The LA Times Applies a Factual Standard

NEW SLAUGHTERTalk about setting dangerous precedents.

The Los Angeles Times recently declared that it was no longer going to run “factually inaccurate” letters about climate change. Anyone who follows the, uh, “debate” on that issue knows what the paper is talking about. Climate science is up there with abortion and gun control in terms of setting off an irrational, emotional explosion among a certain faction of the public … with the notable difference that there is actual science involved in the mechanics of human-caused climate shifts.

A reporter at Mother Jones then called around to nine other big mainstream papers to see what their policies are regarding … reader opinions that have no basis in fact. He got some great weasel-word quotes. The best/worst came from the Denver Post, who said:

Continue reading “The LA Times Applies a Factual Standard”

A Tragedy Runs Through It, and Through Us All

My editor, when I was a young reporter, tells me to interview a mother whose son has just died in a fire in their apartment. I ask my editor why. My editor tells me to interview the family of a marine held hostage in Iran when the Desert One rescue mission crashes and burns, leaving the hostages still hostage. I ask why. What am I going to ask? How do you feel?

The crowd at the memorial service for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters killed in Arizona cheered when a speaker asked the media to stay away from the lone survivor, the young man who’d been the lookout and barely escaped.

Why do those damn reporters want to interview the survivors of tragedy? Heartless bastards. Ghouls.

Reporters capture and transmit life. And tragedy is part of life. And feeling all of life keeps us human. That’s why. But still we bitch about the reporters. While we read their work, their heartbreaking work.

The New York Times today runs a story recounting the last text messages between a Granite Mountain firefighter and his wife. He tells her he’s going in to the fire: “I think I will be down there for awhile on this one.” He tells his wife he misses her and their kids already. After awhile he texts a photo of several firefighters heading for the smoke. She asks if he’ll be there all night. There is never a reply.

National Public Radio interviews young people at an informal grief-spattered remembrance for another Granite Mountain firefighter, from California. His sister, fighting back tears, remembers him in cowboy boots lassoing her when they were both kids. Never more, she says. The dead young man’s brother says his only regret is that he wasn’t with his brother when he died. With him.

Makes you think about life’s fragility, transience, beauty, holiness. Makes you feel love for your own folks. Maybe makes you think you’d better tell them you love them, go see them, because tomorrow might be too late.

On a plane a week or so ago I thought, looking at my iPhone, what would I text Lisa if the plane were going down? I decided I’d tell her that being with her is the best part of my life. The plane didn’t go down. I texted her that anyway. We should say that stuff.

Reading about, hearing about, how people deal with tragedy, with strain, with troubles you’ve not yet had, or with troubles you have, brings our humanity up wriggling and dripping from the bland tranquilized surface of every day. We need to see and hear that stuff. Much as we sometimes want to turn away, it’s hard to, and most often we look. At the accident. We listen to the survivor. Maybe it’s “there but for the grace of god…” But mostly we are attracted to tragedy because, I think, tragedy, like joy, makes us feel the depth and power of life. And we need to feel. Deeply.

Norman Maclean, who wrote, late in his life, A River Runs Through It, also wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about firefighters killed in 1949 in a hauntingly similar way to this week’s Arizona tragedy. If you want to get inside what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, read this 1992 book.

Tell someone you love that you do. Tomorrow never knows.

— Bruce Benidt

William Souder’s “On a Farther Shore” Scores NYTimes Nod

Congratulations to our very Rowdy William Souder whose biography of Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore, has been named to the “100 Notable Books of 2012” by the New York Times.

What a nice acknowledgment for our friend of a job well done.

Author and reviewer Elizabeth Royte calls Williams’s writing “absorbing.” Here’s part of her summary:

In Souder’s telling, almost every aspect of Carson’s life and times becomes captivating: her difficult personal circumstances (she grew up in rural poverty, was the sole breadwinner in her family and battled breast cancer while writing and then defending “Silent Spring”); the publishing milieu; and the continuing friction between those who would preserve nature versus those who would bend it to provide utility for man.

Sources also tell me Bill will be on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” this Saturday, Dec. 1, at 6 p.m. our time. (And, no, I am not his press agent.)

How cool is this all? Way cool. Nicely played, Master Souder.

The Top 5 Best and Worst Things About the Blogosphere

People either love or hate blogs, with little in between. When I first started writing this one, I was definitely a hater. In fact, these were the first words I ever uttered in the bloguverse:

“Blah, blah, blog.  I hate blogs.  Self-centered, self-righteous, self-reinforcing, self-gratification.  Seldom right, but never in doubt.”

Thus began my self-loathing career as a person who writes blogs, but most assuredly is not a “blogger.”  (Those people are pathetic, don’t you think?)

But almost six years later, my take on blogs is a bit more nuanced and ambivalent.  Upon further reflection, this is how the pros and cons of the blogosphere net out for me.

The Worst

Anonymous contributors and the vitriol that brings.  Where blog participants are allowed to be anonymous, conversations get juvenile and shallow in a hurry.   That says a lot about human nature, and it limits the promise of blogs.  For me, this is the worst part of hanging around blogs.

The lack of fact-checking.  When it comes to truthiness, you can trust mainstream news outlets much more than blogs, because there are accountability rules and editors at the ready at mainstream news outlets.  Lots of bloggers don’t care about accuracy, and their readers take them at face value and get deceived.  Even bloggers who care about accuracy make bad mistakes when they are blogging on the fly in the middle of a work day, with no support staff to save them.  All of the inaccuracy in blogs is bad for blog readers, and for the credibility of the medium.

The overwhelming volume of information.  The Google machine tells me that there are currently more than 180 million blogs in existence.  The sheer volume of blogs makes it very difficult to find the worthwhile needles in this cyber-haystack.  That limits the promise of blogs. The “drinking from a firehose” cliche is inadequate here.  Drinking from Niagra Falls?

The echo chamberiszation of the planet.   In the blogosphere, most of us seek out voices that support our preconceived notions.  That balkanizes opinion, insulates us from true contemplation and make us all boorish.

The rush to judgement.  Unlike traditional publications, blogs can be published in the time it takes to click a mouse.  This makes the world move a lot faster.  If bloggers don’t post on breaking news now, they feel like the post will be stale.  As a result, bloggers often bypass education and deliberation, and go straight to pontification.  The world needs more education and deliberation, and less instant pontification, and breakneck speed of blogging aggravates the situation.

The Best

The lack of information gatekeepers.  Pre-Internet, very few of us had the money to start a publication to share our own thoughts.  Very few of us were talented enough to get published.   Even among professional writers, very few were allowed to write whatever they wanted.  Bankers, publishers, and copy editors have historically been among the many powerful barriers to mass unfiltered self-expression.  But free services like WordPress allow anyone to say whatever they want whenever they want.    If their mutterings are interesting or provocative enough, they will get spread around to others, for free.  Blogs have made free speech a little more free.

The lack of money influencing publishing decisions.  Almost no blogger makes money blogging.  That means that blog writing is less likely than mainstream media reporting and commentary to be influenced by commercial considerations, such as “what will the advertisers do if I write that.”   For this reason, there often is more speaking truth to power on blogs than there is in the mainstream news media.

The focus on connecting the dots of the daily news.  Only a relative few bloggers uncover actual news.  The rest of us merely connect the dots of news that is reported by mainstrain news reporters.  What mainstream reporters do is more important than what we do here, because it is a necessary prerequisite of what we do here. But connecting the dots is not unimportant.  News events are not stand alone entities unto themselves.  The interplay of news events matters.  These are  important things for citizens in a democracy to be discussing, and more of that type of discussion is happening because of blogs.

The coverage of previously ignored niches.  Mainstream news reporters necessarily can’t cover every societal niche.  But 180 million bloggers can come pretty close.  For people like me with nichey minds, that’s a good thing.

The lack of editing and style guides.  Many of my English major friends who cuddle up with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and my journalism and PR friends who are slaves to the AP Stylebook, can’t abide the no holds barred nature of blog prose.  They mourn the fact that no editor is used by bloggers to spare readers from the ravages of cliches, clunky phrasing, inconsistent usage, misused-hyphens,  and unconventional word choices (e.g. see “bloguverse,” “nichey,” “The Google machine,” “truthiness”) .  But the raw semantic and syntax anarchy you find in blogs also brings much color, fun, creativity, risk-taking and spontaneity to the conversations.   It makes information exchange a little less stuffy and controlled.  Sorry, Strunk, but I love all of that unsanitized prose.

– Loveland

A Confederacy of Dicks.

Several years ago I had lunch with novelist-travel writer Paul Theroux. In the midst of talking up his latest book the conversation turned to work he had done earlier in his career for The New York Times. While obviously a superb platform for any writer, the job had its frustrations. Like the piece Theroux was asked to write on the city/subway environment, circa mid-70s.

As you know the Times, (aka “The Grey Lady”), has a rather precious policy towards slang, informality and matters of basic human function. The paper that will invariably refer to “Mr. Hitler”, “Mr. Stalin” and “Mr. Manson” also has a hard and fast rule against vulgarisms such as the word … “shit” … which Theroux noticed in appalling amounts all over the streets of Manhattan and in the subways. (The town is cleaner now, thanks to nanny state regulations.)

But in attempting to offer a full, complete and immediately recognizable portrait of the environment he was asked to report on Theroux was required by his Times editors to imbue the stuff he saw fouling the surface everywhere with florid synonyms that were more, well, refined … like “defecation”, “scat” and “droppings”, the latter of which might lead less alert readers to think the city was cursed with a plague of discarded handkerchiefs.

As we enter the stretch run of a truly appalling siege of electioneering, and look at the roots of the disease that has infected today’s Republican party I’m convinced it would be useful to take Theroux’ advice and “describe what you see on the ground in front of you”. “Useful” at least if your intention is to communicate directly, immediately and without possibility of misunderstanding.

Hence, the indisputably appropriate and valuable use of the word “dick” to describe so much of what has gone in the past few years in conservative media and politics. Karl Rove. “Dick”. Dick Cheney. “Dick”. FoxNews. “Dick”. Michael Savage. “Dick”. Tom DeLay. “Dick”. Dick Armey, “Dick”. Frank Luntz. “Dick”. Michelle Malkin. “Dick”. Eric Cantor. “Dick”. Steve King. “Dick”. Louie Gohmert. “Dick”. Todd Akin. “Dick”.

While respectable, proper dictionaries avoid defining “dick” as 100% of Americans undoubtably understand it, (I think “private dick” has a whole new understanding in 2012), various urban dictionaries get it right, offering “jerk” and “asshole” as common, accepted synonyms.

Test it out. Ask the next half-dozen people you meet to define “dick”, in the context of a person or type of behavior. You and I both know what you’ll get: “A completely self-absorbed asshole.” “Someone who doesn’t give a damn what happens to anyone else as long as he gets his.” “One of those jerks who is constantly fucking over you and everyone he deals with.” “A guy (or gal) for whom the truth is some kind of hostile, alien concept to be routinely ignored and polluted at will.”

Others might just say, “Rush Limbaugh”.

My point is that in the era of Tea Party/talk radio conservatism, when garden variety political bullshit has devolved to shameless “dick-ishness”, the culture as a whole would be healthier if professional observers and reporters described it as precisely what they and their audience both know it to be. If you truly have respect for civility and reasonableness it seems to me you have an obligation to call out the dicks who are polluting those virtues.

For example: If NBC’s Chuck Todd were to come on one night and say, “GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, already well established as a self-glorifying, onanistic dick for lying about his marathon prowess, claiming to have ‘climbed’ dozens of 14,000 foot mountains and inexplicably bragging about his body fat ratio being less than most Olympic athletes doubled down on his thoroughly dickish plan to gut Medicare and fatten the fortunes of his corporate cronies by accusing the Obama administration of destroying Medicare as we know it”, people everywhere would take notice – because they’d immediately and fully understand what he was talking about.

I’ve long believed the new “dick” conservative has consciously strategized their dick-ish policies and behavior knowing they can rely on the quaint prissiness of the mainstream media to put a “Grey Lady” gauze over their most vulgar distortions, flagrant lies and transparent duplicity. The likes of Michele Bachmann (a Queen of Dicks), Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney can operate as baldly as they do because their essential dickishness will be given an inappropriate, misleading, respectful makeover by a responsible, respectful, civil press uncomfortable describing — precisely, in a language most familiar to their readers —  what is right there in front of them.

A couple of days ago, while out in the Aspen area,  I made a pilgrimage to Hunter Thompson’s favorite bar, the Woody Creek Tavern, where you do reflect on how rare, wonderful and valuable it is to have someone describing the game of politics so vividly and precisely. When Thompson described Hubert Humphrey as campaigning “like a rat in heat” you knew exactly what he was talking about. Likewise, his description of the soul of Richard Nixon as emblematic the “dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character”, was a completely apt description that made an indelible imprint on the mind of the reader.

There are only a few practitioners of Thompson’s “call-a-dick-a-dick” art on today’s mass media scene. There is of course Charles Pierce at Esquire, who so accurately describes Paul Ryan as a “zombie-eyed granny-starver” and ” … a smiling, aw-shucks murderer of opportunity, a creator of dystopias in which he never will have to live.” (I’m also quite fond of his description of Scott Walker as, “… the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to run their midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin”.)

Likewise, Thompson’s far less chemically-infused heir at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, fully exploits his license to describe a dick as a dick.

But notice how infrequently either appears in the allegedly in the-tank liberal press.

Too much vividness and precision is a liability when you have to be concerned with upsetting a handful of customers who prefer the look, sound and feel of Dick World.

One of Our Own…

Kudos to our blogmate Souder for birthing another book, On a Farther Shore, The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring and it is a fitting time for a top-flight author like Bill to look back on what that book did – and didn’t – mean for the environmental movement and how it came along just as the American people (and others) were first awakening to the idea that “Better Living Through Chemicals” might not be true in every instance.

Mr. Souder gave a nice interview on the book to MinnPost that’s available here and you can – I’m sure – expect to see other interviews pop up on whatever passes for a press tour today.

Well done, Mr. Souder, except for the collateral damage of making the rest of your blogmates look like slackers.  We’d welcome any posting you’d care to make about the book, Ms. Carson or the research and writing process.

– Austin

 

 

Oprah A Lauder of Rowdy Crowder Souder

News Flash:  Rowdy Crowder William Souder’s book about environmental pioneer Rachel Carson, On a Further Shore:  The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, will be available at a book store near you on September 4, 2012.

And here’s the really big news.  Her Oprahness has recommended William’s book to her adoring book-buying throngs, via O Magazine’s list of books you should buy in September.  Congratulations, William!

William didn’t ask us to plug this, but it needed to be noted.  Buy the book, gang, or Oprah will not be pleased.

– The Management

Let’s Give Sorkin and “The Newsroom” Due Credit.

The underlying irony of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show, “The Newsroom”, and I’m sure he’s well aware of it, is that as much as he wants to use it to frame a discussion about the half-assed, highly compromised job so many outlets of professional journalism are doing in this country today, he too has to dilute and diminish his product to keep it commercially viable.

I had to play catch up with the three episodes that have aired so far. The first, where lovable-but-curmudgeonly cable network anchor Jeff Daniels (aka Will McAvoy), goes off on a Northwestern coed for her “let’s all reaffirm each other” question about why America is the greatest country on earth, was ripped about a hundred new ones by virtually every critic on the planet. The knives were obviously out for Sorkin. (There are even video mash-ups of “Sorkinisms”.) Having caught up … the fault I find with the main thrust of the criticism is that it gives too little credit to Sorkin’s larger ambition. The guy has ambitions beyond making another fortune. In its best moments it is plain that he wants to elevate the grade-level discourse of modern commercial entertainment from the fifth to maybe the eleventh, with a dash of college prep work here and there. Can we at least acknowledge that he has other interests than padding his bank account with yet another cop or hospital show stocked with maximum-allowable beef and cheesecake?

Gratuitous name-dropping paragraph … so I asked Sorkin over drinks in a Pasadena restaurant … why he had so consciously avoided the truly unhinged, insane levels of naked partisanship of the Clinton era while cooking up scripts for “The West Wing”? Earlier, I had asked him much the same at press gatherings. His answer remained constant. He wanted to imagine and paint a better world, a world where large-stage politics wasn’t primarily about venal rat-fucking and shameless self-aggrandizing. (He didn’t use the phrase “rat-fucking”, but I knew what he was talking about.)

My counter argument was that if he wanted the frisson of stark reality to drive audience interest (and pundit attention) how could drawing lessons from a protracted bogus scandal like Whitewater, with all the craven demagoguery and serio-comic arm-flapping involved, hurt the ratings? His basic answer was that “West Wing’s” ratings were just fine, thank you.

The commercial dilution factor of “The Newsroom” isn’t in the “speechifying” which seems to annoy both TV critics and general audiences, (but really is pretty entertaining), but rather the “personal relationship” factor. Translated: “Romantic interest” for those forced by their spouse or date to sit through McAvoy railing on about how, in actual fact, more Americans believe in angels than understand their own health insurance. Even Sorkin has said that the success of the show hinges on how much we care about the characters.

Well, dude, on that point you do have some problems. I freely admit that at my advanced age I have only limited patience with still more self-consciously whip smart post grad students agonizing over their romantic choices and failings. But then, that stuff kinda bored me when I was 24. Is life really made better by over-analyzing every remark and statement you make and is made to you? More to the point, while Sorkin’s opening dialogue in “The Social Network”, (via 50-plus takes by director David Fincher), was quite clever, let’s not forget that Mark Zuckerberg was/is trying to “out-asshole” everyone else, including nice girls who might have modified him for the better, though maybe not the wealthier.

Week Two of ‘The Newsroom” was particularly ghastly in terms of the latter-day Tracy-Hepburn ratta-tat-tat battle-of-the-genders dialogue between the kiddies. The contrast between the big, serious, fat-and-ripe news and culture story lines and the cutie-pie love stories for the masses stuff is so extreme whenever the kids come on the screen they might as well put up a card saying — “Adults Are Advised to Use the Next Four Minutes for Bathroom Needs”.

This past week’s episode, with Jane Fonda as the network boss, re-balanced the show in favor of the stuff that Sorkin, who is now 51, (so a ways past grad-school flirtation and angst) knows best, thinks most deeply about and therefore best distinguishes “The Newsroom”.

There are plenty of things to quarrel with in terms of how the newsroom in question functions. Let’s not get started again on the likelihood of any newsroom on any planet advancing the Deepwater Horizon story as far as Sorkin’s crew did on Day #1. But the larger point in Sorkin’s favor is this: At a time when both mainstream entertainment and mainstream journalism, TV in particular, tip-toe only reluctantly and fretfully into large festering cultural issues such as — how the not so bright base of the Tea Party has been radicalized to protect and serve powerful forces largely indifferent to their quality of life — Sorkin not only has identified that trend as epochal, but has the talent and industry standing to produce it as mass entertainment — America’s best form of lubricated instruction.

Were I his producer … I would strongly advise him to shift focus steadily away from the kids’, “OMG! Did he just say that to me?!” jabberings and devote steadily more energy to the conflicts inherent in trying to/daring to describe (as opposed to avoiding) the roiling ocean of dramatic material informed adults see playing out in front of their eyes every day … and night on TV news.

This century needs another Paddy Chayefsky, not another John Hughes.

The show also needs a Tucker Carlson-like character to be foisted on McAvoy as a “balancing” foil, a la the early days of MSNBC, when the network suits looked up from their demographic research and told Phil Donahue he had to book two conservatives for every liberal guest he (unwisely) placed in front of their network cameras.

“In Order to Form a More Rowdy Book Club…”

Crowdies –

I have an experiment I’d like to propose.  Let’s read the new book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein and have a virtual book club discussion around it next month.

The book talks about the dysfunction afflicting the Congress and the confluence of forces that have contributed to – and perpetuate – that dysfunction. Mann and Ornstein are serious and longstanding Congressional and political observers, are not bomb-throwers from the left or the right and have some cred: Mann is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution and Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

What I have in mind is something similar to what we did in 2010 with gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner: I’ll put up a post on a certain date that kicks off the discussion and then let the discussing – and cussing – begin.  I’ll extend an invite to both authors to join us (you never know) but even in their absence, we could have an interesting conversation and – who knows – we might learn something.

Book clubs seem to meet on Wednesdays for some reason so how does Wednesday, August 8 sound?  That gives us a month to get the book and read it.

No need for a show of hands!  Go forth and read!

– Austin

Digital Hipsterism

Blogging is dead.

I know what you’re thinking…and it’s not did he fire six shots or only five. You’re thinking the irony of blogging about the demise of blogging is pretty rich. It is. But bear with me.

The death of blogging has been widely reported in the online world lately, on Twitter and Facebook, and by any number of prominent authorities, not the least of them being Virginia Heffernan, the high priestess of all things digital and lately uber-correspondent for Yahoo! News. In fact, in the wake of the recent calamitous Facebook IPO, Heffernan wondered if social media might also be headed for the dustbin of digital history.

Virginia Heffernan

As welcome as that prospect might be…wouldn’t it be great if we could all get back to doing real work…I suspect most of the social media and even blogging are not dying but are instead evolving. I think all of these forms, as they adapt and refine themselves to the conditions in the digital ecosystem, will not only survive but get better. Let’s face it: How could they not?

They’ll survive by getting smaller and smarter and much, much less democratic. Information does not want to be free and it doesn’t want to come from everywhere all at once. Information wants to have value. What the heap of words reduced to bits and bytes that is the blogosphere needs now is a little natural selection. Let the hacks and the poseurs and the self-indulgent and the wingnuts of every persuasion go extinct.

There is a kind of digital hipsterism in force in the online universe…a constant, lurching, desperate search for a ride on the Next Big Thing. This leaves behind a trail of semi-useful tools that got discovered, over-used, and that are being gradually abandoned by people who no longer find them worthwhile, or who hate the loss of privacy that comes with every new digital identity, or who simply never had anything meaningful to communicate in the first place.

Where it once seemed that someday everyone would have a blog that nobody read, it now appears that just the opposite may come to pass: We have begun to look for voices that matter, prose that tracks, judgments that are more than the idle head-scratching of the uninformed. The blogosphere isn’t dying…it’s just ready for a heavy winnowing out. In the future, not everyone will blog. Those who remain will be those are read.

The same thing is happening with self-published books. Until recently, it appeared that ebooks had thrown open the door to anyone wanting to call himself or herself an author. The reality is that the odds of success with a self-published book are vanishingly small and are a function not only of the vastness of the competition but also the fact that most of the people who give this a try are, however earnest, simply not any good. The door may be open, but rarely does the real thing walk through it.

For those of us suffering in the transition from the analogue past to the digital future…the very subject of Virginia Heffernan’s forthcoming book Magic and Loss…that new sound that can now be heard faintly amid the din on the Internet is the the sound of our analogue hearts still beating.

A Song At Twilight

I didn’t want to read this goddam book. It’s a Minnesota poet telling the story of her parents, in love for half a century, falling apart with Alzheimer’s. Drying up. Blowing away. Husks.

My mom died of Alzheimer’s. Dad died of ALS. Wasting diseases, stealing little bits of ability, little bits of dignity, day by day. Once strong, vibrant. Sinking fading falling. I don’t need to go there again.

But it’s my friend John Gaterud, the best editor and writer I know. The small press — Blue Road Press — that he’s created with his daughter Abbey. He tells me about the book as he edits, as they design, typeset, proof, birth it.

He sends me a copy. No. Thanks. It somehow makes it into my suitcase on a road trip. I pick it up. I don’t want to go back there.

It’s a good book, dammit. A Song At Twilight, of Alzheimer’s and Love, by Nancy Paddock. It’s horrifying. Honest. And it’s hard to stop reading it.

And it’s been nominated for a Minnesota Book Award in the Memoir and Creative Nonfiction category. Deservedly so.

Paddock dissects with brutal clarity the rending issues that twist the souls of children as they watch their parents fall apart. Shouldn’t I take my mom or my dad into our home and take care of her or him? Turn my life upside down and give them the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute care they need? They turned their lives upside down, taking care of me when I was a baby, whenever I was sick. But you don’t. They go into a nursing home. And you don’t visit as often as you should. Guilt. Metastasizing guilt.

And then, as the tragic disintegration drags on and on, you say, but god not out loud — if only this would end. And — disagreements among siblings about what to do next, when to take away more freedom and dignity from your parents. When to move them from the home they love, when to get rid of the furniture and mementos that can remind them of the glory of their lives. And is your brother or sister doing as much as you are? When you’re not doing enough yourself? And money — care for the elderly, for the dying, is expensive, and money is always a bind.

There were moments of astounding heart-filling joy as I was with my parents as they dissolved. A sweet smile, a thank-you, shared laughter at the absurdity of it all. Enduring love. But so often those moments were overwhelmed by the horror.

Paddock shows it all. As a poet does, she evokes the humor and love, and the deep deep pain. Her dad, a lifelong reader, still reads as his brain frays. “He laughed and said, ‘I only need one book.’ Then, with a quick gesture — as if wiping words from his brain — added, ‘It just goes shoooop!'” And her mother, in the nursing home: “‘I stand by the window and want to go out,’ Mama announces. ‘But we’re old so we can’t.’ She says ‘out’ with such fervor.”

Paddock’s father, aware that he’s slipping down a one-way vortex, observes, “Humans ought to come with an off switch.”

I’d like to say this book in inspirational, uplifting. But it isn’t. It’s grim and it’s harrowing and it’s funny and it’s warm like blood and it’s so damn real. It would be a good scouting report for anyone whose parents are starting to fail, because it shows, with compassion, the truth of what’s ahead. The book does what great books do — grabs life and sets it loose pulsing in front of you, whole and ugly and sublime.

As a child of the Sixties, to me every message from the universe is received as “live now, live fully, there may be no future.” And part of living fully and now is, sometimes, rolling up your sleeves and holding life as it dies.

“Loss breaks the heart,” Paddock writes, “but opens the soul.”

Winners of the 24th Minnesota Book Awards will be announced April 14. Good luck, Nancy and John. Dammit.

— Bruce Benidt
(Book cover image from Blue Road Press website)

Ten Years After — The View Out My Screen Porch

“The longer I do this the less I know.”

small business help That was my wife, Lisa’s, former career-counseling partner, Colleen Convey, talking to people at a large Minneapolis company years ago about finding work that fits you, not fitting into work. Then Colleen gave them, humbly, what she’d learned in her decades of counseling, which her years and wisdom had shaped into something simple, clear and deep.

One of Colleen’s and Lisa’s measures of job fit is — when was the last occasion where you lost track of time because you were so engaged by what you were doing? If you can find work that connects with one of those experiences (no, Austin, you can’t make a living doing that) you’ll have work that fits and fulfills.

Ten years ago Colleen’s and Lisa’s advice and support helped me leave, with manageable fear and trembling, a global PR firm to start my own little business. April 1, 2001 I went on my own, an April fool. Ten years later, I still haven’t had to get a real job and I’m still losing track of time when engaged face-to-face with my clients. The longer I do this the less I know — but I’ve become pretty clear about what I do know.

Life is short, meetings are long, presentations are mostly dreadful, most interview subjects can’t spit out in plain English why anybody might care about or benefit from what they do — so anyone who can talk with clarity and passion and examples about stuff that matters to real people is an extraordinary and compelling communicator. After a dozen years as a journalist and a dozen in PR and decades of college teaching, I have focused on training people to be clear and compelling communicators. Not by giving them a formula, but by listening to them and watching them and dragging out, through all the layers of organizational and educational and professional detritus, their own personality and passion. I help people talk about stuff that excites them or moves them — and I get paid for it. For ten years now. Good gig

It’s scary, a little, being out on your own. Most independents I know, like me, worry that the phone will stop ringing. Colleen told me that the first year on your own you worry all the time about not getting work, the second year you think the first year was a fluke, and by the third year you think this might actually work. Ten years in, I’ve embraced worry as an old friend who just croaks in the corner. I miss a good health-care plan, I miss colleagues from the newspapers and colleges and Shandwick, but god I love making an independent living from something I’m good at, saying yes or no when I want to, and now in my dotage not pretending I know more than I do.

A huge thanks is due to the people who helped me develop the skills I’ve traded on for ten years — Dennis McGrath, Scott Meyer, Mary Jeffries, Dave Mona, Sara Gavin, Dave Kuhn, Betsy Buckley, Kari Bjorhus, Steve Conway, Mary Milla, Walt Parker and so many more from the Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin Shandwick years. And to Lisa, who encouraged me to jump with no net. And to mein guter freund Jorg Pierach, with whom I jumped in 2001 and who, like me, has withstood two economic collapses and who, unlike me, has built a gorgeous and successful agency of lively cool professionals — FastHorse. Jorg supported and supports me, with drinks and an office and unquenchable good spirit. And to Daniel Pitlik, who’s been at this for years longer than I have and is an example and mensch and sweet human being from whom I have stolen endless ideas and approaches. And to Tony Carideo, a careful and caring businessman/journalist with a philosopher’s heart and degree who’s held my hand the whole way — and whose basement is promised as Lisa’s and my retirement home.

And to my clients — who make me feel part of their teams — huge huge thanks. These are my colleagues and friends — good humans at Medtronic, Best Buy,Thomson Reuters, UPS, Amway, Cargill, Doug Kelley, GCI Atlanta the most frequent, but all of you people I light up when I see as I drag in my camera bag for another gig. The biographer Charles Neider had a formula for whom he chose as a subject for a book — could he take a cross-country train trip with that person and not want to jump the tracks mid-journey? All of my clients I’d climb on a train with — at the bar-car end of course. Some of my clients are former Shandwick colleagues who’ve moved on and kept my number, some former Shandwick clients, some former students, and all have referred me to others, which keeps me out of the bread lines.

In ten years my little business has moved its global headquarters from Eden Prairie to South Minneapolis and now to north of Tampa, where my office is a screen porch looking out on the egret fishing in the oyster bar pictured above. Huge thanks to my Minneapolis clients who keep calling on me even though I’m no longer just a half-hour away. Here near the Gulf of Mexico I’ve learned to distinguish the sharp beak-splash of a kingfisher diving into the tidal pond in our backyard from the flop-splash of fish jumping, and to recognize the twee-twee call of an osprey before I see its speckled wings and striped tail. These are important work skills, I think.

Technology has changed in my ten years. I travel now with three video cameras (plans A, B & C — you can’t waste executives’ time and look like a fool because of equipment failures or lost luggage), the most recent a flipcam. I used to drag to sessions a bag of VHS tapes of interview and speech examples until Sue Busch at Best Buy suggested with good humor that this was one step above cave paintings, so then I switched to examples on DVD. Now it’s YouTube and Ted.com — when a client at UPS a week or so ago said he liked a local preacher’s and Tom Friedman’s speaking styles, we instantly pulled them up on YouTube on my iPhone and analyzed what made them compelling. (Even more important — I’m about to watch the Twins opener on my iPad out on the porch — is this a great country or what?)

Have I changed in ten years? I’m more willing to say no to work I’m not good at, don’t like or don’t know enough to do. Journalism training and natural arrogance have always made me comfortable challenging people, but now I’m even more willing to look at an executive and say, with I hope a blend of compassion and two-by-four, that people will rush for the exits if you talk like that. And I’m more sure I can help the person be more engaging and compelling — partly because the bar is so low in most organizations. I worry a little about not staying current, and I never pretend to be a social media guru, leaving that to Jorg and blogbuddies Mike Keliher and Jon Austin. But the core of communication, I think, is still clarity and passion and zip, no matter the medium.

Personally I remain a manic blend of daily childish optimism and long-term black-hole pessimism, but here in Florida surrounded by birdmusic and the breathing tides and clouds of the Gulf I wallow less in the daily examples of entropy. Once you know the principle that trains crash, Thoreau wrote, you don’t need to know every instance of a train crashing. So I put down the paper or the hand-held and watch a heron alight with delicate wingbeats on the cedar tree across the channel.

Enough. Thanks to all who’ve been part of this journey. And please keep calling — I need the work. And the time face-to-face with clients still flies by.

— Bruce Benidt

A (Very) Rare Strib Two-fer.

I call it a good day when the Star Tribune’s Op-Ed page publishes anything that sparks a flash between my sapped and withering neurons, much less spikes my blood pressure. So when it runs two in the same day it’s reason enough for a goddam victory parade. Not that either of the two that ran last Sunday exactly have me loading Molotov cocktails and hoisting my pitchfork.

The first, titled “A Flood of Words, Yet … “, was sent in by my old crony Bill (excuse me, “William”) Souder. I’ve known Bill since we had adjoining desks at the Twin Cities Reader long, long ago. Even then he was one of those uncommonly gifted writers. Sentences flowed from him like smokey, 20-year single malt scotch, and begat lovely paragraphs you’d hold out at arm’s length and mutter, “The bastard!” What we had in common I’ll never know. My heroes were Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, and I was convinced every story got better with the more ellipses, exclamation marks and grunts of bestial pleasure you slid in.

In other words, Bill’s a bit of a traditionalist, while I’m pretty much okay with the on-going evolution of everything, as long as it doesn’t mean Glenn Beck re-writing the Constitution in Crayon and Sarah Palin breaking a nail on the nuclear button. Even Hunter Thompson knew you could push some insanity way too far.

Bill’s beef is that the beauty and cultural importance of the (well-) written word is being seriously diminished in our age of Tweeting and texting and LOL-ing. Impressions and reactions come across well enough, but it’s pretty hard to advance and improve on  the vast range of empirical knowledge with “snark” and “slang”. All that I get. But as I finished, what struck me was that it isn’t so much a paucity of words and personal expression we’re dealing with as an explosion. Every damned person I know, every D- student at every under-funded junior high is obsessively narrating hi\s or her life, and we can “follow” them if we want. The good and great writers haven’t so much disappeared as they’ve been submerged by this PDA-induced dam-burst of expression, the vast … vast … majority of which is wretchedly inane.

Anyone who has followed my standard rants will understand how this got me going on what I firmly believe is the greatest, most significant, cleaving of cultures of our time. Namely the constantly widening gulf between critical, disciplined thinkers and the crowd operating primarily on emotion, superstition and wishful nonsense. And this isn’t just another one of my patented “liberals-smart, conservatives-stupid” screeds. For example, a fundamental explanation for our current economic predicament is the critical, disciplined thinking of an astonishingly small group of arbitrageurs and financiers concocting CDOs and the OMG! crowd happy to run up astonishing credit card balances and re-finance the roof over their heads for a set of his and hers ATVs. Much as gifted writers, lovers of substantive arguments and thoughtful expression have almost no patience with or appeal to the “true dat” crowd, the population that exerts the most influence over our economic fate speaks languages all but completely unintelligible to their, uh, “consumer base” … and they get richer that way.

Then, across the page from Souder’s paean to literary value, was a piece by veteran Stribber, Lori Sturdevant, a nice enough lady I’m sure, who I think I’ve met once, and is usually the embodiment of the Strib’s maddening confrontation and controversy avoidance style of journalism. (“Nothing’s worth getting too excited about!”) Okay, so she kind of was again.

Sturdevant was lamenting the partisan gridlock that has overwhelmed Minnesota’s legislature just as it has in Washington. “State government,” she writes, ” seems stuck with the jurisdictions of the 19th century, the structures of the 20th century, the funding formulas of the 1970s and the tax fights of the 1980s.” All of which I agree with. She then introduces one of those corporate efficiency experts every big company wheels in from time to time to bore the troops and freshen the operative jargon.

This guy, Larry Keely, suggests we gain greater “innovation competence”.  Government should be reorganized around “a disciplined analysis of state problems … an exercise quite different from partisan positioning, orchestrated public hearings and theatrical floor debates.” To which Sturdevant adds, we should, “Stop basing decisions on anecdotes or the arguments of a few vocal interests.”

No shit.

But what’s missing in all this reasonableness? How about the courage — the journalistic courage — to point a finger and identify where the worst and the most catalytic offenses against rational discourse, and the worst torrent of  anecdotes is coming from? One of the great ironies of this era in mass media is that — as with the explosion of semi-literate texters — we are drowning in hyperbole and vitriol, while what’s left of the mainstream press withdraws further and further from daring to assert who is right and who is wrong. The “new” Strib’s attitude, numbingly evident day after monotonous day on their Op-Ed pages, is the by now familiar (but safe) false equivalency perspective. Two silly sides, each make the same proportion of emotional, superstitious appeal to its under-informed partisans. But contrary to this (commercial) positioning, any critical-thinking person only has to look up and see where the most and most excessive barrages of anti-logic, quarter-truths and obstruction is coming from.

Fusty, over-mediated newspapers take extraordinary pride in their respect for “the truth”. Go to a media seminar and watch them stroke themselves for their husbandry of “truth”. Yet, their persistent, anxious, fretful avoidance of assessing truthfulness to one point of view at the expense of another is anti-thetical to any journalistic mission they ever studied or preached in college.

As my pal Bill Souder argues, some things have bona fide quality and value and need to be protected. Other things are temporal junk of very limited value, if any at all. Furthermore, it’s essential that critical, disciplined thinkers know the difference and step up — pretty regularly — to point it out.

Another Stool at the Bar…

Or is “another stoolie behind bars” a better analogy?

Damned if I know.  I’m still trying to get my head around it being 2010.  According to the science fiction future historical timeline, this was the year in which Dave Bowman comes back to terraform Jupiter’s Europa, there are colonies on the Moon and Mars and everyone has a nano-scaled tech implanted in their heads to augment their wetware.  Instead, we’ve got Glenn Beck, ride sharing with the Russians to the International Space Station and the iPhone.  Somehow, I feel short-changed.

But, I digress.  As usual.

My actual purpose in writing today was to introduce a new member of the Crowd, Brian Lambert.  Observant visitors will note the appearance of his “gravatar” on the left side of the page or  may have read of his imminent arrival in David Brauer’s MinnPost column over the holidays.

Mr. Lambert is one-man media band with  gigs ranging from MinnPost, where he’s one of the authors of the Daily Glean, to blogging at the Rake and MPLS/St. Paul magazine, yakking on KTLK-FM and writing for the Pioneer Press where I first met him as a media critic. Starting next week, he’ll be co-hosting a 7-9 PM show on FM107, aka “The Chick Station.”  He’s probably done more stuff I’m forgetting, but I’ll leave it to him to embroider as he sees fit.

I’m not sure when his first post will appear or the topics he’ll be writing about (not surprising since I don’t know these things about myself), but I almost always find Mr. Lambert’s musings interesting, insightful, entertaining and fun.  He’s also enjoyably snarky and gossipy about the local media scene when the spirit moves him.  In short, he’s a fine addition to our group, especially since he promised to buy the first round for everyone who makes it to our next meatspace gathering. This alone sets him apart from the rest of us.

Enjoy.

– Austin

Photo credit:  Dick Kraus.  “Brian Lambert helps his dad shovel a heavy snowfall from the steps of their rented house in South Huntington in 1996″certified payroll nice

The Holiday Spirit, To Whom It May Concern

We tackle all the controversial communications issues here at our little blog. But hold onto your mouse, because this is the hottest of the hot.

Holiday form letters: Love ‘em or hate ‘em?

Now, I’ve heard your snarky comments about those holiday letters filling your mailboxes these days. And sometimes I have a tough time with them too.

I’m a caring friend, so I really do want to know how little what’s-his-name is doing. But I could live without the selective reporting about his mensa ways.

I am glad to hear that your Nanna is a special part of your life. But I don’t need the details about her gastrointestinal health.

And of course I care about the basics of your life trajectory. But it’s not neccessary to give extravagant accounts of your fabulous vacations, luxury purchases, civic virtues and professional advancements.

So, holiday letter haters, I feel your pain. I do understand the art form is not always executed flawlessly. But given the choice of receiving 1) nothing; 2) a card with just a signature or 3) a holiday form letter, I prefer to find the pre-fab letters in my mailbox, warts and all.

Continue reading “The Holiday Spirit, To Whom It May Concern”

Zygi’s PR Hail Mary Puts Vikings In The Game

In the political world, there is something much worse than being opposed. It’s called being ignored.

And until Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and his team showed their teeth this week, they were being roundly ignored by the Legislature. The billionaire not only couldn’t get half a billion bucks from the Legislature, he couldn’t get a hearing, a cup of coffee, or a sideways glance.

But when the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission only offered Zygi millions in post-season revenues as he waits for his much bigger taxpayer financed pay day, the wounded Wilf howled.

“Shocked, exasperated, and extremely disappointed,” the Vikings penned to the Commission.

Holy moly! Shocked, exasperated AND extremely disappointed? As every good corporate communications toady knows, the Three Adjective Smackdown (TAS) is the WMD of business communications world. And today, the Vikings unleashed another rhetorical blitz, with sly talk about the need to “move on,” which of course is just two scary letters away from “move out.”

Finally, Zygi is flashing his New Jersey for us. Though he is speaking genteel corporatese, he is making it crystal clear that he is making an offer we can’t refuse.

And it’s working. Some are hating on Zygi to be sure, but he is no longer being ignored. Zygi has led the local news, and national sports news, for two days. He has DFL Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Keliher talking about a “purple ribbon commission” to study the issue. (Sure, it’s just her way of not taking a position during the gubernatorial campaign, but it’s more than the cold shoulder Wilf had been getting.)

And today, Wilf’s tantrum has generated follow-up stories about the mythical prospects of the LA Vikings Scenario, which has the purple face-paint types curled up in a fetal position. All that buzz has made Wilf’s well-timed whining the week’s top “talker” on local radio stations.

Wilf is a long, long way from winning. To get out of the big Teflon dome in Minneapolis, he is going to need to get a lot better at operating under the big gold dome in St. Paul. But he will eventually win, and the PR move he put on the pols this week was nearly as nifty as the move Purple Jesus put on the 49ers to find an obscure receiver in the back of the end zone. Skoal Vikings!

– Loveland

expense nice

Stompin’ at the Loft and the Dakota — Jazz and Poetry

My friend John Gaterud and his daughter Abbey have created Blueroad Press, and their newest offering, Stompin’ At The Grand Terrace, is being celebrated tonight at The Loft in Minneapolis and Sunday at the Dakota, also in Minneapolis.

If you need a break from baseball or from the shock of cold weather — I could see my breath this morning — go and give a listen. It’s piano jazz and great poetry reading. The author, Philip S. Bryant, has written a memoir in verse about growing up and about his father and about his love for jazz. His book is a conversation between two old Jazz fans in Chicago arguing and talking about the history of jazz, and Phil’s reading makes you feel as if you’re sitting in a smoky bar or on a front stoop listening. Phil’s voice roams from booming to a whisper and he loves every word, and Carolyn Wilkins’ piano music will lift you.
Stompin

Here’s a sample of Bryant’s verse:

Come on darlin’,
I can’t dance that well
and neither can you
and we aren’t those young’uns
we were a few years back
and we’re a few pounds more
but to hell with that.
I wanted to be an astronaut
or some such thing and you
a First Lady of a President
whose name was John or
Jack — and thinking like that
we probably screwed up our
lives, or at least part of the way.
It looks a whole
lot different than we
thought it was supposed to be.
And we look in a mirror and say
Shit! This isn’t what we
were supposed to be,
this isn’t it at all.

But hang it and dang it.
I want to kick up a fuss and
hold you tight for one last
whirl across the dark dance floor
’cause we ain’t getting any younger
and time’s flying out the side door
and the youngsters will laugh and say,
Look at those old codgers —
what do they think they’re doing?

But the hell with them.
Will you take this dance?
The clock is ticking
but it ain’t stopped yet
and there’s a few minutes left
before the big hand strikes twelve,
so what the hell
what do you say we get up
while the band’s still playing our song
just as a condemned man
would whistle along
with the nightingale
singing outside his cell
at dawn
just about when it’s time
to get up and face the music.

The book is available at most bookstores and at blueroadpress.com, and it’s a treat.

The Loft Literary Center, at Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave South, Minneapolis, at 7 p.m. today. And The Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis, at 7 p.m. Sunday — $10 cover at the door for the Dakota. Come on down.

— Bruce Benidt
(Poem, titled Face The Music, stolen from John and Abbey, as is the pic.)