Friday, June 26, 2009

It's not tax season but death keeps rolling in

My hero -- Cool Hand Luke --died earlier this Spring. Actually, the obituary was for Paul Newman, who played that chain gang version of Kesey's McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a rebel whose spirit could not be crushed. Salad dressing and all, Newman always was Luke to me, the guy with the mocking blue eyes, ready for whatever came his way.

This week it was Ed, Michael and Farah, entertainers from different eras, 36 years apart in age but all decades past their prime. I'll blush and be honest. For me, it was Farah, Grade B actress and the focal point of college pin-up fantasies, who hurt the worst.

Next? From all reports, it could be Walter Cronkite, the broadcast news giant of my childhood, the man we all watched to learn "that's the way it is."

I had a professor at the University of Missouri graduate school of journalism who talked about the trajectory of news reading habits. As younger readers, he said, we start by inhaling the front-page headlines. They keep us current (this, of course, was pre-24/7, pre-Internet, pre-Twitter). As we age, we open first to the opinion pages: Being first seems less important than being wise. We want to make sense of the news' meaning and importance. And as we get older, we start with the obituaries. the pages that measure the legacy of those who've gone before, the last shot for those lucky enough to have had at least 15 minutes of fame to leave a lasting impression.

Maybe it's because I turned 60 this year, but I'm starting to read those obituaries regularly. A lot more people who touched my life are dying. Oh, I'm not ready to put my false teeth in a glass at night; I bought a new bike this summer and booked a rigorous hike in the White Mountain hut system. But life and what we leave when it's over do weigh more on my mind.

In his final column, published days after his death, humorist Art Buchwald asked, "What's it all about Alfie?" I'll be darned if I know. To live a full life? To touch others? To be true to one's beliefs? To win the egg-eating wager in the chain gang? Beats me.

"Do not go gentle into that good night," wrote the poet Dylan Thomas. "...Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Unless I'm lucky enough to go fast, someday I'll start raging. I'm hoping that can wait awhile. For now, I'd like to explore some of the remote corners the light still shines on, pausing to peek from time to time at the obits to see who has dropped out of this adventure called life.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A knee-high perspective on the world

My best friend stands about 2-feet tall. She loves to run, play peek-a-boo and read about fire trucks. She is unfailingly sunny, takes regular naps and digs loop-dee-loops in her bubble car.
Her name is Devon, and she's almost 2. She calls me Ahda, her own invention.

They don't have a Grandpa's Day on my calendar. But then, they don't need one. Any day and every day works for me.

As parents, we miss too much of our kids' development. At least I did. I was too busy commuting long distances, too tired, likely too often too much into my own life. Not that I was a bad Dad. We took the kids by train across the country, camped on both coasts. I coached the girls in soccer and basketball, read to them as long as they'd tolerate it, and later sat through endless swim meets. But there is a magic about being a grandfather I wouldn't trade for the world. No need to discipline. No need to hurry; at this point, I have fewer places to go and I'm more eager to smell the flowers, too -- or pick them and try to blow off their petals (only the weeds, of course).

Devon cares no more about being wired, social networked, I-poded, Blackberryed or I-phoned than I do. She likes to walk our golden retriever Murphy, a simple pleasure on an early summer day. She loves the hammock and makes me swing in it. We sit in the back yard and play with her dolls and sand toys.

Devon isn't up on Twitter. She's not counting tweets out of Iran or arguing about Guantanamo. She's not following Britney or Paris or anyone, for that matter, tweeting all day long about ... what do people write about in paragraph-long bursts? She couldn't care less about the rants of Rush or Dick, the caustic commentary of Keith or the bloviators of the Blogosphere . (She doesn't even have a blog.)

I imagine Devon probably would consider Barack Obama a pretty nice man, a Dad, not the socialist, fascist or muslim terrorist an astonishing number of his most rabid detractors try to paint him. And I'm sure she'd love his daughters and the swing set on the White House lawn.

Like our president, Devon for now at least is growing up without a father. Like him, she's bi-racial. Mind you. I certainly have no ambitions for her to follow Obama's footsteps. I wouldn't wish his job on anyone. But I do hope that our internationally schooled, non-white president will have paved the road toward a new America when Devon goes out into the world alone. I hope it's one with fewer labels, fewer assumptions and fewer barriers. Obama's election, I believe, shows this country already is heading down that path.

There's one other thing I hope. Decades from now, as she looks back on her Ahda and Nana, and the role they played in her childhood, I hope Devon will smile and tell her children about the bubble car, her walks with Murphy, and the fire trucks we used to count. I hope she'll remember us warmly, and pass on values and stories from an earlier time. That would be the best Ahda's Day gift of all.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Newspapers need to reclaim community roots

This piece first appeared June 10 on the website of the Christian Science Monitor

The Boston Globe moved a step closer to the brink this week when its editorial union rejected what amounts to a 10 percent wage cut, leading management to follow up on its threat and slash pay even more.

Conventional wisdom holds that newspapers have been crippled by the flight of advertising to the Web. But they've been crippled just as much by corporate profiteering, arrogance, elitism, and encroaching dullness that have driven away readers, sometimes in droves.

Newspapers must look back to have a future. They need to reclaim their populist roots – roots that the Web increasingly controls.

Consider what newspapers long did best: Even when faced with the immediacy of radio and then TV, good newspapers offered their communities serendipity and surprise, originality, readable-to-good writing, a sense of purpose and shared experience.

The best papers set the agenda in their news and opinion, offering not the tepid voice of the referee seen in the recent Obama-Cheney torture "debate," but a strong voice of moral leadership. It was the courage of a few Southern newspaper editors, for example, that helped end segregation. They took a stand. They didn't, in the name of "balance," give integrationists and segregationists an equal voice.

Newspapers can reclaim this legacy and their leadership by acting more and reacting less. Three steps come to mind:

1. Stop giving readers yesterday's headlines today.

A week before its staff voted, the Globe featured a single story above the fold that "informed" readers that "President Obama said yesterday the government's majority stake in General Motors Corp. will help create a leaner, more competitive automaker, hours after the company filed for bankruptcy...." It was leftovers, not news.

2. Develop more enterprise that measures the impact of government policies on people and community.

Let the wire services cover politicians' speeches and announcements. Newspapers should use their staffs to measure who is affected and how. I'm not talking year-long, Pulitzer-sized projects here. Instead, newspapers should be investing in strong, daily, manageably sized enterprise that leads to change.

3. Spend less time covering the bankers, power brokers, and masters of spin who dominate news, and spend more time in coffee shops and corner stores, bowling alleys and backyards. Beat expertise still counts, but that expertise should be focused on readers, not sources. It should be used to set the paper's course, its agenda. Reporters need to cover how the other 90 percent of us live – and not only when we commit or are victimized by crimes.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Looking at a modern newspaper landscape whipsawed by focus groups and quarterly earnings reports, I wonder whether he'd have said the same today.

In Jefferson's time, the press was often scurrilous but also vital. No one talked about newspapers as the fourth branch of government, a role too many of today's elite journalists seem to take literally.

Since journalism polished its veneer of professionalism in the last century, more reporters hold cum laude degrees. But far fewer live in the communities they cover. Perhaps it's not too late for more of them to wander away from the halls of power onto the streets, away from those making policy pronouncements and toward those living under their weight.

The Internet can create virtual communities for just about any niche audience. But at their best, only newspapers bring together a broader community – one of disparate values, ages, and backgrounds – in a single marketplace of information and ideas.

Economic realities being what they are, more newspapers will fold. But if they work to forge community in real space, if they help us discover what's current in our neighborhoods as well as in our nation, most newspapers will survive.

First, however, they must remember who they are writing for and where their roots are: With us, the people.