Opinion

Listening

Tuesday, 28 July 2009 05:07 PM Written by

(and learning)

In the Business and Oral Communications classes I used to teach at CMU, we’d spend a fair amount of time talking about, practicing, and then refining the too-often-lost art of active listening. Business meetings, interviews, oral presentations — it didn’t matter; if someone talked, you listened. You looked like it, you acted like it, and you (as well as the speaker) reaped the benefits of it.

I thought of those classes, and especially of presentation days in OralComm, when students would be graded on their listening and their feedback as well as their speaking, as I sat in City Council chambers for more than two hours yesterday, listening to speaker after speaker come to the podium and pour out a little piece of themselves and their souls for the benefit of our nine — well, eight; more on that in a moment — councilors, whose collective performance reminded me, in some of the best and worst ways, of some of those classrooms full of students in early Septembers or Januarys, before they’d all been shown and trained and occasionally shamed into doing all that was expected of them.

Watching our councilors watch (or not) and listen (or not) to all those speakers, I couldn’t resist the urge to take a few mental notes, and then to offer them here, for whatever they’re worth. Call it feedback. Call it constructive coaching. Or just call it what it is: a guy with more than a little expertise and experience at this, offering up notes and grades from yesterday’s listening assignment.

[In seating order, from left to right around the table...]

Tonya Payne  D+
Arrived late, made faces, couldn’t bother to muster up eye contact for even half the speakers she saw. May as well have had the words “Short Timer” imprinted on her blouse.  

Jim Motznik  F
Is he even on council any more? That said, I’m hard-pressed to imagine a scenario in which his presence would have improved the proceedings.

Darlene Harris  C-
Arrived late and, despite sitting upright and seeming to pay attention to most of the speakers, exuded an aura of cold, often creepy detachment. If empathy has a face, it’s the opposite of hers.

Theresa Smith  B+
Got up and walked out once, in what appeared to be an overtly political maneuver, but paid sincere and obvious attention the rest of the time. Good eye contact, reassuring non-verbals, and a sympathetic posture made her the stand-out on the left side of the table.  

Patrick Dowd  C
Focused and deeply attentive at times; distracted, looking into his lap, seeming restless and distant at others. Got up about halfway through and didn’t come back until the last few minutes. I expected, and the speakers deserved, better.  

Rev. Ricky Burgess  C+
About the same as Councilman Dowd; his peaks of attentiveness were not quite as high, but his disappearance from the room was not nearly as long.  

Bruce Kraus  A+
The gold standard, and a shoo-in for the OralComm/TRM Best Listener Award. Through more than thirty speakers, he never wavered: focused, attentive, empathetic; gaze up, body language open; a warm, receptive, quietly dignified presence. Nodded, took notes, always thoroughly engaged. An impressive professional — and human — performance.   

Bill Peduto  A-
Seemed a bit distracted at times, shuffling papers and messages — and quotations? — back and forth with his (excellent, professional, obviously attentive) staffers, but maintained eye contact with and exuded empathy for all of the speakers. Obviously engaged in who they were, what they were saying, and how they were feeling.

Doug Shields  A-
Acquitted himself well with a thankless task and position: sitting on an angle at the end of the table, marshaling the speakers, prodding them for names and addresses, enforcing time and sequence restrictions, all while trying to listen and take notes on what he was hearing. Wasn’t the most engaging presence at the table, but was consistently engaged and attentive and effective throughout.  

Average Grade: C+

Average Grade Without Jim Motznik: B

Yep. That sounds about right.

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The Reproduction of the Christ

Monday, 27 July 2009 03:50 PM Written by

(and the separation of church and sense)

When I wasn’t spending a couple of hours in City Council chambers — more on that tomorrow — or trying desperately to do at least a half-dozen things on my ever-lengthening to-do list, I traded a handful of emails today with a pair of Pitt professors — more on them, perhaps, in the months ahead — and got to thinking about that warm July morning a few years ago when I had a rare moment of, if not transcendence, at least revelation, inside the Cathedral of Learning.

I had taken Adam, my older son, to the opening day of his Young Writer's Institute summer camp, and for some sort of orientation, we settled in to Room 324, a great, stone-walled, arched-windowed, wooden-benched, you-only-see-'em-in-the-movies kinda lecture hall. As kids and parents streamed in — an expectant smile here, an unfortunate pencil case there, two alarming pink-hair dye-jobs in the back — I took a moment or two to take in my surroundings, to soak up the ambience and even a little of the incongruity: the medieval-looking lights, hung from black chains, useless now beneath banks of recessed, energy-efficient green lights; the scratched, smudged projection screen, hung like a dirty bed sheet between the pristine blackboards and a great, sheer stone face above; the scrawled, hand-carved Greek letters, violating the smooth oak finish of the arm supports; the unfortunate feeling in my gut (and in my butt) that, no matter how cool these desks looked, they hurt like hell to sit in for more than five seconds.

I'd just begun to imagine how cool it would be to teach in a room like this —  to speak and project and overcome the no-doubt dead acoustics, to command a room that looked and felt for all the world like a place intended for its inhabitants to think and to learn (unlike, say, most of the rooms in which I used to teach, which looked and felt like places to sip coffee and surf the web and endure another stultifying committee meeting), to hear my echoing footsteps fill the occasional silences between my mouth and my students' ears — when I turned to my right, saw, in full and faded color, a great, twelve-foot-high painting, and thought:

Oh my God.

As a guy who spent four years studying and two years teaching at Duquesne, a proudly Catholic university where crucifixes hang on the walls of every classroom and religious iconography is something to be not just expected but embraced, this gargantuan image wasn't particularly shocking or surprising. My initial reaction was to admire and appreciate the art work.

But then, faster than you can say ACLU Hotline, I remembered that I was sitting in a pretty big lecture hall at a pretty public state-affiliated university funded by awfully public tax dollars, attended by a broadly diverse student populace, and staffed by a well-meaning but undoubtedly hypersensitive (it goes with the territory; trust me) faculty. In an era when signs and creches and simple benedictions regularly inspire legal teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing and garment-rending. (And lawsuits. Lots and lots of lawsuits.) And I was staring straight into the eyes (and almost into the briefs) of a larger-than-life, back-from-the-afterlife Jesus Christ.

I recognized the image — Piero della Francesca's Resurrection, the title and artist creeping into my mind like a soft and distant memory from a medieval art and lit class, maybe at Maryland but probably at Duquesne — right away, but I crept in for a closer look at the nameplate and discovered that the reproduction, painted by Nicolas Lockoff and larger than the original by several feet in length and width, was commissioned in the early 20th Century by a woman whose name escapes me now.

Judging by the condition of the painting and the condition (and age) of the room, I assumed that it's been there since (or not long after) the building's 1937 dedication. Which does, of course, contribute mightily to the aura and ambience of the room: imagining that image, that crowned visage staring down at generation after generation of students staring back at it, rising and reigning before hundreds of thousands of eyes, not one pair of which ever saw fit to pitch a fit and find offense and declare that half-naked Son of a God a mortal (or would that be immortal?) affront to every legal, social, cultural, and xeno-religious principle it holds dear but not sacred.

I was tempted, of course, to imagine that far too many students who've passed through that room have, on too many early mornings or rainy afternoons, merely resembled the sentries at the bottom of the painting, dozing, sleeping, blissfully ignorant of the intellectual and spiritual stirrings around and above them. And yet you'd have to think that sometime, at least in the last ten or fifteen years — when the cottage industry of mistaking display for endorsement, depiction for establishment, has gone public and incorporated itself into the dark hearts and narrow minds of people with axes to grind but no worthy wood to cut — some student would have stayed awake and aware long enough to look and think and decide to be deeply offended by the very presence of the painting.

Or perhaps not.

Perhaps healthy, almost heavenly graces of respect and tolerance and diversity and every other lip-serviced buzzword of open-minded thinking that too often whines about freedom from behind closed doors and minds really do exist in some of the classrooms at Pitt. Perhaps generations of young Panthers, liberal and conservative, Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, Agnostic and Atheist, athlete and artist, student and professor, just figure these things are to be expected, forgiven, and maybe even absolved, on the walls and in the halls of a cathedral of learning.

That thought alone, for the soul of a visitor at the heart of a university, all the more so these several years later, feels like an answered prayer.

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(Previously On) Notes From a Friday Afternoon

Friday, 24 July 2009 01:52 PM Written by

(sounding the trumpets of my mind)

For your consideration: another curious collection of thoughts, reactions, and observations that didn’t make it into a full-length post this week...

The politics of delay and defeat is a nice line, and Lord knows there are plenty of GOP (and even a few DEM) obstructionists trying to derail the President’s health care agenda just for the fun of it. But that’s an awfully broad, and intellectually dishonest, brush with which to paint all critics of your not particularly clear or well-defined initiative. It seems to suggest that no one could possibly have a thoughtful, principled, legitimate stance against your own, and that any opposition to your wishes can be dismissed as partisan obstructionism. Which, even in an age when the GOP would seem to favor partisan obstructionism becoming a new Olympic sport, is a complete crock.   

• It also sounds an awful lot like something that, aimed in the other direction about, say, the War in Iraq or the Patriot Act, could have come straight from the mouth of his smirking predecessor.

• Let me be sure I understand this: Tens of thousands of our state’s stimulus dollars have been spent on the creation of large road signs that tell us where our stimulus dollars have been spent? Really?

• How long before some of our stimulus money is spent on signs that will appear next to the signs that tell us where our stimulus money has been spent, telling us that our stimulus money has been spent on the signs telling us where our stimulus money has been spent?

• Now let me be sure I understand this: FEMA has toured the communities ravaged by the June 17th floods and decided that they don’t warrant a disaster declaration? Really? Did someone put Mike Brown back in charge?

• Do you think FEMA would be willing to dole out some federal disaster dollars if the people who receive them promise to erect signs in their yards telling us where they were spent?

Not even two weeks into mayoral race radio silence, and I’m already dying over here. Thank God for Early Returns, City Paper, and the Comet...

• Here’s a new one: On Monday morning, I saw a guy make a right turn from Beechwood to Hastings while driving with his left hand and vigorously shaving with his right. I’ve seen some variation of this before, of course — heck, I once saw a guy brushing his teeth behind the wheel on Washington Avenue — but the driver was always alone. This time, there were two other people in the car with him: a woman in the passenger’s seat, and a man in the back seat, neither one of whom seemed particularly alarmed that the guy responsible for their transport seemed more interested in his stubble than in their, or even his own, safety.

• I think I smell a new cross-over product: The New Gilette Fusion Mach 6 Razor and Air Bag System. (For Close Shaves and Even Closer Shaves!)

• This week’s best bit of Useless Information: At any given time, there are eighteen hundred thunderstorms in progress over the earth’s atmosphere.

• Which, incidentally, is about the same number of thunderstorms that John Burnett predicts for on any given day in KD Country.

• Note to the woman texting (or dialing) on her cell phone will driving a gray Honda CRV up Linden Avenue at 8:50 this morning: That big yellow thing you passed is called a “School Bus.” Those much smaller things in t-shirts and shorts walking along the street and getting on the bus are called “children.” They will have a much better chance of getting to day camp, and also of living to see their teen years, if you PUT DOWN THE DAMNED PHONE AND PAY ATTENTION WHILE DRIVING YOUR CAR.

• [You’ll forgive me for a few moments while I try to resume my normal breathing patterns...]

• Now that I’ve gotten the 70s and 90s out of the way — the choices were pretty easy, and there were plenty of high-quality runners-up for each decade — the Most Perfectly Formed Album category gets a lot tougher. For the 80s, I’ll have to go with Roxy Music’s Avalon. So smooth and self-assured, so lovely and haunting and lyrical, that it practically demands to be heard in a single sitting. Each of the ten tracks is a keeper, and at least several (Avalon, More Than This, The Main Thing) are pretty much perfect in their own right, but they move and flow so well that they could just as well be considered one epic, intimate 37-minute song.

•  And, finally, a culinary tip for the weekend and beyond... I ate for the first time today at Thai Me Up on Carson Street on the South Side. Great food, charming ambience, attentive service, the Most Perfectly Formed Spring Rolls I’ve eaten in quite some time, and lunch specials menu pricing ($5.99?!) that has you doing double takes before you order and once again after you eat. If you haven’t already, check it out sometime. And tell ‘em TRM sent you...

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Famous First Words

Thursday, 23 July 2009 05:35 AM Written by

(hooks, lines, and stinkers)

Since we seem to have a bit of a theme going here this week, I figure I should just keep it going.

Before last night’s Green Day concert — fantastic show; more on that in tomorrow’s notes — a good friend and I got to talking about the Sticky Books post and all the comments that followed. That led us to talking, of course, about our sticky books, our favorite books, our most unfortunate required reading experiences (hello, The Light in the Forest!), and, finally, our shared belief that you never, ever buy a book, no matter how good it looks or how much it interests you, without reading at least the first sentence and, more often than not, the whole first page.

This, of course, got us to talking about the power of a great first sentence. Which got us to talking about our favorite first sentences. Which got me to thinking about that list, compiled a couple of years ago by the American Book Review, of the 100 Best First Lines from Novels.   

I'm never a big fan of these sorts of things -- they're often arbitrary and capricious and guided by an unspoken agenda or two -- but they always make for interesting reading and even more interesting debate. That particular one was, if not completely satisfying, still awfully compelling. I kept returning to it, again and again, to read and enjoy and think and puzzle and scoff and complain. There were good choices and bad choices and, for my eye and ear, at least a couple of egregious omissions, lines that didn’t make the cut but, in a big, sloppy world of arbitrary and capricious and hotly contested literary lists, certainly deserve mention and attention somewhere.

You might say it was a list that stuck. And that sticks still.

So I thought it would be fun to revisit it today, here at the end of a week filled with Sticky Books and Vanishing Books and Adapted Books and a whole lot of great comments on them all.

We’ll start, appropriately enough, at the beginning, with ABR's safe and simple and stunningly bad choice for the all-time Best First Line: Call me Ishmael. Is it memorable? Sure. Is it famous? Absolutely. Is it engaging? Yep. But is it really the best? The greatest opening line of a novel ever? No. Not even close.

A great first sentence should reach out and grab you by the throat, the ears, the balls, the soul; this one just reaches out and warmly, pleasantly shakes your hand. A great first sentence should tease you, excite you, give you a gnawing, thrilling tingle somewhere in your body; this one just pats you gently on the back and sends you on your way. Are you interested? Yeah. Do you want to keep reading? Sure. Do you have to keep reading? Do you need to keep reading? Are you bound or doomed or compelled to keep reading? No, no, no, no, and no. It's a good and fun and famous first line, but it's nowhere near the best.

Ditto the second entry on the list -- It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife -- which is sharp and clever and memorably crafted but which almost certainly secures its lofty ranking thanks to the stature of its novel and its author, not the power of its diction or its syntax. Like Melville and Moby-Dick, Austen and Pride and Prejudice are great and grand and much beloved; they're giants in the field and in the form, and deservedly so, but neither of their first lines, however sticky, deserve a place at the top of the list. On it, yes, but not atop it.

Though they rank the highest, the Melville and Austen lines aren't the only two to ride the pages and coattails of the rest of their novels. 124 was spiteful is focused and effective but makes the list because it's the beginning of Beloved, not because its craft is beloved. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself is clear and understated but doubtless designated here because it honors the stylings of Virginia Woolf. Compare either of these two lines (#s 26 & 37) to the first line of Paradise (#39), which, like the first sentence of Beloved, could have made the list because it's written by Toni Morrison but makes it instead because it's raw and pure and powerful: They shoot the white girl first. That line compels me to keep reading. Once I've recovered from it.

The rest of the top ten are a bit of a mixed bag. I've long had a fondness for A screaming comes across the sky (#3, from Gravity's Rainbow) and It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen (#8, from 1984), and it's hard to argue with I am an invisible man (#10, from Invisible Man) or the It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... (#9) litany from A Tale of Two Cities. But Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins (#5) is as overrated and self-conscious as the novel itself, and riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs (#7) reminds me in twenty-seven tortured, tortuous words why I could never abide James Joyce.

Of course, lots of people can — or at least pretend they can — abide James Joyce, so his ramblings (Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo, #17) and noodlings (Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed, #21) expectedly, if inexplicably, pop up again. And again.

Below them in rank and reputation, if not in ripeness or richness, are a few of my favorites: It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not (#24, from Paul Auster's City of Glass) and It was a pleasure to burn (#53, from Farenheit 451) and The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting (#100, but deserving a place at least in the top fifty, from The Red Badge of Courage). Anyone who prefers Joyce's lines to these three must surely be a literary critic or a philosopher or some other kind of amiable fraud who prefers pretense and ornamentation to subtle and brilliant evocation.

A great first line orchestrates its diction and syntax and sets a mood: The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new (#15, from Murphy).

A great first line attacks its reader and its genre and announces an attitude: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth (#16, from The Catcher in the Rye, a novel I loathe but with a first line I love).

A great first line grabs you by the throat: Mother died today (#28, from The Stranger). Or the heart: Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board (#44, from Their Eyes Were Watching God). Or the scruff of the neck: Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up (#70, from Flannery O'Connor's brilliant The Violent Bear it Away).

A great first line lightly insinuates itself into your brain: A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him (from The Last Temptation of Christ; not on the list, but it should be).

A great first line cooly announces itself and the tale it's about to tell: One day in August a man disappeared (from The Woman in the Dunes; also unlisted but still deserving).

A great first line provocatively introduces itself and the themes waiting to be explored: "Ten thousand dreams a night," a Dallas psychologist told me, when I dined with her and her black lover, "are dreamt about Kennedy's assassination" (from Flying in to Love, unlisted but not undeserving).

A great first line boldly declares itself and then builds and builds and builds until it tells you everything and nothing at once: I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever new, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God (from A Prayer for Owen Meany, unlisted by ABR but ranked #1 by TRM).

A great first line speaks to and for and through its novel. It invites, and it commands. It asks and tells and tempts and teases. The greatest do all these at once, with the power of rhythm and the poetry of prose, standing full and front and center for their books, suggesting all that you will find within, but standing also pure and proud and apart from them, suggesting all that you will miss without.

And so they must, fittingly for this subject but ironically for their purpose, stand alone to be judged or ranked or rated. If great writing is, to paraphrase Roger Rosenblatt, convincing your readers that God lives always in the next sentence, and if great first lines, at their very greatest, convince us that God — or truth, or beauty, or salvation — lives in the rest of the book, then a sentence you've probably never read (It was the day my grandmother exploded) from a book you've probably never heard of (Iain M. Banks' The Crow Road) is a far greater first line than that famous one from Melville & Ishmael that sits forty-eight places above it on the American Book Review list.

This I believe. And this I'm happy to tell you. But, to borrow a line from the great Alice Walker (The Color Purple, #65), You better not tell nobody but God.

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Harry Potter and the Worldwide Gross

Wednesday, 22 July 2009 11:17 AM Written by

(or, love — and a lot of money — in the age of twilight)

There came last week, as if delivered by owls with no sense of purpose or direction, a whole flurry of news articles — including one in this newspaper — that wondered whether Harry Potter still mattered, was still relevant, could still make great and boffo box office in the era of Twilight.

The articles hardly deserved their reading, if only because the questions barely survived their asking.

They may as well have asked if Green Day still mattered in the era of The Jonas Brothers, if The Sopranos were still relevant in the era of Entourage, if Robert Frost could still be read and enjoyed in the age of the Hallmark Card. Confusing a rich and timeless work of almost unbridled narrative imagination with a fresh and pleasantly addictive pop confection is bad enough. Ignoring the rather obvious realities that Harry Potter books and films are as likely to be enjoyed by fifty-year-old women as by ten-year-old boys, and that the Twilight books and movies appeal almost exclusively to teenage girls and teenage girls at heart, is far worse.

The hook was a force, the angle a stretch, the thesis — and I use that term loosely — a farce.  After less than a week in release, the numbers already bear that out:

In its opening weekend, Twilight grossed $69.6 million. In its first three days, all weekdays, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince grossed $107 million.

In its entire domestic run, Twilight grossed $191 million. In its first five days, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince grossed a franchise-best $159 million.

In its entire worldwide run, Twilight grossed $382.5 million. In its first five days, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince grossed $400 million.

I’d say the boy wizard matters, is relevant, and can still add up a cool half billion or so in one week at the box office — even in an age of love-struck vampires and dumbstruck journalists. 

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We Have Always Been at War With Eastasia

Tuesday, 21 July 2009 08:27 AM Written by

(and you have never owned a book by george orwell)

In the wake of yesterday’s Sticky Books post comes the alarming and richly ironic word that Big Brother Amazon last week reached into the Kindles of its customers and deleted all their copies of both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.

Turns out that Amazon was in the right, if a bit slow on the draw: the books were unauthorized and illegal, digital bootlegs uploaded for sale by some nefarious shyster looking to make a quick internet buck off someone else’s intellectual property. (Whether this is a step up or down from the ethically challenged internet free-rangers who like to file-share give away other people’s intellectual property for free, I’ll leave for you to decide.) Though you can wonder why it took Amazon so long to figure out that it was processing the sale of bootleg books — the e-tailing giant has also facilitated the sale of Ayn Rand and J.K. Rowling fakes too; is anybody awake up there in the Oceania Kindle store? -- you can’t fault them for wanting to do the right thing.

You can, of course, fault them for the way they did it: in the dead of night, with no advanced warning, with only after-the-fact explanations and refunds. And you can also fault them — or at least look askance at them, the way Winston Smith knew to look at his telescreen — for having and wielding that power at all.

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Books That Stick

Monday, 20 July 2009 09:31 AM Written by

(the first fifteen)

Over the weekend, a Facebook friend tagged me in a note that, more than these things usually do, tickled my fancy and got me thinking about a response:

List fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Don’t think too long about it.

So I did. And didn’t. And decided, for kicks and giggles and maybe the cool, occasional comment thread response, to post my list here.

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Park Job of the Week

Sunday, 19 July 2009 01:52 PM Written by

(and maybe the year)



I don’t know what’s more amazing: that someone had the gall to park like that, that someone actually found two open spaces, side by side, at the Shadyside Market District Giant Eagle on a Sunday morning, or that some battalion of half-crazed shoppers, in a parking lot generally stormed like the beaches at Normandy, hadn't upended and/or set fire to the car by the time I came out a half hour later.

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