Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Great Karmic Wheel of Brian Williams Keeps Turning

   There is a phenomenon in journalism I call the "Near Miss Cycle."
     Two airplanes will nearly collide in some spectacular fashion: one pulling up just seconds before impact, for instance. Or the wing of one plane will actually clip another on the ground. Whatever the circumstances, the story for some reason makes the news.
      Then the media suddenly becomes aware, again, of the concept of aeronautic "near misses," and starts reporting on other examples, of which there are many. Almost every day, it seems, at almost every airport. Maybe not as dramatic — certainly not as dramatic — as the instance that first caught the world's notice. But dramatic enough to feed this newfound interest. 
     For a while. Eventually, the sheer number of near collisions, none of them as compelling as the original, numb the audience, and the story dwindles away into nothingness, where it remains until the next spectacular near miss sets off the cycle once again.
      This phenomenon is not limited to airplanes, alas.
      We are seeing this in the wake of the Brian Williams melt-down.
      Williams, for anybody reading this in 2035, is the superstar NBC network news anchor who lied about being aboard a helicopter hit by a rocket 12 years ago in Iraq, when he was actually in an entirely different helicopter that wasn't hit at all.
     In the pre-Internet age this lie would have caused grumbling in a handful of people who heard the fabrication and knew better. But now, when negative details can find the wide audience hungry for it. Last month it caused an enormous scandal, though I would argue it was Williams' tin-eared attempt at damage control, his flea-bag "I forgot" non-apology that turned what might have been a passing embarrassment into a lingering if not endless career distorting disaster.
     Much conversation about journalistic ethics ensued, which I didn't join into, because I believed that putting this into the realm of journalism is a category error. Williams wasn't reporting on news, he was talking about himself in a speech, and the truly applicable realization in all this to understand that the facts that Williams about his life with which he could puff himself—his being super rich, super famous, super handsome, super important—were not enough, obviously. He felt obligated to invent heroic episodes to further enhance his already glittering reputation.
     In that regard he is like many, maybe most men, who feed their egos at every turn, with facts if they can, with fantasy if those facts aren't handy. That sounds like I'm defending Williams, and I'm really not. I'm scrupulously honest, in part, because the fibbing of which Williams is guilty is so common and cheezy. You could replace all network news anchors with sock puppets and I wouldn't mind. But  if the new standard is that exaggerating braggarts shouldn't be allowed to hold their jobs, then a lot of offices will be nearly empty.
     Because attention, like other sublime substances, is addictive, and having a lot today, however much that is, can mean that you want a lot plus just a little bit more tomorrow. The implication in this scandal is that Williams is somehow unique here, and he's not.
     But people missed that. They thought the Williams gaffe meant something significant, and so the cycle continues. Last week, it was VA secretary Robert McDonald lying—in a conversation with a homeless man no  less—about being in the Special Forces. Now its Bill O'Reilly, famous as a font of half-truths and self-inflating nonsense for years, suddenly finding his rampant puffery being fact-checked anew by Mother Jones. Why? O'Reilly fondness for mendacity hasn't changed. It's just that, in this stage of the Williams cycle, being an odious blowhard takes on a darker significance, the way squishy campus 1970s radicalism was, 30 years later, cast in the grim hues of terrorism. I imagine we'll have another month or two of the ponderous dinner speech braggadocio of TV stars being scrutinized as if  they were State of the Union addresses. Until the public gags at the sheer quantity of the stuff, and the media moves on to meat more attractive.  Adulation is addictive, like heroin. We shouldn't be surprised that people overdose and ruin themselves on it too.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The search for Erik Nordby

The best way to explain this is that it was Friday morning, and I had to write something. This presented itself and I shrugged and, to quote Molly Bloom at end of Ulysses, "and I thought well as well him as another."

     Friday morning, shaking off the cold, I shed my parka and stomp into the breakroom — whoops, Starbucks/cereal bar social center, because we’re a tech company now — which has a sign on the door: “Closed 2:30-4 p.m. Lightswitch training.”
     Inside, good old Jeremiah, our engineer, and a man I don’t know. They’re inspecting the room.
     “Lightswitch training?” I begin, catching their attention. “Dare I ask?”
     I extend my left arm, pointing the index finger and lifting it with a flourish.
    “OK everybody, together now: ON!” Then a brisk slice of the finger downward. “And OFF!”
     They laugh.
“I assume it’s for management,” I continue.
     “No. Sales,” Jeremiah says, and at this, I bite my lip and flee. Do not mock the salesforce. “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”
     But back at my desk, I can’t shake it off. “Lightswitch training, lightswitch training?” What could that be?
     “Lightswitch will shoot, edit and deliver a professional video customized to your business,” the company’s website promises. “We do it faster, better and cheaper than anyone else.” Turns out they’re right here, on Chicago Avenue.
     “We’re a video production company, based out of Chicago,” says Bryce Anderson, director of sales and operation.  “We manage crews all across the United States, a network of thousands of video professionals handle all pre- and post-production. We’re 4 years old, but there have been a lot of changes. This model has been around about two years. We have 4,000, 5,000 people, of whom 150 to 200 are core. We send them as much work as we can, and edit it down.”

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

"And so rose up, and went away"

     For the past year, I've been busy securing rights to poems, lines from songs, movies,  stories, and such, for the book, Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery that I've written with Sara Bader. It was a a lot of work, but worth it. I learned a lot about poetry, and was sensitized to the challenges of both being creative and respecting copyright law, which I believe is oppressive.
    A lot of people ignore the copyright laws completely, and the Internet is filled with poems swiped from authors and posted. Particularly the poems of Mary Oliver, one of the nation's most successful and beloved poets.
     And I'd be loath to join the offenders. But I actually paid for this poem, along with a half dozen others of hers, to be included in our book, and so I thought she might not mind if I posted this one here, as a kind of lagniappe, a little gift, like a baker giving a steady customer an extra cookie. I'm posting it not to further the commercial interests of my blog, such as they are, but because it came to mind when the newspaper offered the staff a buy-out.  The poem would bring me comfort, were I leaving the paper, and I thought it might bring comfort to my 15 colleagues who, certainly torn, took the money and rose up and went away. If Mary Oliver objects, I'll happily pay her some more, or take it down—well, not happily, but quickly. I would lop off the last four lines as diluting the proper, powerful ending, "and went away." But I can't; it's her poem, not mine, and she forbids it.  Though you can safely skip them, in my estimation (which, now that I think of it, perhaps moves this piece from expropriation to the realm of literary criticism, where I can, it could be argued, reproduce the words I am commenting upon). 
    The poem is called "The House."

                                           Because we lived our several lives
                                           Caught up within the spells of love.
                                           Because we always had to run
                                           Through the enormous yards of day
                                           To do all that we hoped to do,
                                           We did not hear, beneath our lives,
                                           The old walls falling out of true,
                                           Foundations shifting in the dark.
                                           When seedlings blossomed in the eaves,
                                           When branches scratched upon the door
                                           And rain came splashing through the halls,
                                           We made our minor, brief repairs,
                                           And sang upon the crumbling stairs
                                           And danced upon the sodden floors.
                                           For years we lived at peace, until
                                           The rooms themselves began to blend
                                           With time, and empty one by one,
                                           At which we knew, with muted hearts,
                                           That nothing further could be done,
                                           And so rose up, and went away.
                                           Inheritors of breath and love,
                                           Bound to that final black estate
                                           No child can mend or trade away.

Sunday Puzzler No. 1

Kent and Ross as young boys, breaking a code.

      Yesterday, in presenting my Saturday Fun Activity "Where IS This?" photo contest, I asked readers if they were tiring of it; I guess that means I am, a little. Or at least I was on Friday night.
     Most people said they enjoy it, so it'll continue, for the time being. I try to be a full-service columnist.
      A few said they wouldn't mind a trivia question, along the lines of the opera trivia contest I used to pick readers to go to "Porgy & Bess" in December. Though they wondered if questions could be devised that would thwart easy solving on Google.
     That's a challenge, and I'm going to work on that.
     In the meantime, what strikes me as being more Google-proof is not trivia, but logic questions, particularly original ones. When the boys were small, I used to devise puzzles to occupy them, codes and riddles and ciphers, as part of elaborate scavenger hunts I would create to help keep them occupied while I was away on trips.  Here's an example. A bright 8-year-old could crack it fairly easily, so I assume someone out there can too. The first person to answer wins a bag of fine Bridgeport coffee. ("Prizes! Prizes!" cry the Caucus Race creatures in "Alice in Wonderland." Because really, what's the point of a contest without prizes?).
       Good luck, and post your answers below.

     Sunday Puzzler No. 1

     Oftentimes I will think about the alphabet to get to sleep. One night, I sorted letters in such a way that I had a string of 15, with the other 11 not belonging. From that string, I took away another seven, as a challenge to you. Can you recognize the commonality of the remaining eight letters, and supply their missing seven brethren? Don't bother with Google—it won't help you. You have to think. There's no rush; yesterday's puzzle wasn't solved. I'm hoping this won't be either.

     A F I L N V X Z

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Not my idea of quality art, but there it was, this rather unusual tableau. A distinctive kind of engraving, tied to the history of Chicago. It seemed worth photographing. 
     And while you're guessing where in Chicago this is can be found—it's quite large, several feet across—ponder this question, posed sincerely: has the "Where IS This?" puzzle run its course? It's been featured for over a year and, for some reason, this week I thought, "Perhaps it's time to cook up a different sort of challenge."
      Nobody has complained. But I like to be ahead of the curve. What are your thoughts?   Maybe a Chicago-themed trivia question instead. I don't want to slip into tired routines. 
     In the meantime, the winner receives one of my super artistic, limited edition posters, depicted below. Place your guesses—and your opinions on the Saturday quiz—below. Good luck. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Elections and torture go together

     The April mayoral election is the only story in Chicago for the next six weeks.
     Unless it’s the April mayoral election AND the secret Chicago Police black site at Homan Square
     Did I leave out “supposedly”? Good for you for noticing. “Supposedly at Homan Square.” Because I don’t quite buy it.
     (“Of course you don’t,” some of you say, “because you’re The Man.”)
     The Man would get paid better. I’m just skeptical. The Homan Square allegations, as outlined in the original article that started the fuss in The Guardian, is pretty little spread pretty thin. One of the NATO 3 protesters told the British newspaper he was handcuffed there for a half a day. One suspect died there. And the mother of a teenager said she had trouble tracking down her son.
     Taken together, these three episodes, even if true, don’t exactly add up to Guantanamo Bay. Reading the article, I kept asking myself, “If this is common, where are the victims?” And then my answer came, not from The Guardian, but on The Atlantic’s website: We jackals in the media, filled with hate and solidarity for the cops, ignore the victims, stopping our ears to the cries of the disappeared and the tortured, muffled by the thick walls of the secret prison that the cops — half Gestapo, half SAVAK — are running on the former Sears warehouse.
     “Why wasn’t the press covering it?” The Atlantic asked Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project.
     “I think that many crime reporters in Chicago have political views that are right in line with the police,” he replied. “They tend to agree about the tactics needed by the police. They tend to have by one extent or the other the same racist views of the police — a lot of urban police (not all of them by any stretch, but a lot of them) embody racism.”
     Really? Of course he thinks that, and probably considers himself generous for allowing that there might be a few cops who don’t itch to clamp a typewriter cover over every black face they see....

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

School days

     "Heavenish" is the awkward word that came to mind as I was strolling around the sun-kissed campus of Pomona College during Parents Weekend earlier this month. 
     And it took me a bit of trial and error to even get to that.
      "Heavenly" seemed wrong—an adjective better suited to cake. "Paradisaical" is not in the vernacular. I rolled "Edenlike" around in mind, but that implied a certain innocence belied by so many skateboards and smart phones at the California college, an hour east of Los Angles. 
    Perfect weather. Temperatures in the 70s, but dry. It took me days to find a cloud. A botanist's dream of palms and plants and unusual trees—at least unusual by my admittedly narrow Midwestern standards. 
     My kid wore shorts, oxford shirts and flip flops and padded here and there, never in a particular hurry. He seemed to have one class a day, James Joyce and French and economics and ... I kid you not ... bowling. A different parent might have blanched a bit at the thought of going to college to learn to bowl, but they make students take phys-ed at Pomona —mens sana in corpore sano*—and I can't say I disagree. You've got your body for your entire life; might as well learn to take care of it. 
      None of it seemed particularly difficult, but then my kid tells me that, after the gladiatorial blood academic sport that was high school, college is a breeze, so far. Not exactly preparing him for the tooth and claw of the business world, perhaps, but as he points out, there's law school for that, and law school is plenty hard, and no reason why he shouldn't ramp up slowly.
     Life serves up plenty of bad stuff; if it starts offering ambrosia, well, grab a spoon and enjoy. 
     After all, he is going to school, and if my pondering over which shade of the empyrean to cast Pomona is worth considering (and I'm not sure it is, but it's too late now. Every ... goddamn ... day) then it's worth pausing over the word "school."
     From the Greek, 'skholḗ," which means "leisure." And if you're wondering how a word that meant, in essence, "spare time," came to mean the place where exactly the opposite is true, for most, therein lies the tale. Because in ancient Greece, a child was either a slave or working a shop or picking the fields or, if you were very, very fortunate, and and if your pateras was rich, and you had a lot of skholḗ on your hands, you were expected to edify your mind, with lectures and readings and such (and your body, with running and wrestling and such, but no bowling). Eventually the place where those lectures absorbing the spare time of well-to-do kids took place became known as "schools" and you can figure out the rest from there.
View out my kid's dorm window
     Lucky boy. Life delivers a much harsher fate to most other 19 years olds, and I was gratify to see that he seems to realize it, at least vaguely. To be honest, I'm proud to be part of a society that sends young men and women, not just off to war, not just off to work, but off to school, to quiz professors and argue tiresomely with their friends and read Ulysses and arrive languorously at spa-like eating establishments and sigh over the spread of every good thing you could imagine and a few you couldn't, and wander through this very heavenish setting. There will be time for grinding over the briefs in windowless office towers in frigid climates in the years to come. 
     Meanwhile, the etymology of "school" is a reminder that leisure is for learning, in my view, and that a life well spent is a life of constant education. In the perpetual mourning over the decline of journalism, which spiked again this week with a dozen newspaper colleagues taking the buy-out and leaving, I have to remind myself, through gritted teeth, that it was still a good choice to go into a profession where, basically, you go to school full time, wandering about, poking your nose into unusual places, reading engaging stuff, and regularly exploring what you're interested in, and then trying to tell people about it. Or at least I do; I understand that I'm lucky too, in that regard, and some journalists are laying out the agate high school sports scores or working in the back of take-out restaurants. It took a lot of work to get here, and I'm inclined to stay until they pry my fingers off the doorjamb, which should be any minute now. Until then, this job is a good thing, and suited to my personality. Now if only the setting were warmer. And the business model a little more sure. And colleagues not departing at such a clip.

* "a sound mind in a sound body"