Saturday, December 09, 2006

Dropping Trow

Monday newspapers are like Sunday papers, but smaller. Much of the front page contended for Sunday publication but didn't make the cut, or needed another day to percolate. Match today's lead story with the publication:

Pinochet obit
Immigration-raid feature
Private investigator feature
High-rise murder folo

Stephen Metcalf in Slate marks the death of New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow by recalling his 1980 article Within the Context of No Context. I'd never heard of this essay, and maybe that's the point. Trow saw pop culture as a subversive hustle against adult legitimacy. Seems to me anyone who has seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon knows that.

The New Yorker navel-gazing tradition certainly has taken a beating since then, and newspapers are less consciously serious. The Tribune worked up the immigration synocdote; the Sun-Times, death at a patent-law office, RedEye the private-eye procedural. Only Spanish-language Hoy led with the death of Pinochet (I say pin-oh-SHAY, but it's it's pee-no-CHET to those unfamiliar with his legacy of state-sponsored torture.

Not only is Pinochet's death the old-school news story in the bunch, but the emerging cult of the grifter that Trow foretold would have marveled at the Chilean dictator's grand crimes. That Pinochet drew so little interest in death says more about our collective lack of curiosity about life.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Rumsfeld's adult supervision

I'm not sure when "Take charge" becomes "Take responsibility." But I think it's when things are going badly.

I started preparing a presentation on asserting yourself, on what to do when things go badly, as a Donald Rumsfeld memo surfaced over the weekend. Rumsfeld advised the president on Iraq, where things are indeed going badly. What better real-world example of asserting yourself than bearing bad news to your boss?

The news of the memo was that before last month's election Rumsfeld was talking about pulling out troops. The tone of the memo was that Iraq needed adult supervision. Rumsfeld described a troop withdrawal as "taking our hand off the bicycle seat."

Iraqis, Rumsfeld said, "have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country." We take charge, the Iraqis must take responsibility. It's as if Iraq is a child learning to lace her shoes. Maybe that's the right metaphor.

Children appreciate when parents take charge. They feel comfortable with limits. They're relieved that some things in life they don't have to worry about. Leadership isn't all that different. Everyone on a productive team knows their roles. If things are going badly, the best course is to address the situation immediately and head-on.

By that yardstick Rumsfeld sent his memo way too late. So, was this a textbook example of assertive behavior? The literature suggests four steps toward addressing your concerns and asking for help:

State the problem. With experience in the corporate world, Rumsfeld got right to the point. The memo begins: “U.S. forces have adjusted, over time, from major combat operations to counterterrorism, to counterinsurgency, to dealing with death squads and sectarian violence.”

Tell your feelings. "Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough," Rumsfeld wrote. That barely touches on what must have been on Rumsfeld's mind: He'll find it hard to rally the Pentagon if every option for victory is not on the table.

Specify a solution. The memo put 15 options on the table. Some of them were clearly tough-love measures, such as no more reconstruction assistance where there is violence. "Stop rewarding bad behavior," Rumsfeld wrote. Others were face-saving, as in redefining victory. "Go minimalist," he said. The memo doesn't give much of a sense what course the Secretary of Defense wanted the president to take.

Describe the consequences. Again, Rumsfeld came up short of presenting the dangers of staying the course. He merely listed the current path as one of a half-dozen "less attractive options." The others included moving more troops to Baghdad and increasing U.S. forces "substantially."

So, this memo came somewhat short of telling truth to power. An effective request would be delivered calmly and repeatedly until the message gets across. What happened with this memo is that Rumsfeld resigned two days later. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

How good is 'good enough'?

"I have the wrong ballot," a woman told the election judge on election day. "Not all the candidates are here. Where's Tammy Duckworth?"

Duckworth was in DuPage County, but the voter was in my precinct polling place at the Happy Village Tavern — an election in a bar, only in Chicago! Henry Hyde hasn't represented me since I lived in the suburbs. Whatever the stakes, his replacement wasn't our decision.

This voter was a victim of Good Enough Media.

After weeks of 30-second duels between Duckworth and Peter Roskam on Chicago TV, it seemed as if Duckworth should have been on the ballot statewide, the undercard to Rob Blagojevich Had Enough vs. Judy Baar Topinka What's She Thinking.

With Capitol Hill power in the balance, even this dramatic a campaign didn't hold TV's attention beyond C-SPAN. Duckworth's Iraq service was about where most reporting stopped. WLS truth-squaded a Duckworth ad that pitted Roskam against Dr. Seuss, but devoted so little time to it that to make sense of it all I had to Google Roskam and Seuss during the next commercial break.

At least the gubernatorial race rated a 10 p.m. Special Segment two days in a row.

Journalists plotting their future course have been reading the industry study Newspaper Next. It observes that innovations catch on not because they're perfect, but they're good enough and cheap enough to be really useful. The Internet news audience isn't growing because of media convergence or bottomless newshole. It's growing because Web headlines are a quick read.

Newspapers have rediscovered the quick read. The Chicago Tribune launched RedEye as a free youth newspaper and found a ready audience among commuters of all ages. Now its circulation beats some suburban dailies, and readers who struggled in junior-high Spanish are reading the retooled free Hoy.

But in the polling place, quick reads are no more instructive than TV news. RedEye's election day cover was on Jimmy Jellinek, a Handsome Man who publishes Maxim. There was an election refer ("The issues, the comedy and why you should wash your hands, Page 10"). But for help on the judicial retention ballot, it was get off the el, get on the Internet.

Celebrity news for strap-hangers may prove lucrative, but won't go far to distinguish newspapers in an age where "tabloid" no longer refers to a newspaper format. And what happens to more civic-minded journalism? Sure, politics might make for a decent niche market. But on Election Day, will that be good enough?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The real message of fake news

Time was when national newscasts ended with opinion essays from the likes of Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith or John Chancellor, and local newscasts aired management's views on civic issues. So, why do news junkies looking for perspective now have to channel-surf from local news to Comedy Central and "The Daily Show"?

In early days of TV, commentary was an analog of the daily newspaper, with its back pages of columnists and editorials. But the government had a lot to do with it. Before cities had been wired for cable, the Federal Communications Commission saw broadcasters as "public trustees," and its Fairness Doctrine required them to address community concerns to keep their licenses.

Fair enough, except that here's how it worked in practice: I say something on the air you don't agree with. You demand equal air time for rebuttal. And since the FCC was keeping score, you got it. The process kept many stations from sticking their neck out.

The FCC dropped the Fairness Doctrine 20 years ago, reasoning that cable TV would expand the universe for political talk. But commentary itself was disappearing from newscasts. Vivid visuals from across the globe were the newscast's strong suit. Commentary was usually just another man in front of a microphone.

And cable TV did provide another platform for public-affairs chatter. It aired debates nightly, no candidates required. CNN called it "Crossfire," but some viewers saw it as a shouting match. At least it was dramatic.

At least commentary was finding a more comfortable home in late-night comedy. The fake newscast of "Saturday Night Live" had gone beyond jokes about "Soviet jewelry" to jokes about Dan Quayle &151; thought to be the dimmest bulb in the first Bush White House. Quayle, one joke went, thinks Roe v. Wade were alternative ways to cross the Potomac. HBO had a show called "Not Necessarily the News," and a new all-comedy channel on cable featured a mix of standup comedy and political talk led by actor and gadfly Bill Maher.

So "The Daily Show" and The Colbert Report" didn't happen overnight. We know that these shows are a big deal — that about 20 percent of young voters in the last election were watching "The Daily Show." And we know that because a decade ago pollsters were watching the young people who were watching Maher's "Politically Incorrect."

The "Daily Show" fans at the Billy Goat Tavern help explain the attraction. Reporters enjoy how the newscast form gets skewered, the way when Jon Stewart turns to the congressional page scandal, the label behind him reads, "Crisis in Our Nation's Pants."

But they also are understand topical satire. Newspaper reporters have had it in their blood for centuries. Newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin wrote under comic alter egos like Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue. Mark Twain began developing his deadpan approach to humor writing for a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. The Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey were creations of Thomas Nast, the 19th century political cartoonist.

Newspapers adopted satire because, as the proverb said, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Late-night comedians would agree.
So would the A political ad on CNN shows people in a park questioning a piece of shrubbery. "So what's our exit strategy from Iraq?" "Why did we let down Katrina victims?" "Why won’t Congress do anything?" The narrator then says, "OK, it's kind of ridiculous to think you're ever going to get an answer from this bush. But it's also kind of ridiculous to think you're going to get an answer (cue a picture of President Bush) from this one."

The ad ends with a call to vote for change. That's what all political humor does.
After seeing months of attack ads, I'm ready for the light approach. Sunday's Tribune finds the majority of voters unhappy with their choices. I think they're ready too.

Some of my peers find a worrisome message in fake news. It says the political process is a joke. But I get a positive message from topical humor. It says the state of affairs calls for strong medicine, and a spoonful of sugar to help it go down. That's the real message of fake news. On Nov. 7, we'll be ready for the punch line.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Saturday night archived

Eric Deggans' media blog at touched off a night watching old Nat Cole clips on YouTube. I'm a bit older than Deggans, with dim but persistent memories of "The Nat 'King' Cole Show" and other variety fare from the late 1950s. Network TV would air jazz and classical music then because the programmers thought of their audience as sentient beings.

By 1956 Cole was a mainstream pop singer like Perry Como or Dinah Shore, yet NBC scheduled Cole with neither a synergistic RCA record contract nor a network sponsor. Advertisers feared a Southern boycott. The biography by Mary Ann Watson for the Museum of Broadcast Communications quotes an embittered Cole: "A man sees a Negro on a television show. What's he going to do — call up the telephone company and tell them to take out the phone?"

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pynchon's America

VinelandThomas Pynchon can be as arcane and non-linear as James Joyce. His California wine-country fantasy "Vineland" is more fun — a cross between Tom Robbins and Philip K. Dick — which makes "Vineland" worth exploring as Pynchon's new novel nears publication.

Mucho Maas, a ex-druggie with a Dubyaesque conversion experience, explains how the flower children of 1967 (those who hadn't become zombies) could lose their drug-induced clarity by 1984: "Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it's what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it's what rock and roll is becoming — just another way to claim our attention ..."

Pynchon's take on Reagan as Big Brother now reads as a foretaste of Justice under Bush. His alternate America supported state surveillance in the guise of keeping us safe, with the feds free to settle personal scores unchecked. At least until the tax cuts catch up with them.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Name the true democrat

Kathy CummingsKathy Cummings is a retired schoolteacher who has struck up pleasant conversations with me on my dog-walking trips to Humboldt Park. This summer she was circulating petitions to run against Cindy Soto as Green Party candidate for state rep.

I didn't sign -- Chicago's political insurgents, even the ineffectual Soto, seem more effective working within the party. And the Greens' spoilsport role in the 2000 presidential election still marks it as unsafe at any speed. But the political hardball playing out now in gubernatorial and Cook County races make the dreamy Greens look more appealing.

So I was glad to hear that Cummings had gathered more than twice the necessary petitions to get on the ballot, and disheartened by Ben Joravsky's report that Chicago Dems have successfully challenged those ballots.

Cummings went so far as to repeat her canvass with a notary in tow, so far to no avail. My signature squiggle most certainly would have faced challenge. So now it's personal: As a resident of Cook County, I have lost my right to petition.

Update: A federal appeals court has challenged the state's requirements for independent candidates.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Gronk's last stand

Lon Grahnke's obit ran when I was in Kansas City, and I finally learned through Dave Hoekstra's blog of Grahnke's death at 56. But Gronk would have appreciated that I was off on a White Sox road trip.

Better known as the Sun-Times' TV critic in the 1990s, he was also a meticulous editor whose style influenced mine, if for no other reason that it was right out there in red ink on copy paper stacked on my desk. As a copy editor in the suburban bureau I had to check that manuscript against what was in the computer, even though the reporter who had typed it for computer entry had made the same "CQ" checks.

Lon in fact taught me copy editing. He hired me from minimal clips, even knowing that reporter Jim Ritter, for whom he had been spilling much of that red ink, was my college editor. Lon lectured me about the gravity of the three errors I had made on his hiring test, never telling me that other applicants had performed abysmally.

Before I wrote my first headlines in the Sun-Times I practiced in pencil for Lon's review, at his instruction rewriting every line that ended with a preposition. His concern with such egregious breaches of style held me in good stead later in the downtown newsroom, even if hanging prepositions didn't seem to trouble the slot men there. By then Lon had graduated from reviewing movies for Suburban Week to editing Roger Ebert.

Lon's slide into Alzheimer's (he left the Sun-Times in 2001) was truly tragic. He likely remembered much more about those days 25+ years ago than I did, and much more than he knew of his own final years.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

History's fair deal to Truman

INDEPENDENCE, Mo.—Lincoln, Truman and George W. Bush graduated to the presidency from undistinguished military and business careers, and with parochial political histories. Comparisons of the three "war presidents" are hard to avoid on a trip to the Truman Library outside Kansas City.

Truman quickly faced bracing challenges — the Bomb, nation building, the Cold War, the Middle East. His public approval was low; the pundits were harsh. Truman has only grown in stature. Will the same be said of Bush?

The new Lincoln Museum reinterprets the 16th president for the age of the 43rd, notably rendering the 1860 presidential campaign as a series of TV attack ads. The Truman Library measures the 33rd president on his own terms, in handwritten notes. Truman's Oval Office (left) shows television as the newest piece of furniture, an untested political tool.

It's getting harder to imagine an age in which Lincoln could maintain open office hours, or Truman could campaign with whistle-stops rather than 30-second spots. But ex-Gov. George Ryan, sentenced today on corruption charges, is just one of many reminders of how politics combines grand and petty gestures. History favors politicians who distrust both impulses.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The news: Based on a true story

Like most philosophical discussions, it took place in a bar.

The Society of Professional Journalists met in Chicago this weekend, and a crowd from Maryland followed me to the Billy Goat Tavern. This bar below Michigan Avenue features a grill that's said to be a model for late comedian John Belushi's "cheezborger" diner sketch. But it's a journalists' bar, across from the Chicago Tribune, lined with photographs of gone or forgotten Chicago journalists.

We were talking about fake news.

Irony is the language of modern debate, even in a crowd of reporters. Maybe especially in a crowd of reporters. A "Celebration of Diversity" convention reception drew operagoing journalists (yes, the tribe includes even operagoers) to hear up-and-coming Filipino tenor Rodell Rosel. His choice of song? "La donna e mobile," Verdi's aria about the fickle nature of woman. For those of us with Lyric Opera season tickets, this confection had a bitter aftertaste.

As the evening wound down from wine at the recital to beers at the Goat, chat geared up from the opera to the Onion, a satirical weekly that delivers topical humor in deadpan wire-service style. Typical headline: Bush Urges Nation To Be Quiet For A Minute While He Tries To Think.

Political satire has a long and puckish history in newspapers, but the Onion has a special following among journalists for its sly use of newspaper conventions, from promotional teaser headlines to iconic graphics.

A recent journalism-school graduate in our group enjoyed the Onion's fanciful editorial page, where all publishing executives are named Zweibel. That's an in-joke, I explained: The Onion started in Madison, Wis., originally a German settlement where everyone seems to be named Zweibel (translation: onion). A newspaper editor in Madison is named Dave Zweifel (translation: doubt).

The Onion has spawned imitators such as the Heckler, a Chicago sports tabloid with a standing feature titled "Over/Under With Pete Rose." Oddly, both the Onion and the Heckler put their fake news alongside factual, if not irony-free, entertainment features.

Beltway editors in our group had not seen the Onion but knew plenty about "The Daily Show," the Onion's television twin. Jon Stewart's smart comedy has many fans among young reporters, and if polling is to be believed, among well-informed young adults in general. In the last election, "Daily Show" fans scored higher on campaign platforms than viewers of other late-night hosts.

"The Daily Show" has a veracity segment too, a newsmaker interview in which Stewart delivers more pointed questions than Leno or Letterman.

The young Onion fan saw the "Daily Show" as part of a generational divide: College students think Stewart's fake newscasts are on point, while older adults find the satire corrosive. The newly minted j-school grad was of two minds. She enjoys the comedy. She abhors the attitude.

Journalistic convention is a foil in the Onion and on "The Daily Show." It plays deadpan while stating the outrageous. However, my generation of Watergate-raised reporters never bought into the conceit of just-the-facts reporting. Instead we tried to walk a line, being analytical but not critical.

Now news seems married to polemics. Perhaps it's simply impossible these days to absorb news reports without drawing conclusions. Broadcast talk shows start from a conclusion. "Liberals hate us" is the billboard boast of Chicago radio station WIND. Air America Radio affiliate WCPT answers, "Liberals love us."

Centerists can only tune it out.

Advance word on ABC's docudrama "The Path to 9/11" suggests that its producers are trying not to let facts get in the way of a good story. The miniseries dramatizes behind-the-scenes planning in the war on terror, which would be understandable if none of the planners were around to tell the tale.

All of this seems like the swing of a very slow pendulum back to days of a press captive to its political sponsors, when newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin wrote under sly surnames like Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue.

Fact-finding is expensive, and drags down newspaper share prices. Satire is a visit to low-overhead country. Now, bloggers share the satirists' business model. Yet even as we write ironically, we know how cheaply it comes.

Satire is one of the few weapons the powerless can aim at slavers or dictators. But it has little force to change what it ridicules. The Berlin Wall was not mocked into oblivion. Yet increasingly satire is how we interpret politics. When George Stephanopoulos wants to take the country's temperature on ABC, he shows clips from "The Daily Show."

Sen. Joe Biden writes in his latest statement on Iraq: "Those who reject this plan out of hand must answer one simple question: What is your alternative?" It's Biden's pre-emptive strike at irony.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Sympathy for the coach

I've got an hour scheduled with my boss this week, just to talk about what I've been up to.

No, I'm not telling tales out of school. This could be an appointment with any of my bosses. My work supervisor, my wife, my God. It doesn't matter. Received wisdom now comes in 90-second bursts between appointments, or commercials, or errands.

This is how the work world works these days. Few managers have time to give orders. Employees must be think for themselves. At least that's how it seemed when I analyzed why my corporate jobs were being billed as "entrepreneurial."

It still helps to sit down with a manager to assess where those short bursts of direction lead. The schedule doesn't always allow it. But whatever the interval of such debriefings, I'll coach the boss as much as she coaches me. (Again, in my world "she" is the image and likeness of any boss.)

Early in my career as an editor, I considered myself a good coach. A reporter would call me Chief, and like Perry White to cub reporter Jimmy Olsen I'd say "Don't call me Chief!" But I wouldn't mind being called Coach. Coaching was interactive. You gave as good as you got. You started with a meeting of the minds on what the assignment was and what it would take to get it. You ended with time to review edits line by line, show that there was a reason behind every change, and make sure the result made sense.

In practice, it wasn't that simple. The postmortem was the first to go. Long chalk talks with junior reporters might have made sense at the suburban bureau, but daily deadlines are tighter and senior reporters have their own ways of doing things. At first I tried cutting to the chase, pointing to a buried phrase and saying, "Here's where it all starts to make sense for me." But soon enough, waiting for copy left too little time to revise it.

Collaboration always makes sense at the start when an idea is taking shape. But deadline editing is more of a head game, trying to influence or at least keep up with the reporter's thoughts between interviews.

Now that editing is a minor part of my project work, coaching is even more about time management. The clock is running on every interaction, and I'm still trying to figure out how much mileage I can get out of how few words. A successful starting point: Here's the payoff, and here's the roadblock to getting it.

Then it's time to collaborate on a solution, as the schedule permits.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Reading sparingly, listening liberally

People are turning more frequently to online news, according to a new Pew Research Center report. This seems to come at the expense of radio, which competes most directly with online for the breaking-news headlines audience.

Beyond that, news habits haven't changed much in my reading of past Pew reports. The combined news audience has held steady amid expanding leisure pursuits; there's a booming demand for news about finance, health and religion.

And the taste for news is still acquired with age; younger readers enjoy the Web because they don't need to read much. However, NPR's audience share is catching up to Fox News; liberal Democrats bucked a trend and maintained their interest in politics in advance of the offyear elections.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hey dere! what light through yonder window breaks?

These hot days is the mad blood stirring
, Benvolio says in Romeo and Juliet, and at Wisconsin's Shakespeare festival the crowd feels it.

American Players Theater uses an open-air theater not far removed from the renaissance-fair mud show stage. The Tribune reviewer missed much of Romeo and Juliet when the play was called on account of rain. ("The kids end up dead, pal. Now, let's all get out of the lightning.") Matinee heat for our performance had us shifting in our naugahyde seats, and after the intermission shifting to shadier seats on the periphery.

These were small discomforts for a well-paced performance with a stage full of characters on edge. Mercutio's frat-party antics reveal an anger-management crisis; Friar Laurence simmers, then boils with the escalating violence. Romeo and Juliet grow up quickly, an arc the actors chart in a rehearsal blog.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bloodless Gore

Al Gore

When Al Gore debated George Bush in 2000, he had two minutes to make a point. Now he's getting 100 minutes.

That alone makes the movie "An Inconvenient Truth" worth finding at the local indie film house, just to see such a high-profie argument being conducted with Apple slideshow software in the manner of a workplace quarterly report or McCormick Place keynote address.

Gore has road-tested his argument. An animated frog gets rescued from a death ordained by analogy, because a frog boil implies that incremental temperature change can't be stopped. And because Gore still can't muster the charisma of a cartoon frog.

"I've been trying to tell this story for a long time, and I feel as if I've failed to get the message across," Gore muses in The New York Times. Well, yes. Earth in the Balance found a limited audience, and the 2000 coin-flip campaign couldn't handle any metaphor more complicated than "lock box."

Talk about whether "An Inconvenient Truth" is a 2008 campaign vehicle seem sadly beside the point. Gore's message is more urgent by the year yet seemingly locked in the lecture hall. The movie marketplace pits Professor Gore in competition with Vince Vaughn. Guess who wins?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Edmar turnover, and a new leaf

mystery veg?Maybe it's watercress.

The bugs aren't much of a clue.


Brenda and I are sizing up leafy vegetables in a plastic container, part of this week's shipment from Home Grown Wisconsin, a restaurant supplier that's stocking our fridge this summer.

We've subscribed to a community supported agriculture project along with a few neighbors. Every other week we walk down the street and pick up a box of veggies, then take them home, bag them and try to plan menus around them. The first box contained chard, spinach and other leafy plants, not all of which we've identified, plus strawberries, rhubarb and three fennel bulbs.

It wouldn't work without online recipes for the menu planning. Google Images initially was no help on the mystery veg, but it seemed to confirm a neighbor's ID, sunflower greens. (Added another neighbor, "It's not a bug, it's a feature.")

This stuff wasn't showing up at Edmar, now closed for for remodeling as a future Dominick's. The Chicago Avenue grocery did its best to grow with the neighborhood, stocking shelves with chai tea and extra-virgin olive oil as well as tortillas and tripe. But produce always seemed to be the remainder aisle, and there was a growing list of what we wouldn't buy again at Edmar.

Ald. Flores continues to negotiate with Dominick's on concessions to the neighborhood, the Journal reports. He got a lot of heat about the prospect of rising prices, although attempts to prove price differences always seemed suspect.

No doubt prices will rise, because Dominick's carries higher-quality items and pays better wages. Courteous workers at the inner-city locations seem to really enjoy their jobs. I'll be glad to see them here, if the Journal doesn't first banish me to Naperville for expressing such Tory notions.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Blog'em Dano

• Shane Gericke of Naperville has published a paperback thriller, Blown Away. Retired Sun-Times reporter Brenda Rotzoll, who worked with both of us, led me to Shane's Web site, which led me to Amazon for the $7 paperback. Of course by the time I emptied my shopping cart the tab had grown to $34.

• My library is a Zero Population Growth zone, so I'll have to add a few more books to the Salvation Army donation pile in the garage. I can start with volumes available online via the American Studies archives of the University of Virginia. I came across the Hypertexts site while looking up crossword puzzle answers for my wife (I understand if she does this it's cheating, but for me it's OK) and it prompted me to start the Open Stacks section of my blogroll.

• The new blog of the National Books Critics Circle revisits John Updike's rules for reviewers. Rule #1 works for criticism of all sorts: "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt."

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Mark R. Evans, 1963-2006

Web designer Mark Evans was shot to death outside his home in Avondale, the Tribune reports. I met him after I had started as a Web producer and he was full of ideas on our emerging field.

The area looks rough from police blotter reports, including the nearby bust of a suspected gun dealer. But there were few early details in Evans' death.

The Decatur paper published his death notice Friday; a guestbook is on

Fresh talk

Restaurateur Jerry Kleiner (Marche, Opera, Carnivale) gives his alderman a blunt assessment of condo development in Chicago Journal.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Tut for tat, or it's hard out here for a pharoah

The return of King Tut to the Field Museum feels more like a side project than a blockbuster. Contrary to billing, "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" includes many artifacts predating Tut's reign, and the Sun-Times reference to the conspicuous absence of Tutankanen's sarcophagus is literal; a recreated death chamber has at its center an empty riser.

But while smaller than the Field's 1977 "Treasures of Tutankhamun" show, one of the many opening previews of the current show required more than the alloted hour. It will need much more time to view once crowds grow larger and more teathered to audio tours, which tend to turn viewers into obstructions.

Exhibition designer AEG frames the exhibit as an overview of the pharoahs's time, making efficient use of the assortment of Valley of the Kings artifacts. While the Field's standing exhibit presents hieroglyphics largely as propaganda vehicles, the Tut display suggests more of their spiritual symbolism. Tut's warrior reign is noted in multiple artifacts depicting enslaved Nubians (bend over — one figure for a walking stick is stretched too far for comfort).

The work of creating these objects is left unexplained. Tomb dressing for pharoahs at war was surely a growth business, though, involving hundreds of craftsmen and years of work. One item buried with Tut is labeled for interment for a short-lived predecessor. But the focus is squarely on the pharoahs, not their legion of servants.

The cult of personality is sign of our gilded age, the Tribune's art critic suggests in arguing for more discussion of artistic merit. Instead, opening-week publicity centered on a dustup over a sarcophagus in the private collection of a museum sponsor. The Egyptian aniquities chief demanded its return to a museum, even absent signs that the coffin was a museum-quality artifact. The piece was pledged to the museum in time for Tut's opening, yet another triumph for hype.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Judgment Day, the original soundtrack

It's likely coincidental, but still an interesting juxtaposition. This morning NPR reports on both a Verdi Requiem memorial performance at the Terezin concentration camp and the recording of "The Da Vinci Code" soundtrack.

The wrathful Latin text of Verdi's "Dies Irae" was a protest song fraught with meaning for the prisoners who performed it during World War II. The movie's soundtrack is ethereal-sounding Latinate nonsense.

If that's a joke on pop culture, it bears added irony from the fact that the Verdi these days is most often associated with commercials and sword-and-sorcery games.

Friday, May 05, 2006

La tierra de los libres y la patria de los valientes

At Cinco de Mayo night for the Chicago White Sox, the National Anthem was sung in English. Another battle not re-enacted.

However, a mariachi band performed pregame at U.S. Cellular Field, and the public address system played the Macarena, many Spanish-language pop songs, "Margaritaville" and "Low Rider." Fireworks ended the night. A very American holiday.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Good speech. Good speech!

Coaching is such a big part of the educational experience that on my current self-improvement kick I had to know more about it. Naturally, my dog provided the answer.

Shadow and I are taking agility training -- he gets the agility and I get the training. The idea is to have your dog run an obstacle course. It turns out to be an obstacle course for the human as well. What seems to work so well in practice at home seems to fall apart completely in class. I lead my dog to the hurdle. I say "Jump!" He shimmies underneath the bar. I motion toward the tunnel. He stares at the treats in my hand.

Under these circumstances it's hard to work on proper training technique. But this must be a common problem. Last week our trainer presented us with evaluation forms. Since my dog can't read, this must be for my benefit. The befuddled masters pair off and as I run Shadow through his paces, my partner takes notes: a plan of action for next time, and what went well.

"There's always something that goes well," the trainer said. "If you can't think of anything, but the dog didn't pee in the chute, write down that the dog didn't pee in the chute." And, from the perspective of someone who would have to pack up the obstacle course at the end of the night, that does seem like a good outcome.

Practice always seems to go so well for a speech, too. Then at the lecturn you stare at the crowd, your mind goes blank, your mouth isn't moving as instructed, it's time to wrap up before you're halfway through. There's too much going on to properly judge how you're coming across.

That's what makes speech evaluations so effective: A supportive observer -- not a neutral observer but one who identifies with the anguish of performance -- can give you an objective look at what's working and what isn't.

Coaches across business disciplines give similar advice to evaluators:

  1. Show that you care. Empathy makes a client more receptive to your observations.
  2. Consider the speaker's objectives. Discuss goals beforehand.
  3. Personalize your language. Make suggestions, not laws.
  4. Evaluate the delivery. Not the person or the conclusions.
  5. Promote self-esteem. Reinforce and inspire improvements.
  6. Listen actively. Pay attention to non-verbal cues as well as speech organization.
  7. "Tell and sell." Demonstrate techniques for improvement.

Speech coach Dilip Abayasekara, current president of Toastmasters International, makes similar points in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Evaluators. Gloria Auth, an Oklahoma City coach in business protocol, gives specific pointers in How to give and receive effective feedback.

I'd write more, but the dog is angling for another walk.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

It's Earth Day. Let's drive!

I dropped off two old computers for recycling at the 42nd Ward Streets and Sanitation office. The man shook my hand.

He had recognized the CPUs immediately as Macs. "They never fail," I said.

Still, I was glad to dispose of the toxic doorstops. They're no good even to the Salvation Army, a glut on the Thrift Store market at $5 each. An old GE clock radio sells for $10, likely above acquisition cost.

The city Department of Environment plans to continue electronics collections this summer — perhaps once a month, though the two people at the dropoff site couldn't agree on how often or when.

Of course, Streets and San continues to pick up any old Trinitron left in the alley and ship it to a landfill.

What if they gave an election ...

No, really, there was an election Wednesday. I found a flier on the sidewalk across from Andersen School saying "Vote por nosotras cinco!!!"

The biennial Local School Council election marked the public schools' absence from public consciousness. The only advance coverage I saw was in the Gazette; the Tribune waited till election day. But then, most candidates were unopposed.

East Village is booming. Looking for a yard sale? This weekend 942 N. Winchester has a "moving, garage, demolition sale." Yet Andersen enrollment is down 18 percent since 1998. Once children reach school age, new families appear to be searching for magnet schools, or searching the Oak Park real estate ads.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A bit shy of a load

NYC freelancer Shiela Spencer, a student of the personality tests beloved by career counselors, tells a public-speaking audience that there are not only introverts and extroverts but also "shy extroverts," outwardly-directed yet self-aware folks who would be willing group participants were they more at ease.

But why stop there? This article does not square the Myers-Briggs circle by looking for the shy extrovert's opposite. A biography of Herbert Hoover describes him as an "aggressive introvert" -- sure in his beliefs but blind to their effect. Certainly we know the loquacious sort performing for his or her own amusement, or the curmudgeon heedless of social cues. A few Toastmasters evaluations would test at least some of their closely held notions.

The fact is, none of us is a pure introvert or extrovert, and success often involves coaching to move us somewhere else on the continuum.

Monday, April 10, 2006

A safer home than Des Plaines

Freedom MuseumA new museum on North Michigan Avenue is a big story, but the Chicago Tribune faces challenges in assessing the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, the replacement for upscale gadget emporium Hammacher Schlemmer at Tribune Tower.

Tribune Co. stock dividends fund the museum at 435 N. Michigan, which makes it a trickier for the Tribune to cover than last year's launch of the Hershey's Chicago "retail experience." Spring is rife with opportunities for media self-promotion, though, from the Associated Press Managing Editors meeting in Chicago to ABC 7's remodeled street-facing studio to Cubs opening day. So Bill Mullen's Tribune story was a model of restraint.

On my visit a striking feature was the museum's multistory sculpture "12 15 1791." Quotes on First Amendment freedoms are drilled into steel plates suspended along cables to represent 5-year intervals since the Bill of Rights' 1791 ratification. The words reflect against nearby plates in a metaphorical conversation. A staffer said a last-minute reinstallation was forced by electrical problems, which I can only imagine.

Free speech has its price on Michigan Avenue; museum admission is $5, which shouldn't deter families looking for the kind of education not found elsewhere on a Boul Mich tour. School groups get in free, though, with bus subsidies available. A school in Pilsen might make a fine free-speech field trip of a march from Tribune Tower to American Girl Place.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Lava Lounge fault line

Who knew that the City of Chicago couldn't generate an accurate voter registration list? This month tons of fliers praising or damning various politicians arrived at my home off Damen Avenue — not one addressed to a previous occupant.

None of that mail was prepared to tell a complete story, and unfortunately neither was Chicago Journal when it editorialized that voter lists are stacked against the Lava lounge's new owners' attempt to retain a liquor license. Unchallenged was the assertion that hundreds of ex-residents remained on voter rolls, raising the bar impossibly high in overriding a tavern moratorium.

The editorial stated that "we're pretty sure" there was no public attempt at compromise (presumably between the owners and those obstinate ghost voters). Yet an accompanying story alluded to just such an effort early on, a community meeting in which the owners' attempts to press their case were complicated by the presence of actual residents.

It continued with an equally blithe statement that "perhaps" the bar's neighbors favor high-end cookie-cutter development over variety, although that stretch of Damen has yet to acquire such tastes. Liquor moratoriums don't get enacted where there's business diversity. Bars still outnumber boutiques south of Division — not a shoe store in sight — and they present remarkably similar closing-time headaches.

This week Chicago Journal was a finalist in the Peter Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, for a story in which Max Brooks spent time getting to know the owners and patrons of Ashland Avenue taco stands. If only Chicago Journal could have brought that kind of attention to the corner of Damen and Iowa.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Naming rights


And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
Genesis 2:19

Imposing order holds sway at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show. Brenda came to take notes on Kong Red coleus, Wind Dancer eragrostis and ornamental millet Jester in her mission to subdue the backyard. The ideal of plant husbandry was displayed in themed displays: summer colors, serene Japanese gardens, wild tree specimens. A competition was organized around categories such as pigmented leaves (headlined "morphing pixels"). To everthing there is a phylum, even photography: A competition placed shots of hummingbirds on plants in a separate category from those of butterflies on plants.

Brenda herded me toward Cass Turnbull's seminar on "ending senseless torture" in pruning, my aggressive thinning being our outdoorsy inside joke. We stopped on the way for a backyard birding seminar by bloggers Bill Thompson III and Julie Zickefoose, whose 80-acre exurban Ohio garden presents quite a contrast to our urban experience (no apparent problems there with rats and pigeons).

We merely gawked at the beautiful orchids for sale, but did break down on the way home and bought gorgeous vegetables from the Fox & Obel deli counter.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The little Trib

The 10th is the aluminum anniversary. So you'd think at least there would be a CD in the works to mark the founding of the Chicago Tribune Web site.

Instead, that milestone gets an extremely modest appreciation today far down the front page, eclipsed by reporter Kevin Pang's memorial to his dead iPod.

A boss calls my MP3 player the "Soviet iPod" — it's strapped to a pacemaker of four AA batteries, and it crashes my computer every time I try to sync. Yet I hang on. I am slow to jettison serviceable media (I completely skipped over the candy-bar generation of cell phones while nursing a Motorola TAC brick) so when's origins are recalled I believe attention must be paid.

What was then the index had very little news then and was soon to show even less, with a pre-portal front page designed for primordial laptops. But its staff (an extension of an AOL project) saw a future in which all information was within reach, and hired me for its classified search.

Cyberspace already has a long time line: ARPAnet and CompuServe launched in 1969, Usenet in '79 and of course Al Gore invented the Internet in 1991. In the 1980s I worked at the Chicago Sun-Times bureau that was broadcasting teletext on the vertical blanking interval of Channel 32; the Trib was experimenting with fax newsletters and something called America Online. But it is kind of freaky that early in my career computer storage meant the pegboard where the copy desk hung rolls of teletype tape.

Newspapers are still trying to envision a future on the Internet. Regional portal? On-demand broadcaster? Blog aggregator? Whatever its form, it will start from an experiment. So we must appreciate starting small.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

March mellowness

March usually finds me taking time off to pull together finalists for the Peter Lisagor Awards, with a break for college basketball. This year, Illinois and Wisconsin both faded early in the Big Ten tournament, and I handed off enough of the journalism contest to keep me sane. So instead:

I'm reading: Tennis and golf are executive diversions, which helps explain how tennis pro Tim Gallwey came to train telephone operators during the AT&T corporate breakup. Gallwey coached them to guess customers' stress, thus short-circuiting the entrenched second-guessing Ma Bell had imposed on the job. In "The Inner Game of Work," Gallwey argues that workers overthink their moves—that they should be observant without being critical.

I'm alternating between business books and short stories: Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, Joan Didion, A Didion omnibus, "Vintage Didion," includes a prescient view of post-9/11 politics, "Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History." On a NYC trip a week after the attacks, she found "the entire event had been seized — even as the less nimble among us were still trying to assimilate it — to stake new ground in old domestic wars."

I'm cooking: The household division of labor is that Brenda writes the menus, largely from Cooking Light recipes, and I prepare the means. She thinks she's a better planner. I think she tends to veto my recipes. Whatever. By 7 p.m. I enjoy working with my hands. it would be a good time for a workout, if I could work in an evening comeback to my morning stretching and dog-walking routine. Best I can hope for is a few more minutes with the dog.

I'm listening: My Christmas gift cards helped me salt away John Coltrane CDs to survive the winter. It's a good sign that I haven't heard them all yet, or maybe it just means I'm making more Harold Washington library visits. Coltrane circa 1957 seems entirely too rococo: I find myself appreciating the rare legato moments most.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Another gilded age

LADY LAKE, Fla.—This is not the first bout of histrionics over the evils of lobbying to infect Washington," the Chicago Tribune's Michael Tackett reports today on the Abramoff scandal. His time horizon is much too short: Some of the most delicious satire In Mark Twain's The Gilded Age involves the amount of bribery required to secure the favor of congressmen—"the high moral ones cost more because they give tone to a measure."

Congressional pork and financial legerdemain are the grist for The Gilded Age, written with Charles Dudley Warner in 1873. I had expected the age of Ulysses S. Grant to have its share present-day parallels and was not disappointed. When one of its members is charged with taking bribes, the Senate preserves its good name by investigating the whistle-blower. A lobbyist cleared of the only slightly more notorious charge of murder attempts to cash in on the lecture circuit. And land speculators hoping to make a killing get dragged in the deeper undertow of the their bankers' schemes.

Such plot lines resonate in boom-town Central Florida. An online real-estate ad reads: "Perfect for the investor wanting to break into Florida's Hot Market!" This for a five-unit apartment building. The Villages, a Sun City-style seniors development, rose quickly from the palmetto scrub but has doubled again in size and scattered copycat retirement villas 10 miles in every direction. Stores and schools followed, and finally a hospital. (When I retire, Ground Zero of my condo search will be Northwestern Memorial Hospital.)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Public domain Twain

"The children were put to school; at least it was what passed for a school in those days: a place where tender young humanity devoted itself for eight or ten hours a day to learning incomprehensible rubbish by heart out of books and reciting it by rote, like parrots; so that a finished education consisted simply of a permanent headache and the ability to read without stopping to spell the words or take breath."

Mark Twain, The Gilded Age (1873)

(Attributed to Twain in Charles Neider's 1965 edition "The Adventures of Col. Sellers," which drops material written by Charles Dudley Warner.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Big Drama taking a nap

Bobby Darin's "Sunday in New York" has been running through my head for the past week since seeing Richard Greenberg's "The Well-Appointed Room" at Steppenwolf Theatre. The play, not so much.

Like "Three Days of Rain" the new Greenberg play has two acts with common themes separated in time — in this case, the same apartment before and after the World Trade Center attacks. The first act presents a glib playwright oblivious to the present, and a whip-smart partner weary of his living in the past. Tension in the second act is between the apartment's next owners, a husband living in the moment and a wife looking years ahead.

There's room for a grand statement about the course of human events in all this, but "The Well-Appointed Room" keeps to confined quarters. The Darin swinger provides one of many throwaway first-act lines in what would seem like a 1930s romantic-comedy pairing gone wrong — that is, if the couple presented at least a fading spark of attraction. The half-hour is malnourished despite the onstage preparation of multiple omlets. By cracking a few more eggs the playwright could have brought this couple at least a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" edge, and introduced ideas to inform the second act.

The post-9/11 world is fraught with humanity, but the new tenants hash over much of the same turf Greenberg covered in "The Velvet Hour." Steppenwolf usually acts the hell out of a bad script, but the four actors come off unusually flat with this little to work with.

A quartet on the upstairs stage brings more empathy, and more of the sweep of calamity, to Frank Galati's economical but rich adaptation of Haruki Murakami's "After the Quake" short stories.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Do unto others as your BATNA dictates

Audio books aren't for me: El trains rumble by and I miss the speaker's main point. But a co-worker offered his copy of the negotiation primer "Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" and after months of delay I became a quick study. Most curious were the detailed answers to "Ten Questions People Ask," particularly one which seemed to need no reply: "Should I be fair if I don't have to?"

Getting to YesYet when "Getting to Yes" was first published in 1981, it seemed common sense that the negotiation playing field needed a winner and a loser. The authors popularized the notion that bargaining could get both sides what they want, making them more satisfied with their deal and more committed to making it work.

Harvard Professor Roger Fisher, the primary author, does not narrate the audio book, which sounds more like cable reruns of "Win Ben Stein's Money." Too bad, because Fisher coached negotiations at a high level, including advising on the Camp David accords. Now, his conflict-resolution strategy is heard all over.

Tenant's advocates use it to iron out landlord disputes. Multinational treaties attempt to to give all parties bragging rights. It even came into play in our household's early spring cleaning: My wife seems to want everything thrown out, but what's she's after is simply cutting the clutter. If I find a way to organize it, I can keep it. This can mean a trip to Container Store for even more stuff.

Two important things to remember are that win-win negotiations aren't necessarily about money, and they demand better communication skills. The long view of negotiation is that people need to be treated fairly, they don't want a drawn-out negotiation, they want a predictable result and one that's easy to explain.

So it's not a matter of meeting in the middle, but finding common ground wherever it lies, or at least sizing up the other-side's Plan B -- what Fisher called the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA -- and trying to offer something more appealing.

Like building any relationship, a lot of this comes down to listening: Instead of thinking ahead to their next statement, bargainers have to hear what the other side is saying and react in imaginative ways -- perhaps laying out not one solution but a number of them, without committing to any of them.

Familiar coaching skills also come into play; Keep the discussion helpful and upbeat, show that you appreciate the other side's position, and make yours more appealing by addressing the other party's concerns.

Most important, be prepared. Know your alternatives, and the other side's as well, and the outcome stands a better chance of being an improvement for both.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Might as well face it

President Bush finally has confessed his addiction, and pledged to cut back on the finer-grade stuff.

"America is addicted to oil," Bush states in his State of the Union address. Yet his goal is to reduce only Middle East imports. No need to go cold turkey. Twenty years should do the trick.

He follows with an education pledge to double basic research spending over 10 years. In real terms that may prove next to no increase at all, provided anyone is left who can do the math.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dybek dybbuk

I Sailed With MagellanStuart Dybek caught my attention 15 years ago with his Chicago settings and his quicksilver changes of scene, where staring at swirls of Pet milk stirs memory of a "Risky Business" encounter.

I found his "I Sailed With Magellan" at the central library 10 days ago before Brenda called me home to fix the furnace. Now it's a dreamy 50 degrees outside and protagonist Perry Katzek has developed as quickly as the thaw. The book's repertory cast and its dreamlike setting, simultaneously 1968 South Lawndale and present-day Little Village, leave marks of the writer's creation scattered about.

Like jazz, it's both rehearsed and improvised. I've enjoyed this type of writing since Charles Dickenson's "Rumor Has It" took a newspaper office where the writer and I both worked and made it his own private world.

"What part was real?" friend Temma asked after we saw the movie "Smoke" a decade ago. Except for maybe a photo of a Brooklyn tobacco shop, it was all smoke. "I Sailed With Magellan" seemed to conjure a neighborhood from clouds in the coffee.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Last word on landmarks

What's left to say about the East Village Landmark District after a year of debate? With one final hearing left to attend, I put my reporter's training to work and pulled the clips.

In 1989 it was feared that the Wicker Park landmark district, as reported in the Tribune, would boost property values so high that gentrification would displace the district's residents. A few years later, the calculus involving South Side neighborhoods was whether they were viable enough to reap the economic benefits of landmark status.

How strange that the debate over landmark protection is now whether it will retard development.

Local history suggests that communities thrive or wither for factors quite apart from landmark protection. Benefits are limited to the districts' intended purpose: to protect the characteristics that make a neighborhood unique and invite its growth. Neighbors propose landmark designation not for how it will make their property more valuable, but for what they value in the neighborhood.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Let's move on

Tribune TowerThe first-floor storefront of Tribune Tower reopens this spring not as a pricey gadget store but as a museum to communication and democracy. It's a rare institution that can build a viable business on those principles.

But it's a profit made with apologies. As the Chicago Tribune laid off 100 workers, launched a petition drive to reverse the layoffs, claiming that news coverage was being sacrificed to corporate profits.

The economy has hit Tribune harder hit than many of its peers, and its stock ended the year at low ebb. Wall Street is indeed demanding a higher profit from Tribune. But analysts seem to be looking for the same profit produced at The New York Times, or Gannett, or Dow Jones.

MoveOn's contention about the layoffs is that investors will see the gains while national and local news coverage coverage suffers. But the stock price hasn't moved up. and neither national nor metro desk was included in the layoffs.

However, City News Bureau was fated to close this weekend. The Tribune operated this local wire service but did not publish its work. Editors considered it a tip service on police and court news that Tribune reporters needed to corroborate. Yet the Tribune also sold the wire service to TV stations and news radio, which aired the reports immediately.

Possibly the Tribune wasn't charging other newsrooms enough for this — the Reader reports that a potential successor, City News Service of Los Angeles, would have raised rates 50 percent. Ultimately the Tribune declined to give their competition so much help. Instead, reporters and editors are being hired to do the same kind of reporting for

My holiday reading included Jim Collins' Good to Great, which tries to explain how businesses start outperforming their competition. Turns out the winners share three factors: They find a business they're passionate about. They try to be the best at it. And they put their resources where they will be most productive.

Being the best at local news is a civic enterprise as well as an economic one. The latest battleground is online — no apologies.