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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When online works better than print

I can't believe I missed this when it first ran in The Washington Post last spring. It was only one of the most e-mailed articles in the history of The Washington Post online. All I can say is, "Wow!"

Magazine writer Gene Weingarten wrote an incredible narrative based on his experiment of putting world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell in street clothes inside the Metro station at L'Enfant Plaza. The experiment was to discover if daily commuters would know the difference between a street musician and a world-class musician.

A truly inspiring multimedia piece (with video, print and audio), it is an amazing reporting effort that is elevated further by Weingarten's masterful writing on why beauty and art matter in this world. It's a long piece, but well worth the read, the watching and the listening.

And such a worthy experiment! So many places to excerpt, but you really have to read and listen yourself. Here's something I found very interesting:
The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

(Bold is mine.)

This great sociological experiment even had Joshua Bell perplexed:

BELL ENDS "AVE MARIA" TO ANOTHER THUNDEROUS SILENCE, plays Manuel Ponce's sentimental "Estrellita," then a piece by Jules Massenet, and then begins a Bach gavotte, a joyful, frolicsome, lyrical dance. It's got an Old World delicacy to it; you can imagine it entertaining bewigged dancers at a Versailles ball, or -- in a lute, fiddle and fife version -- the boot-kicking peasants of a Pieter Bruegel painting.

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he's not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: "I'm surprised at the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!"

He is. You don't need to know music at all to appreciate the simple fact that there's a guy there, playing a violin that's throwing out a whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell's bowing is so intricate that you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don't take visible note of the musician, you don't have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you're not complicit in a rip-off.

It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.

I came to this article by way of AJR writer Charles Layton who wrote that Weingarten admits the story worked better online than in the print magazine. But what pushed me to read the link was Layton's lead:
If you want to see a lovely, soul-satisfying piece of journalism, one that might suggest near-future possibilities for newspapers in the age of the Internet, fire up your browser and go here.
Again I say, "Wow!"

Monday, November 26, 2007

Getting paid for online content at issue in writers' strike. Sound familiar?

NPR reported this morning that the Hollywood writers strike continues and the big contention for negotiations: how and if profits from new media can be shared.

The nut of this story is that work on the Internet is garnering profit in the form of ad dollars for which writers are not being paid but for which producers are earning revenue.

Writers contend that the strike is about the little guys. Sound familiar?

As I repeated often to the powers-that-be in the SPJ amicus debacle, writers are not the ones making a killing off of new media. Their demands appear simple. Residuals are very important to writers and they simply want to share in the profit with producers when producers make a profit.

Sounds simple enough, but there's always an analyst around to complicate the matter.

New media consultant Shelly Palmer: "The idea that you could tie percentages to one piece of creative makes all the sense in the world if you don't understand how producers produce and how studios produce and how the pool of risk capital is risked."

He contends that the failure to success ratio is figured into profits (implying that those profits are much less than writers believe), but of course how that is calculated is, well, nebulous.

Internet entertainment analyst Jim McQuivey: "What happens is that in the short run the producers taking their content to the Internet are actually making a very handsome profit and this is a little secret that they don't want everyone to know."

Well, of course. But then other analysts chalks it up to anxiety and uncertainty about where the revenue is coming from. Funny, I didn't hear anyone say there wasn't any revenue, just that they don't know where it's coming from. It's all very curious.

Writers are all for making that accounting process simple (call it select, focus, reduce applied to accounting): All the money goes to one place and whatever is left after expenses is paid to both producers and writers.

With the stakes this incredibly high, we're not holding our breath that this will be resolved soon.

"I don't remember a time when I think both sides needed to win more: If I was a writer, I wouldn't budge an inch. If I was a producer, I wouldn't budge an inch," says Palmer.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Giving thanks this week

Everyone once in a while I go through these extended work frenzies. Today, I emerge from a six-week-long period of hibernation and extended work. The fruits of that labor are just being revealed here and in publications. Some are still to come, others are a bit longer in the making, but I'm having fun with it all.

I hope you'll take a moment to see the updates I've made to the right margin. I've added some newer work there and a new category for the editing I'm doing these days. The NCAA Women's Final Four wrap-up book will be ready later this week, so I'll post about that on Monday. The Catalyst-Ohio editing work has been very rewarding. A trial editing assignment for the magazine has turned into a steady flow of work for the next few months.

In the spirit of the holiday, let me say I'm so thankful for the work I'm able to do—a real mix of things for love and money.

Time for friends
On Monday night, Dan and I met up with two of his good pals from college. I told him just to go and enjoy (Monday nights are crazy at our house), but they asked to see me, too. So I went along and was so glad I did. We had a great time with lots of laughs.

Bevy of birthdays
Thanksgiving is synonymous with birthdays in our house. My niece, Natalie, turns 5 tomorrow. On the Hoke side, my nephew Ted will be 16 next week and my niece Mary will be 15. And, of course, my own Ry Guy turns 15 on Friday. All of them have taken turns sharing their birthday with Thanksgiving.

Fifteen—yikes! Seems like yesterday. We'll be celebrating his birthday on the basketball court. Ryan opens his freshman basketball season at home against North Olmsted on Friday. It's a triple-header at Bay (with JV and varsity to follow). He's starting power forward. While he's not as big a fan of basketball as he is of football, he's just glad to be competing again after missing his entire football season to a broken collarbone.

Ryan was born under a football star. I went into labor with him on the day of the OSU/Michigan game. Danny had a bunch of buddies over to our Rocky River duplex for the game and his famous chili. I knew something was happening, but didn't want to alarm him out of his football reverie.

We wound up at the hospital around 4 the next morning. That Sunday was the Browns/Steelers game. Ryan took his sweet time in arriving—23 hours. He was a big boy—9 pounds, 14 ounces, 21 inches long born on his due date. He's still a big boy at 6' 1", though he's quite lanky these days. He's counting down until he can hit the weight room in March, giving up lacrosse in the spring, which he really loved to play, to prepare for football.

Oh how time does fly.

Happy Birthday, Ry! I'm so proud to be your mom.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Profile of Sister Carol Anne Smith in Magnificat magazine

The latest issue of Magnificat High School magazine [available as PDF] contains a profile I wrote about Sister Carol Anne Smith, who is now president of Mags. Here's the story below.

Sister Carol Anne Smith comes home to Magnificat
By Wendy A. Hoke

Sister Carol Anne Smith grew up on Cleveland’s west side blessed with the clarity of knowing from an early age that her life would be devoted to God. The oldest girl of seven children, Sister Carol Anne grew up in a home she describes as “full of unconditional love, happiness and joy.”

Her parents taught their children at an early age that they could not love what they did not know. Learning about God and prayer were a daily part of the family’s life. That strong faith and unconditional love carried her family through the loss of two children, including one brother, Johnny, who drowned in Lake Erie at age 3 and another brother, Willie, who was killed by a truck at age 15.

“Those kinds of tragedies can either break families apart or their faith can keep them going, which is what happened my family’s case,” she said, from her office as the new President of Magnificat High School.

“When Willie died, I had already made the decision to enter the convent and left for the motherhouse two months after his death. In those days when you left for religious life, you really left.”

Despite her conviction of God’s purpose for her, she describes leaving home as the hardest thing she ever did. “Our parents used to talk to us about our vocation in terms of God’s call to us. They never pressured us; they only told us that our response was to pray to know God’s call,” she said.

Very quietly and steadily she discerned a life in the Sisters of the Humility of Mary.

The sisters’ influence was strong during her high school days at Lourdes Academy. “I related to their joy and humanness and deep concern for others.”

She and her classmates were very involved with the issues of the times, namely the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. “I was editor of the school newspaper and got to interview Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We even chased Maria Von Trapp all over Cleveland one afternoon for an interview,” she recalled, laughing.

At 18, she left her then-grieving family to enter the convent in western Pennsylvania. She spent three years of her novitiate immersed in community life and theological study.

Vatican II was in full swing and Sister Carol Anne wore the habit less than one year before all religious communities moved to live more purposefully in the world in accordance with their founding purpose.

The 1960s were a time of great change and not everyone adjusted. “I used to feel for the older sisters who went through the change with such grace and dignity. They were wonderful role models.

“Our sisters were primarily involved in teaching and nursing. I knew I was not cut out to be nurse! I was always drawn to teaching. By the time I had to make my choice, we were able to express a preference. While I always loved little ones, I felt drawn to secondary education. These high school years are so precious and formative.”

Sister Carol Anne looks to this time in a young person’s life as a real privilege and significant responsibility. “High school teachers can have a powerful influence over students who, at this time in their lives, are more interested in outside influences,” she said.

When she was very young and in only her fourth year of teaching, she was asked to become part of the administration at Magnificat. Sister Carol Anne admits that whatever she saw as her life’s set course was changing. Even though she accepted the path that led to becoming assistant principal and then principal, she feels as if she’s never left teaching, serving as a mentor to many others.

Her success as principal at Magnificat led to her being called to a much larger community as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Cleveland and Secretary for Education and Catechesis.

Working with Bishop Anthony Pilla reinforced in her the idea that we are here to be of service, which is the opportunity Sister Carol Anne now believes she’s been given as President of Magnificat.

“I see faithfulness—absolutely—in young women today. I’m so impressed by their awareness of Mary. She was a young girl, the same age as the girls here, when she was called by God,” she said.

“We are here to implement a mission which calls girls to imitate Mary. That the students grasp that is absolute; that they are challenged at every front is also absolutely true.”

She believes that young women are better prepared to meet these challenges when they witness others who allow God to work in their lives. The message in the Gospels and the call to Mary are indeed counter-cultural.

Tapping into the natural generosity and idealism in young people through service and campus ministry, which are the most popular activities at Magnificat, also helps to reinforce that message.

She’s confident in the work ahead. “I met with every single staff member and asked what makes Magnificat a wonderful place. They all responded, ‘It’s the students.’ Likewise, I met with juniors in groups of 20 and asked them about Magnificat’s strengths. They responded that the teachers care deeply about us.

“Students bring life to the school and I’m looking forward to meeting them. We want girls to understand their faith at the same level they understand AP calculus or British Lit. How can we settle for immature lives of faith?”

As president she will lead the Board, alumnae and the entire school community in fulfilling the mission of the school.

It’s a role that seems made for her.

“Sister Carol Anne has always been supportive of the educational mission of the Church, and she consistently demonstrates her commitment to Catholic education, her knowledge, her willingness to learn and her enthusiasm about the future of Catholic schools,” said Margaret Lyons, Secretary for Education/Superintendent for the Diocese of Cleveland.

“As a leader she exemplifies well her faith, her academic acuity, her professional and managerial expertise. She is an organized, honest, creative, strong and high-energy person,” Lyons said. “She possesses a graciousness that will be apparent to staff, families and students. She translates her personal grace into an atmosphere of hospitality and strong Catholic identity.”

Paul G. Clark, President, Northern Ohio Banking, National City Bank, said, “(Sister Carol Anne) is exceptional and effective and gracious about securing resources to support a mission. She’s an incredible fund raiser.”

Clark, who worked with her on the Alleluia Campaign to raise money for inner city Catholic Schools (they raised a record $1.3 million), believes her vow to her order and to teaching and her belief in young people is all coming together in her position at Magnificat.

“She is pure in her motives and desire to help young women learn and grow,” he said.

Clearly, the many qualities Sister Carol Anne brings to her new position are a blessing to the entire Magnificat community. It certainly is nice to have her home.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fr. Joe story is online

The gospel of hope is available online. Yesterday I attended the Deo Gratias mass and reception at Parmadale. It's the annual muckety-muck brunch for big-time diocesan donors, but it also was the official recognition of Father Joseph McNulty, who received the Archbishop Hoban Award for Distinguished Service (and MY reason for being there).

Father Joe is the pastor at St. Augustine Parish on West 14th Street in Tremont. Many people know of St. Augustine's for its Hunger Center and ministries to the poor and homeless, but it also is home to thriving deaf and blind communities.

If you're looking for a spiritually enriching mass then I would recommend the 10 a.m. Sunday mass for the deaf. As you can see from the photo (left, by William Rieter), Father Joe signs the whole mass.

This is a big week for St. Augustine's as it serves thousands of meals at its Hunger Center, surrounding sites and to the homebound this Thanksgiving. Ironically, Father Joe told me that he resisted the idea of a Hunger Center nearly 30 years ago.

At Thanksgiving, the parish usually made up 300 to 400 turkey baskets to distribute to the community. “We were figuring on the same size crowd when we decided to serve the meal. However, that first meal we served 1,500 people. We weren’t prepared. I went to Kenny Kings and bought enough chicken to finish serving the day. Fortunately, the manager donated some of the food,” he says.

Volunteers have been cooking, slicing and freezing turkeys for weeks in preparation of Thursday's meal. Anyone can serve a plate of food at a hunger center, but if you want to make a difference in someone's life, consider sitting down and talking to them. It can change a life.

Sister Corita Ambro, who runs the Hunger Center, shared this story yesterday: One volunteer didn’t have much work to do so she suggested he sit and talk to a man having a meal in the Hunger Center. They talked and talked even after the meal ended. When they were finished, the man handed the volunteer a gun and said he had been so depressed that he was going to kill himself that day. But the volunteer, by taking the time to talk with him, convinced him that life was still worth living.

“God wanted that volunteer here,” says Father McNulty. “The real purpose for our work is the contact with people. We need the poor to meet others. It’s hard to have hope when the only people you see around you are those like you.”

On another but somewhat related noted: When I worked at Sun Newspapers in the early '90s, I often received lovely handwritten notes from the people about whom I wrote (along with my share of hate mail). This continued when I worked at Avenues magazine. But I've noticed that rarely do people bother to write a handwritten note these days. Heck, you're lucky to get an e-mail acknowledgment.

That's why I was so thankful to have received such a lovely thank you on Saturday from Sister Megan Dull for this story I wrote about her and her art. She wrote:
"Thank you for the article, But even more, thank you for the conversation that was the seed bed for what you wrote. The ideas & experiences flowed easily & opened up avenues to even wider thoughts. It's not often that that happens so richly! Then within the article you distilled so well the heart of all we bantered about for—what, 2 hours?!?"
Of course someone called to complain that Sister Megan was fostering goddess worship, pagan rituals and an image of St. Francis that is counter to the church. Her response to the criticism? Laughter. ("I've arrived! I'm controversial!) More evidence of the filters we bring to our consumption of the written word.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The gospel of hope

From today's Catholic Universe Bulletin:
The gosepl of hope
Father Joseph McNulty brings hope to the margins through St. Augustine’s diverse ministries
By Wendy A. Hoke

Father Joseph McNulty is preaching this Sunday morning on Luke's story of Zacchaeus. He paints the story of the tax collector who hid in a tree only to be called to open his home to Jesus not only with his words, but also with his hands.

“The people I see think Jesus doesn’t want to come to them, that God would not forgive them. That’s not true,” he says to the congregation gathered at St. Augustine Parish. “There’s no person Jesus doesn’t want to be with. I find real hope in this story and I hope it helps you find hope for yourselves and also for those who feel very far from Jesus.”

This is the weekly Mass for the deaf at the parish in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood and Father McNulty, pastor for 30 years, signs the entire Mass.

Petitions are offered for the poor, hurting, forgotten, shunned, sick, suffering, recovering and dying. But it's hope that Father McNulty and the many others who support the work of St. Augustine in its ministries to the deaf, blind, mentally ill, disabled, poor and homeless, build their life around.

“When we meet the poor we meet Christ. As a church we bring them a sense of hope that we truly love and are dedicated to them,” he says.

For his efforts and leadership, Father McNulty will receive the Archbishop Hoban Award for distinguished service to the Diocese of Cleveland this Sunday. It's the highest honor given by the diocese.

“I’m very honored to receive the award, but it’s really for all the people who work in our ministries here. So I am honored to receive it in their name,” he says.

The award will be presented at the Deo Gracias Mass and brunch at Parmadale. Mass begins at 10:00 a.m. with the program afterward.

St. Joseph Sister Corita Ambro, who has been at St. Augustine longer than Father McNulty, says the award is well deserved and long overdue.

“He goes far beyond his duty in caring for his people,” Sister Ambro says. “The Irish in him keeps him from being a hugger, but his heart is overwhelming.”

His philosophy is like that of St. Francis de Sales: If you’re praying and someone comes to the door, leave your prayer and go answer the door, says Sister Ambro.

She calls him a natural teacher and mediator. “He knows where the central road is and that’s where he’s going.”

One of eight children of Irish immigrants, Father McNulty grew up in St. Thomas Aquinas parish. He describes himself as a “lifer” having entered the seminary in high school, but his early exposure to the marginalized of society helped to influence his ministry.

“We were probably poor, but I didn’t know it,” he says, partly because his family had hope and a connection to others. “My dad had a cousin who was a divorced single mom and every week he would buy enough food for her and her child. Back then we called homeless people bums. My mom always fed them and also tried to give them advice. Both of my parents really inspired me."

Younger brother Dennis McNulty is director of disability services for Catholic Charities and plays bass guitar in the St. Augustine choir. He says that their parents gave all of the McNulty children a real sense of service to others.

"Prayer was central to our lives and church was central to our community," he says. "We have a keen sense of caring for people."

While in seminary Father McNulty worked for what was then called the welfare department and found that through working with the poor, he felt the strength of the gospel message.

“True poverty is when you don’t have the material or spiritual resources to have a sense of hope,” he says. “I don’t believe that physical poverty can overwhelm because you still have a connection to others that can help you beyond the material needs.

“Spiritually when you are so destroyed by poverty that you see no way out is far more devastating. The problem today is that we’re seeing entire families in this predicament. We try to give people a sense of hope and that takes time and contact. It’s hard to have hope when the only people you see around you are those like you.”

When he arrived at the West 14th Street parish in 1972 as an associate, he came as director of the apostolic for the deaf and hearing impaired. Father McNulty quickly learned of the generosity of spirit of the community he was appointed to serve.

“The deaf are a real community and they gather in that community. They know each other through generations. We’ve used that model with our other groups and as a tie-in to our ministry to the poor,” he says.

So many of St. Augustine’s ministries overlap. While he teaches American Sign Language classes to the general population, he also teaches an ASL class to the blind. He’s proud of the Alcoholic’s Anonymous community at St. Augustine and often tries to get visitors to the Hunger Center to give a meeting a try. Every year he does about 30 Fifth Steps with recovering alcoholics. (Admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.) And at least one AA meeting per week is interpreted for the deaf.

He doesn’t allow panhandling as a rule, but has been known to give spare change if he gets an honest story about how it will be spent, even if it’s for a 40-ounce beer.

Just keep him away from the turkeys. As a group of high school students unload frozen turkeys, he jokes that he is not encouraged to help with this particular ministry.

Instead, he is headed to Walsh Hall just behind the rectory for the twice-monthly meeting of St. Augustine Buckeye Deaf Seniors Citizens.

The deaf share not only a language, but also a culture, a passion for the St. Augustine community and a love for Father McNulty.

Speaking as he signs, Father McNulty reminds the seniors of the Bishop Richard G. Lennon’s upcoming visit and the reception following Mass. “You can ask him for a younger priest,” jokes Father McNulty. They smile and wave their hands in applause. “If you need a way to come to church, let us know.”

St. Augustine’s many communities and ministries have found a home, thanks to Father McNulty’s leadership.

As he distributes Communion at Mass, Father McNulty taps his chest twice, “The body of Christ.” Parishioners bring their hands out and then together in prayer to signify, “Amen.”

“Lord God, give us new hope through the Eucharist,” he concludes.

Hoke is a freelance writer.

Seeing colors in music

Staying in the musical theme today, I'm interested in reading this new book by Oliver Sacks, which explores how music occupies more area in our brains than language and the neurological outcomes of our inherent musicality.
"In Musicophilia, he examines the powers of music through the individual experiences of patients, musicians, and everyday people--from a man who is struck by lightning and suddenly inspired to become a pianist at the age of forty-two, to an entire group of children with Williams syndrome who are hypermusical from birth; from people with "amusia," to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans, to a man whose memory spans only seven seconds--for everything but music."
I stayed with my sister in Columbus this week. Her daughter, Natalie, who turns five on Thanksgiving, has some unusual musical qualities. She has perfect pitch and can drum incredibly complex rhythms, something she has done since she was very young. She often uses music to communicate. But her latest use of music is fascinating and something I'd like to explore further for an article.

Jen was telling me that she likes to listen to Enya on the way to school in the morning. This week Natalie told her mom that she wanted to listen to "The Red Song." Jen didn't know what she meant so she scanned through the CD until Natalie indicated she had the right one. She was happy with The Red Song, but when the next song came on, she told her mom, "I don't like The Blue Song."

Natalie sees colors in music. She's a fascinating little girl and I always wonder what she's thinking. Maybe this new book will provide some insight.

Feeling Good

There's this radio dead zone on Interstate 71 between exit 189 and about Delaware, Ohio, that makes me glad I carry my iPod. I'm not a proponent of driving with earbuds in, but I had to pass the time somehow on my way home from Columbus yesterday if only to keep me awake after a long two days of working over story drafts.

My musical tastes are eclectic, but when I'm driving I like to listen to bluesy, jazzy tunes I can really bellow. Course, I'd never be caught dead doing that in front of anyone. It's not that I can't carry a tune, because I can. I used to take voice lessons, I read music and quite frankly my sight-reading skills are still strong years after I quit putting them to regular use. It's just that it's a private thing, you know, between me and my car.

I never thought I'd find a better rendition of "Feelin' Good" than the one by Nina Simone, but the young Canadian crooner Michael Buble's version comes darned close.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Find the richness in life and others

"Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself." — Henry Miller

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Story behind "Pulitzer's Gold"

I love the story behind the story and so have added "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism," by Roy Harris Jr. to my must-read list. Columbia Tribune has an article about the book, which is scheduled for January 2008 publication.
With compelling stories and photos, "Pulitzer’s Gold" tells how planning, talent, timing, dedicated newsrooms, supportive owners and sometimes luck can create stories that expose racism as well as governmental, environmental and corporate abuses.

Himself a journalist, Harris' idea for the book "began as a 'labor of love' when in 2002 Harris commemorated the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth with the presentation of a program on the Public Service awards at the Saint Louis University School of Law. His father, veteran reporter Roy Harris, who died in 1980, won the prize in 1950 and helped the Post-Dispatch gain three other gold medals between 1937 and 1948. To the author’s amazement, he found editors and reporters were not well-versed in their own newspaper’s legacy. Even the paper’s history booklet, once distributed to reporters, said almost nothing about the staffers who had worked on some of the newspaper’s biggest, award-winning projects."

"The people at the Post-Dispatch didn’t know much about Pulitzer Prize history and didn’t discuss the Public Service award, ... and they are the only ones to win five," said Harris, who as a copyboy in the 1960s occasionally delivered coffee to Joseph Pulitzer Jr.

He added,"I was amazed how little had been written about how these stories came to be.

"Momentary entries into people's lives"

"Momentary entries into people’s lives are interesting. And that’s unlike a doctor or a lawyer who have lots of boring and routine clients and patients. You get to get out. You go to work in the morning, the question is ‘What’s interesting? What’s going on? What don’t we know about? What has meaning? Where is this issue going to go?’ You are in the belly of the beast of real American life. Not too many people get to do that."
— Bob Woodward describing what he likes about journalism in the Fayetteville Observer.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Assignment: "War and Peace"

My reading patterns are hardly fixed, but in general I read more serious works in the winter. There's something about snuggling on the couch with my favorite sweater, blanket and book that lends itself to meatier material. Weekends seem not quite so hectic and therefore afford more time for digesting big themes.

Yesterday afternoon, I made my choice for this winter. My general rule is that books don't get shelved until they've been read (hence the stacks found in my bedroom and my office). I've read most of the books in the various bookshelves of my home with one big exception.

Sitting behind the glass hutch of an antique writing desk is a yellowed copy of Count Leo Tolstoy's, "War and Peace: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume." I picked it up a few years ago at a library book sale (one of the best sources of good reading material).

It's inscribed: "To Bob, With Love, Mother & Dad (Christmas 1960)." I'm not so sure Bob ever bothered to read the book. The pages are not dog-eared, passages are not underlined and it displays no evidence of having been read or even handled.

But it soon will.

In the absence of a book club at which I can openly discuss the work, I've decided to write about my progress and thoughts here. I do have some preliminary thoughts.

1) Size alone does not intimidate. My Modern Library version is 1,136 pages of tiny type. Besides I read Hermione Lee's epic biography of Edith Wharton this summer.

2) Russian themes do not intimidate. I've long been a fan of Russian literature: Chekov short stories, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," "Dr. Zhivago," "Crime and Punishment" and, of course, "Anna Karenina."

3) Sweeping landscapes, war and politics, social mores and human love and folly make for fascinating storytelling and I do love a good story.

So I'm off, having read the first three chapters during which I'm trying to figure out who are all the main characters. If you'd like to join me in reading, I'd be happy to host discussion at Creative Ink. If not, I'll still be writing about and sharing along the way. Or if you've read the book and want to share your thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment.

Happy reading!

(Note: The cover shown here is not the same as my book. I got it from Amazon because my copy is too fat for my scanner.)

P.J. O'Rourke on distraction

2) How much time - if any - do you spend on the Web? Is it a distraction or a blessing?

I don’t even know which end of a computer one is supposed to gaze into. I’ve never used a computer. I do all my writing on an ancient IBM Selectric. And I do my research in books. Once in a while I’ll hire a college student to pull something off the Internet, if I need an up-to-the-minute statistic or a Lexis/Nexis search or that sort of thing. But that’s as far as my use of the Web goes. This is not because I am a Luddite. It’s because I have - as most writers do when they’re writing - super-severe Attention Deficit Disorder. I can be distracted by a dust mote, a loose cuff button, an unopened junk mail solicitation from The Dizziness From Standing Up Too Fast Fund. I once had a conversation with some fellow writers about this problem. One of them summarized it as, “Gosh doesn’t the top of the refrigerator need dusting?” If I had a computer I would do nothing but play with it all day.P.J. O'Rourke as interviewed by Dwight Garner on NYT's Paper Cuts blog.

America's founding more "patched and piebald" than planned

"[Historian/author Joseph] Ellis rescues his enterprise by going beyond the familiar critique of the founding to explore a point that remains underappreciated: that America was constructed to foster arguments, not to settle them." Jon Meacham reviewing "American Creation: Triumph and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic," by Joseph J. Ellis in New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Eleanor the ornery campaigner

From "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families," by Noemie Emery:
"As if trying to show where his heart really was, Ted [Roosevelt Jr.] tried to campaign on his impressive war record and held flag-waving rallies surrounded by veterans. But he was fighting not only one, but two major enemies: [Alfred E.] Smith, a veteran campaigner and genuine success story from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and his own father, whose galvanic memory made all around him seem dim by comparison, including, alas, his own sons. He was also damaged by an implied connection to one of the many scandals of the Harding administration, the transfer of oil leases at Teapot Dome in Wyoming that briefly had been under his control in the Navy Department but in which he had played no real part. It was at this point that Eleanor [Roosevelt] moved in for the kill, dressing a car in a papier-mache "teapot" in which she trailed Ted as he made campaign speeches, interrupting him with blasts of steam from its improvised "spout." On Election Day, Ted lost the state [New York] by a hundred thousand votes out of a three-million-vote total, and his dream of succeeding his father was shattered. Eleanor, for her part had emerged as a vengeful, and powerful, player. And Franklin's own rise had begun."

Thursday, November 08, 2007

No long-lasting love for newspaper Web sites

Freelancer Erik Sherman offers a bit of business advice for freelancers who had hoped to turn what used to be their steady newspaper print writing into steady newspaper Web writing. His advice? Forget it. Find another market for your work. His primary source is this study by Nielson/Net Ratings (PDF) and released by the Newspaper Association of America.
What that tells you is forget doing long stories for newspaper web sites. No one is reading them, because no one is spending enough time to do so. In fact, forget these as markets. When the New York Times web site is getting under 14,000 unique visitors a month, something is definitely going wrong. Even if it's getting five times that number, this is bad news.
The top five newspapers and their page views and average time per visit for the six-month period between March and August 2007 are:

Site / # Page Views Per Month / Average Time Per Visit Per Month

1. New York Times / 13,857 / 20 min. 20 sec.

2. Washington Post / 11,682 / 14 min. 14 sec.

3. USA Today / 9,186 / 10 min. 57 sec.

4. Wall Street Journal / 8,337 / 9 min. 55 sec.

5. Los Angeles Times / 4,992 / 12 min. 34 sec.

32. The Plain Dealer / 989 / 10 min. 55 sec.

What a cluster...

As I visit parishes, clergy and parishioners across the diocese as part of my work with the Catholic Universe Bulletin, I always inquire as to the progress of "clustering." (Call it my informal research.) For the non-Catholic readers, this is the charge from the Bishop, er, excuse me, Vibrant Life hooha to have groups of parishes meet to determine, based on demographics, finances and decreased supply of priests, who should close.

It's a process fraught with all manner of tensions, uncertain expectations, accusations, turf battles—you know, all the best that the Catholic church can muster. At some point, I'll go into more depth here about what the process and how it is or isn't working.

But let me leave you today with the closing of a good friend of mine who sits on one of these cluster committees:
Non-carborundum illigitimus te
(Don't let the bastards get you down.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A date at the movies

I've made a date for myself next weekend to see the new film, Love in the Time of Cholera. The novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorites, so beautiful, so haunting.

The teaser for the film, starring a mesmerizing Spanish actor Javier Bardem says, "How long would you wait for love?" The answer in this case is found in the last three lines of the book. The written story evokes such strong imagery—I've envisioned everything from the lush sepia of late 19th- and early 20th-century Cartagena to the scents of flowers, fruit, the sea air and love most of all—both young and old. I'm almost reluctant to see films of my favorite books for fear that a filmmaker's version won't align with my own. But this looks promising and it's been so long since I've been to the movies.

Anyway, if you've not read the book, I highly recommend doing so. Here's the opening sentence:
"It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love."

Film as meditation

Paul Pearson, director of the Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., forwarded this announcement about a new film about the Carthusian order.
On November 15, in Pasteur Hall, Room 102 at 7:00 p.m., there will be a screening of "Le Grand Silence" (U.S. title: "Into Great Silence,") Paul Groninger's film documentary about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. It's an award-winning and moving documentary. The movie is free of charge.
Here's the synopsis from "Into Great Silence":
Nestled deep in the postcard-perfect French Alps, the Grande Chartreuse is considered one of the world’s most ascetic monasteries. In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about them. They said they would get back to him. Sixteen years later, they were ready. Gröning, sans crew or artificial lighting, lived in the monks’ quarters for six months—filming their daily prayers, tasks, rituals and rare outdoor excursions. This transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict one—it has no score, no voiceover and no archival footage. What remains is stunningly elemental: time, space and light. One of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created, INTO GREAT SILENCE dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life. More meditation than documentary, it’s a rare, transformative theatrical experience for all.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Save the date: PWLGC is on the move

I hope you'll join me and other Northeast Ohio writers for the inaugural holiday bash of The Poets' & Writers' League. "A Work in Progress" is a gala event to be held from 7 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 8, 2007, in PWLGC's new home in the Artcraft Building, located at 2570 Superior Avenue (Suite 203). Here's the skinny on the move from Judith Mansour-Thomas, the new executive director.

The League Is Moving!

On December 1, 2007, the Poets' & Writers' League of Greater Cleveland will move from the Fairhill Road townhouse, also known as the Lit Center, to the ArtCraft Building at 2570 Superior Avenue, (Suite 203) near downtown. After seven wonderful years at the Lit, we have made the decision, along with many other small to mid-size arts organizations, to commit to the revitalization of the Midtown Arts District of Cleveland.

In our lovely, new 1,600-square-foot, renovated-warehouse-but-gallery-like space (you can tell I like descriptive writing, no?), we will offer a cadre of fabulous new classes and workshops and host readings by the area's finest writers and poets. We will also host special events—some will be exclusive for PWLGC members and/or Ohio Writer subscribers, some will be open to the general public (well ... word lovers, anyway), some will cater to readers, and all will, I hope, invigorate Northeast Ohio's thriving and diverse literary arts community.

With a new home, centrally located for east-siders, west-siders, and those who do not live in our river-divided city, we hope that you will visit, and visit often. Your continued support of the PWLGC is now more important than ever, if we are to place local literary talent on the national landscape.

Join me, along with the PWLGC Board of Directors, in celebrating this exciting new phase of our growth. On the evening of December 8, we will host "A Work in Progress," the grand opening of our new home, so please save the date. Plan to join us for drinks, food, and merry making. See you soon!


Judith Mansour-Thomas
Executive Director

Monday, November 05, 2007

Thoughts from across the pond

With many deadlines in the next three weeks, it's likely that my presence here will be minimal. In between editing and writing today, I thought I'd share these two quotes found today on my Google homepage:

This one seems more important today than at any time in history. 'Tis duly noted Sir Arthur.
"I never guess. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
And in the wonderfully dark and sometimes-violent way in which the Irish can speak, I give you Samuel Beckett:
"Let me go to hell, that's all I ask, and to go on cursing them there, and them look down and hear me, that might take some of the shine off their bliss." — Samuel Beckett

Thursday, November 01, 2007

What happens to the mid-career journalist?

Fellowships, sabbatical, grad school—all those things sound like wonderful opportunities to me at age 40. I am what's commonly referred to as the "mid-career journalist," though I can tell you that after nearly 20 years, I've got a lot of career still ahead.

I'm smart, resourceful, experienced, well-read and innovative. But I am not the stuff of newspapers today. Here's why, according to a piece by Maryn McKenna.
It's true: Reporters must be entrepreneurial on their own behalf and look for opportunities to innovate. But a problem -- and this is not a new observation -- is that the traditional layered organization of newsrooms is structurally hostile to innovation. (Context: I currently do magazine freelance and work at a Web site, but spent 20 years at four newspapers, exiting a year ago.) It's incredibly hard for journalists who are trying to innovate to push a Web-related idea up the ladder. The answer might seem to be to try it yourself -- but at some papers, personal, non-paper blogs are explicitly forbidden, or must be pre-approved and vetted.

New journalistic opportunities appear to be developing around local and hyperlocal coverage. But the news profession generally denigrates local news -- not just at newspapers, but through our entire reward system. Who's the aspirational model in j-schools: William Allen White, or Woodward & Bernstein? John Fetterman, or Seymour Hirsch?

When they hear "hyperlocal," most mid-career people also hear some extra unspoken words attached: "...and short." That's an obvious deterrent: No one older than, say, 38 went into and stuck with journalism because their ultimate career aspiration was tapping out neighborhood shorts in the front seat of their car.

Here's the opportunity that's being missed: The central issue for writers isn't where the story is, local or national; it's how rich the story is, and how deep they are allowed to go. People stay in journalism because it lets them exercise particular talents as fact finders and storytellers, and that exercise gives them joy. (God knows no one stays for the money.)

(Emphasis is mine.)

Amen! Richness, depth, detail, story...those are the values for which I strive in my work.

Turned off by chocolate?

Ugh! Today is one of those running around days and having just walked in the door—starving—I reached for a couple Milky Ways from the kids' Halloween loot. I ate two in a hurry and now feel sick, I mean really repulsed.

I'm very fond of dark chocolate and haven't had milk chocolate in ages. Maybe it's just that my taste buds run more toward the bitter than the creamy, gooey mess of milk chocolate. Ugh!