on success in a fifth-grade sport,” says Dr. Joy.

Recognize Your Child's Limitations. “Hopefully your kids will get the best of your genes. But if you and your spouse are not athletic, most likely your kids will not be athletic,” says Joy. And even if you were a sports star, it doesn’t mean your child will be—or wants to be. Whether he’s injury-prone, unfocused or competing with too many other top achievers, your child may not live up to expectations.

It’s About Timing. Some sports—football, basketball and swimming—require the release of pubertal hormones before children can mature and develop in those sports. Others—namely gymnastics and figure skating—have such a narrow window for success that you have to decide at a young age to go full tilt.

Follow Your Child’s Heart. Encourage your child to explain what she does and doesn’t like about a sport so you can ensure she has a complete picture.

Keep It Real. Encourage them to try another sport in a less-competitive, more recreational environment to balance the competition with a little fun.

Keep It Balanced. Encourage your child to weigh what he is giving up to specialize. What is he crossing off the list in order to devote so much time to one activity?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Celebrating St. Francis

Yesterday, in addition to being my son Patrick's 13th birthday, was the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. In honor of that, I thought I'd reprint here my article about St. Francis and the Sultan, which ran in the Catholic Universe Bulletin and was also picked up by Catholic News Service.
St. Francis and the sultan : Lessons for today
By Wendy A. Hoke

CLEVELAND, Ohio (Catholic Universe Bulletin) - The Nile River divides the Egyptian city of Damietta near the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its location and entree to the Holy Land, it was frequently attacked and in 1219 became the focus of the Fifth Crusades.

While thousands of Christian soldiers took up arms against Muslims, one person among them followed his heart and the example of Christ. He sought a way toward peace and understanding through dialogue with Malik-al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. St. Francis of Assisi’s initial goal was to convert the sultan to Christianity or to become a martyr while trying.

But what he learned from that pilgrimage changed his life, sending him on the path to peace. With his feast day just past, his message of brotherhood and understanding among all of humanity resounds as loudly today as if we were back in the Dark Ages.

“Damietta was a huge Muslim city and the pathway to the Holy Land in Egypt,” explained Father Father Bob McCreary, adjunct faculty member at St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology. “Francis wanted to dissuade people from the war.”

The fighting was terrible and Francis had rightly predicted the Christians would ultimately lose the battle. Sickened by his fellow Christians’ violent behavior, Francis decided to visit the sultan. Though mystery surrounds how he gained admittance, it is widely believed that Francis and Brother Illuminato were thought to be Christian wise men by the sultan’s guards.

“He wanted to be a martyr but he succeeded in being a man of charity,” Father McCleary explained.

Francis entered the sultan’s camp empty-handed as a peacemaker. “He did not consider, whom he had been taught by Christianity to be his enemy, as his enemy,” said Franciscan Father Michael Cusato, director of the Franciscan Institute at New York’s St. Bonaventure University, and a native Clevelander. “He approached all people, beginning with the leper, as his brothers.

“We know he did not insult their prophet or religion, but talked about why he is a Christian and why people find the right way to God. We know he didn’t insult the prophet or he wouldn’t have come out of there alive,” Father Cusato said.

“The brotherhood was God’s most beautiful creation and he saw the Muslim as his brother, too. It was the first real dialogue between Christians and Muslims,” Father McCreary said.

It’s something the church has sought to recreate in recent years, most recently with mixed results.

According to historians, the sultan also was impressed with Francis as a servant of God. “This wasn’t a modern dialogue as we think of dialogue,” explained Franciscan Father Steven McMichael, assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “Francis did have some appreciation for Islam. He learned some things about Islam, such as how they pray and how they experience God, that showed up in his own Christian belief.”

He encouraged a ministry of presence - living peacefully among Muslims - which serves as a model for Catholics today.

“What impressed him about Islamic culture is that its daily rhythms are centered on prayer,” Father Cusato said. “When he returns to Assisi he encourages Christians to have a mindfulness to prayer.”

So just how influential to his life was Francis’ meeting with the sultan? Father Cusato has a theory.

“When he is at La Verna where he receives his Stigmata, he writes on a piece of parchment,” the Franciscan said. “On the front are praises of God, on the back are some very enigmatic writing often thought to be a blessing to brother Leo, one of his companions (the popular Blessing of Aaron).

“It seems he has very much on his mind, particularly a new military push that the Christian church launches on Egypt and the sultan’s men in 1224. He goes to La Verna and prays very hard about this. The text he writes is very similar to the 99 names of Allah in Islam. On this parchment, he draws a very strange head lying on its side, with a cross shooting out of its mouth. I’ve theorized that the head is the head of the sultan and that’s he’s praying for the sultan, to protect him from harm and accept Christ before it’s too late,” Father Cusato said.

Father Cusato’s theory appears in the newly published, “The Stigmata of Francis of Assisi: New Studies, New Perspectives,” published by Franciscan Institute Publications.

“Meeting the sultan confirmed to Francis that we are all brothers and sisters. Neither converted the other and yet they met each other as men of God.”

Their meeting appears to have changed more than Francis and the sultan.

“Almost immediately we see some iconography in the eastern world showing these two men,” Father Cusato said. One of the sultan’s own spiritual counselors had engraved on his tomb that what changed his life was the meeting between a Christian monk and the sultan in his tent.

So what does it mean to engage in meaningful dialogue in the spirit of St. Francis? According to Father Cusato people must understand each other’s perspective. “Until we in the west understand the anger, sense of oppression and world of Muslims in the Middle East, unless we can look beyond the slogans our political leaders give us and ask why, we’ll get nowhere. But it works both ways. They need to know us as well.”

Hoke is a freelance writer.

UB story: Friends on the streets

From today's UB:
Friends on the streets
Labre Program nurtures friendships among students, Cleveland's homeless

By Wendy A. Hoke

It’s one thing to feed the homeless, but quite another to nurture friendships.

Just ask John Carroll University senior Brian Mauk.

For the last six years Mauk has joined a group of fellow students in the Labre Project, cooking and delivering meals to homeless people around Cleveland. Along the way, he's made some friends with the people who have no home.

Mauk, who grew up in Old Brooklyn, first got involved while a junior at St. Ignatius High School. “For me this is a real commitment to another person, not only of looking out for their special needs, but also a commitment to friendship,” he said from the austere Labre offices in the Bohannon Center on the JCU campus.

Using money from donations and an annual fundraiser, student members buy food from the Cleveland Food Bank at 7 cents per pound. “Our nutritional value has gone up tremendously since we started buying from the Food Bank,” says Mauk as he shows off the kitchen and pantry.

For 155 consecutive Fridays, the Labre Project has been cooking meals and delivering them to people without homes. But more than delivering food and goods to the needy, Labre's ministerial focus is friendship.

Named for St. Benedict Joseph Labre, an 18th-century French Trappist monk who lived himself as a homeless person, members of Labre live by the maxim, “Poor in the eyes of men and women; Rich in the eyes of God.”

Meals vary depending on what is available at the Food Bank. Food is placed in large water coolers to keep warm during transportation. Before leaving, students gather for reflection and prayer. They pile into two university vans—one heading west, the other heading east—to deliver the food and items such as socks and shoes from the Cleveland Browns and clothing donated by the local community.

“This has grown to the point where the homeless expect we’ll be there for them,” said Patrick Prosser, adviser to Labre. “Lasting relationships develop and that’s very different from a traditional faith-based feeding program.”

Food is simply the hook.

Mauk admitted that in the beginning there was skepticism about the group’s motives. “We’ve developed a reputation as people they can trust. We’ve become their family and share in their good news and bad news,” he said.

It can be a long road, but Mauk and his fellow members are patient.

“I used to see Jean by the tracks near the lakefront. She was very isolated. It could snow on a Tuesday and by Friday there were still no tracks in the snow. She used to just take the food. But now she has an apartment and we listen to music and laugh together,” he said.

Clarissa Lake is a JCU freshman, but is not new to Labre. She began helping when her brother was at St. Ignatius and she was a student at St. Joseph Academy. “I was a little intimidated at first,” she admitted.

One of the first people she met was John, a man who was once badly burned with gasoline while he was sleeping. But his burns are not what she remembers about him.

“His laugh was so powerful that I was taken aback,” she said, laughing. “Now it’s to the point where I remember their stories and they remember mine.”

Always the students are instructed to remember that they are entering a person’s home. “Whether it’s is two plastic sheets hanging over railroad tracks or a Section 8 apartment, we have to remember that these people are inviting us into their home,” Prosser said.

Throughout the night, students will visit about 20 people on each side of town, plus about 80 at the end of the evening at Public Square. As word spreads the students will add more stops. All visits are documented so that students can learn more about the needs of the homeless and respond the following week.

Safety is taken very seriously. Although a core group of students are involved with Labre, there’s also a mix of students every week, sometimes even a waiting list to participate. Mauk conducts an orientation to ensure everyone’s safety.

So what have they learned about the causes of homelessness?

“My speech is that everyone is homeless, it’s just that these people lost their phone book and can’t—for reasons of mental health or addiction or whatever—call a friend and crash at their place,” he said.

Mauk, who is contemplating graduate school for nonprofit administration, is proud of Labre’s work and describes it as the little engine that could.

Hoke is a freelance writer.

How to help
Labre Ministry can use a number of items on a regular basis, including:
• Cash
• D, AA, AAA batteries
• Jackets and jeans in all sizes
• Clean like-new blankets
• Personal hygiene items (travel size)
• Hats, gloves and scarves
• New socks and underwear

Call (216) 397-6863 to donate.
Additional info: I had asked Brian Davis of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to comment on Labre's work. While I didn't receive his comments in time to include in my story (that's my fault because it dawned on me late, as in the day my story was due), I wanted to provide them here. Thanks, Brian!
"There are a number of programs that go down and provide food to homeless people, but also stress the need to deliver God as well. While some friendships are made among these groups, God often gets in the way of the relationship. If the guys are not ready for God or if they choose Islam or some other path, the individuals from the churches move on.

Labre does not force religious indoctrination on anyone. The primary purpose for being downtown is to make friends with the population. The other thing that they have helped us with is developing a map of the campsites so that the social workers can do their job to provide help. They are supporting the professional outreach workers in the community. The others are often working at cross purposes to the professional outreach."

Diane Rehm in Cleveland Oct. 30

Diane Rehm is coming to town. Several of us are going. Anyone interested in joining us? It's free.

An Evening with Diane Rehm
The Dean’s Lecture
Tuesday, October 30, 7:30 pm
Free and open to all

Diane Rehm is an internationally recognized radio host, journalist and author. She is also an Episcopalian and, earlier this year, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the Virginia Theological Seminary.

For more than 25 years, her program, The Diane Rehm Show, has provided thoughtful conversations on the topics of the day with world leaders, authors, public figures, and ordinary people who call in each hour to take part in what the show terms “a civil exchange of ideas.”

Now heard nationally and internationally by more than 1.6 million listeners on NPR and NPR Worldwide stations, The Diane Rehm Show’s recent guests have included former president Bill Clinton, General Tommy Franks, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Toni Morrison and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. In Cleveland, The Diane Rehm Show is broadcast each weekday on WCPN.

During her visit to Cleveland, Diane Rehm will also give the President’s Lecture at Cleveland State University and appear on 90.3 WCPN.

Sponsored by Trinity Cathedral and Cleveland State University with support from 90.3 WCPN.

Read more here.

An argument against the Federal Shield Law

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Now there's some practical advice. It may seem crazy, but that's the sentiment from an unexpected ally in the battle against a Federal Shield Law. Patrick Fitzgerald—yes, he of the same of U.S. District Attorney's office who paraded scores of veteran journalists on the witness stand in the Scooter Libby trial—has an op-ed in the Washington Post about the unintended perils of such legislation. (H/T to Jill for the link.)

His basic premise is that we need to question first whether or not the system of conducting federal investigations, covering and protecting whistleblowers, reporting on such investigations and fighting subpoenas is in need of fixing. His belief? As flawed as the system may appear, it actually works.
A threshold question lawmakers should ask is whether reporters will obey the law if it is enacted. They should ask because the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calls for a shield law while urging journalists to defy the law when a court upholds a subpoena for source information.
He cites a number of impediments created by the bill, including the handcuffing of national security investigations, the delay (measured in years) of such investigations, but most important, he cites the perils of defining journalism. Ding! Ding! Ding! Will someone please wake up and drink of this brew! It would be swell if some of my fellow journalists would start singing this tune! At the very least, he says, the bill defines journalism so broadly that is also includes criminal organizations who disseminate information. So while it may unintentionally penalize those who function as legitimate independent journalists, it may also reward a slew of people on the other side of the law. The Washington Post editorial board calls this extension of coverage "far-fetched," but we really want to test that?
The bill does not even purport to exclude domestic terrorists, gangs or pedophiles. No senator or legitimate journalist wants to extend protection to terrorists or other criminals, but such is the vice of a law defining journalism.
Can I get an Amen?!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

KnowledgeWorks book is published

Just back from KnowledgeWorks Foundation writing workshop and received my first copies of "Most Likely to Succeed: Real-life stories of progress in five redesigned urban high schools." The book is available to download as a PDF, or you can request a copy at the KWF Web site. Here's the intro and an excerpt:

In the third of year of transformation from a large inner-ring suburban high school to five small schools, progress at Cleveland Heights High School could be felt on every level — from the security office to the main office and in every classroom and athletic field in between.

After a hectic and exhausting end last year, Cleveland Heights-University Heights Superintendent Deborah Delisle convened the entire district staff in the auditorium at Heights High just before the start of the 2006-07 year.

It was a pep rally of sorts to get district staff ready for another year of transition and constant changes.

Change is still hard, but with each adjustment the evolutionary process of educational excellence becomes a bit smoother.

A common language is spoken here, one that focuses on student achievement, incorporates data-driven instruction and encourages teacher collaboration.

Inside the main office rests a plaque presented to staff, students and families of Cleveland Height High School for exemplary results on the Ohio Achievement Test and achieving an “effective” rating by the Ohio Department of Education for the 2005-06 school year.

Despite its successes, challenges remain — with student behavior and performance, with key aspects of the small schools redesign and with the inevitable shift that comes when key personnel leave.

But progress continues as the second generation of small school leaders builds on the foundation of those who went before them to carry the Heights campus further in its quest for excellence.
Building Trust in the Power to Change
One leader of a small school hopes to keep momentum by inspiring those around him
By Wendy A. Hoke
At the end of his first year as teacher leader at P.R.I.D.E. School, Bob Swaggard is tired, the kind of tired that comes from being constantly “on.”

“I hope I don’t have to attend one more meeting or one more function,” he says, knowing full well there are more to attend in the remaining weeks of school.

Swaggard, who came to Cleveland Heights High School when it was being divided into small schools, took on a leadership role just as it began to see early evidence of significant positive changes. Test scores are up, the school’s state rating is now “effective” and next year’s incoming freshmen got into either their first or second choice of the five small schools. The school pride that permeates the halls, athletic fields and music department harks back to earlier times.

Despite those signs, Swaggard and his colleagues still struggle with students who bring behavior problems into the classrooms, who transfer into the district and bring with them serious impediments to learning and whose home life is anything but nurturing and safe. They also contend with teachers who have one foot in the old “big” Heights and one toe in the new small schools.

It’s tough slogging at times and he pushes back against those who think it would be easier to ship problem students elsewhere or who point fingers. “We can’t just ship kids out to the next port,” he says.

“We have great staff with a wealth of information and resources to share. I think we need to approach change by repeating over and over that it can be done in manageable pieces,” Swaggard says.

It’s that nurturing manner, with an emphasis on relationships, that is earning Swaggard the trust of his colleagues and setting the tone for enabling staff and students to change — even if it’s just a little.

“Bob is a great leader, and he has genuine care and concern for the kids and teachers,” says Jean King-Battle, retiring P.R.I.D.E. teacher and pied piper of student leadership. “I see him doing great things.”

Students agree. “I love Mr. Swaggard,” says P.R.I.D.E. junior Reggie Golden. “He’s a great guy who cares about and respects students.”

Swaggard realizes that the opportunity to reach kids who didn’t have a consistent educational experience before arriving at the Heights campus is his (and the school’s) responsibility. He takes that very seriously and is inspired by the idea the school can be and do more.

He wants others to share in that vision.

A Tale of Two Students
One reluctant, one enthusiastic – and both testing the limits of Heights schools
By Wendy A. Hoke

On a stormy June day, the mood is sunny and bright in the Allen Theatre in downtown Cleveland’s historic Playhouse Square Center.

Parents, grandparents, siblings and assorted relatives dressed in their Sunday best, armed with bouquets of flowers and giant Mylar balloons, await the 100th commencement ceremony of Cleveland Heights High School. A giant gold banner with black trim and letters simply reads, “HEIGHTS.”

Although it may look like graduations of old, this one is very different. The graduates are the first class from the five small schools at Heights campus and the first seniors required to pass the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) to graduate.

Each small school enters the theater led by a student carrying a flag bearing the small school name. And while all are decked in traditional black cap and gown, each small school has a different colored tassel.

The evening also is a turning point for two students: One who is graduating and moving on, an average kid who found inspiration and a possible career in music, and one who is assuming the mantle of leadership for next year, a charismatic leader and exceptional student. For both students, small schools provided a more enriching educational experience, whether they sought it or not.


Danny Giannetto makes his way through the chaotic maze of students shouting and hanging out in the halls of Cleveland Heights High School. With his backpack slung over one shoulder, he heaves it to readjust the load. He sets his face in a grimace as he enters room 216. It’s advisory day and Danny, a senior in Renaissance School, would rather be anywhere but here.
“I don’t see the point in advisory. It’s a waste of time,” he has said.

He takes his seat and pulls out a binder to work on his real love — music theory.

Teacher Stephen Warner begins a discussion about civility, a topic that is being discussed throughout Cleveland Heights. Danny is unmoved by the discussion until one classmate suggests that a wall be built between East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights to separate the neighboring yet economically disparate cities.

“Whoa!” everyone responds. “What, like the Berlin Wall?” asks one boy.

Danny slams his binder shut and focuses on the conversation.

Warner guides the conversation back to the school. “How do you think Heights High is thought of in the community?” he asks. “Is it safe? Are students scared?”

“This year is better than last year,” says Danny. “The halls aren’t dangerous, just chaotic. I’ve got a lot of friends at (other high schools) and they have metal detectors and police dogs.”

For the rest of the discussion, students debate their role (and whether they have one) in advancing civility within their school. Discussions like the one that on this day has engaged Danny are one reason for advisories, part of the model for small schools.

A quiet, good-looking kid with a contagious smile, Danny is somewhat shy and unassuming, but not afraid to say what he likes and doesn’t like. He’s a baseball player with an athletic build. But there’s also something of the grunge in him. He plays drums in a reggae/funk band and wears small, thick gold hoops in both ears.

He’s an average student and maybe could do better in some subjects, but he has to feel engaged.

Danny was supposed to go to a Catholic high school, but his dad lost his job and the family could not afford to send him to private school. Danny welcomed the opportunity to attend Heights. He made friends easily, and he’s been playing shortstop on the varsity baseball team since he was a sophomore.
Reggie Golden, a junior in PRIDE School, slides into his usual seat by the window in Jean King-Battle’s pint-sized classroom. He’s supposed to have lunch this period, but this is when he meets with “Leaders With P.R.I.D.E.,” the school’s student leadership group.

The son of a pastor and an accountant, Reggie is a natural-born leader. He has high expectations for himself and those around him.

Before the meeting to choose homecoming key chains can get under way, Reggie has to take care of a few practical items.

“Ms. King-Battle, can I get my iron out of your closet?”

He has gym during “zero period,” before the official start of the school day, and doesn’t have time to iron his clothes beforehand when he’s running late. His friends claim that he also brings his iron to church on Sunday mornings because he’s always running late.

He wouldn’t skip this step, even though it’s now midday. He believes that appearances matter.
That perfectionism can be source of contention for Reggie. He has little patience with people who aren’t willing to make positive changes in their lives. “I just want to find ways to get something done and to work together,” he says.

The product of a musical family, he is always singing a tune — usually gospel. He’s almost as busy outside of school as he is in school.

Even in a room full of student leaders, Reggie is the decision maker. “I like the purple number one with white imprint,” he says.

End of the discussion.