Posts tagged ‘Writing’

January 10th, 2013

This Is Not About New Year’s Resolutions

In 2012, I went to the gym 118 times, and wrote a total of 18 blog posts. In 2002, I wrote 39 blog posts and didn’t go to the gym at all.

Things change with time? Yes, probably; I was ten years younger, relatively newly married, and childless. I had more free time, and more time to invest in sharing my intellectual energy and outrage about the world. There was also no Facebook, no Twitter, fewer mechanisms for sharing “thoughts” (is that what we’re doing there?) in ways that–for me, at least–sometimes feel like they undercut the investment required in really thinking and writing something out beyond its 140-character Twitter limit.

Still: there are 365 days in 2013, and even if I go to the gym 120 times, that leaves 245 open days. My goal is to do a better job balancing those items this year, which won’t mean 245 blog posts but should mean inching closer to 42. It will likely mean more regular social media “vacations”–planned getaways from the incessant and sometimes distracting stream–and at the same time, a renewed emphasis on using those tools to share with a purpose (“speak softly, and carry a big stick”).

This is not a resolution for the new year, it’s just an articulation of a goal.


I laughed recently when a colleague reminded me that during her interview several years ago I had argumentatively proposed that “blogging is dead.” She had come well-prepared to talk about blogging, since she had seen my blogs and thought this would be a good discussion topic for an interview at a communications agency. She wasn’t wrong.

I don’t know that blogging is any more dead than anything else. Long-form journalism? Facebook? (You’ve noticed all those cranky users leaving Facebook in droves, right? Headed over to Google+, right…) Sometimes I think what has died is the capacity for sustained, rigorous, and self-confronting analysis of both facts and opinion. There is no shortage of content in this “user-generated content” world of ours. What I have always wanted was content that said something different, something that mattered, whether in 39 posts or just 18 of them.

I guess you can call that a resolution for 2013 if you really want to.

December 8th, 2011

World-Class Deficiency

Earlier this week, someone sent me the strategic planning survey for a small, culturally focused non-profit organization. It’s a scrappy little place: off the coasts and in a community with a long history of economic battering, and yet they have managed to be successful. This organization isn’t a client, but I know some of the people involved and understand their project goals, and so was flattered to have had my name given to their consultants and to be asked for feedback as they develop a new strategic plan.

Until I was stopped dead in my tracks quite early on by a question about what they can do “to achieve world-class excellence.” Hmmm. (1) Nothing. (2) Should “world-class excellence” even be the goal? What on earth does that mean?

It seems as though this term–“world-class,” or sometimes offered as “world class” without the hyphen–is on the rise (again), particularly in the non-profit world. In the last couple of weeks, it has come up in materials for more organizations than I care to count, all attempting to use it as the ne plus ultra of modifiers to signal “We are awesome!” All of them miss that mark.

There are three core problems with using the term “world-class.” First, if we take it at face value, then most organizations / cities / restaurants / experiences just are not that. That’s not snobbishness; rather, that’s clearly the point: to identify one’s group with the (very few) things in this world that are absolutely outstanding and exceptional. Objectively speaking most things do not rise to that level, and most cities and institutions will not become (rapidly, anyway, or based on the wording in a website or a press release) the must-see destination of the year or the century.

Does that suggest “world-class” is just an expression of an aspiration? Perhaps. But why is that the thing to which one wants to aspire? The second problem with the term is that because it’s what so many people say, it fails the test of how to sell or market something. Don Draper never would have stood for it, you can be sure of that; I can just imagine the “Mad Men” episode in which it might come up. He’d have thought it lazy, not to mention a threat to his business: if you can say the same thing about so many different things, with no meaningfully expressed point of differentiation, then why bother saying anything at all?

As a term, “world-class” offers nothing in the way of insight to the person one is trying to seduce: the average visitor is unlikely to decide to come based on whether you have (or have not) described yourself that way, and journalists probably don’t even see the phrase any more because it’s in such common use. If you want to sell your project or engage someone in thinking about your organization or community, find a description that is organic–something that reflects who and what you really are and where you’re actually headed. People–consumers and journalists alike–are more influenced by descriptions that feel genuine and that engage their imaginations, not by generic terms that can be used by anyone.

And that’s the third problem with the term “world-class,” the problem so deftly addressed in “The Incredibles“: if absolutely everyone is special, then no one is. Or rather, then the word “special” loses most of its meaning and value. It should be ok–more than ok, really; it should be acceptable, comfortable–to be “special” within the community that a particular organization is most concerned with engaging. It’s desirable to want to express that, to tell the world that your project or entity is worthy of support and is contributing value to its community. But that does not make it “world-class” by default.

Especially in the world of culture, it’s easy to find wonderful and charming projects that excel within a particular niche–such as a museum with a very specific kind of collection, or a small performing arts group with a focus on music from a specific period or style. Organizations that adopt the “world-class” mantle actually lose their specialness by embracing terminology that no one finds compelling and that, at the same time, wipes out the descriptive qualities that might help them appeal to both their core audiences and new ones, too. Being “world-class” is harder than simply saying it, and also less meaningful–to the worldly, anyway–than it may appear.

October 16th, 2011

Reading IS Fundamental

Last night, I sat next to my daughter in her room, she reading a Muppet book, and me reading Ashenden. Truth be told, I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done: every other minute, she asked me to help her make sense of a new word, so we would sound it out together, and then she would move on, and I would read another sentence until her next question. But at some point in this episode, much like Trixie, I realized something.

This was an extremely unusual scene.

The reading itself is not unusual. My daughter loves books and has from an early age; she’s the kind of kid who is quite likely to grow up to be a voracious reader. She has two shelves of books in her room, and another shelf of her own in the living room, and while she’s too young to articulate it this way, I think she takes pride in the books’ presence and what they offer: the opportunity to grab one and read it, no matter how familiar, and enjoy it all the same. I love books too, both the reading of them and the collecting of them, and have for as long as I can remember. I grew up surrounded by books, inherited libraries from people, and knew they were the one thing my father would always buy upon request. Books were and are essential to me. (The shift to the ebook is vexing, and very much a separate subject. But beyond the philosophical issues they raise is a simple, practical one: it feels not quite as authentic to catalog them when their very presence is so ethereal.)

So what was unusual about this scene? I realized that while I read constantly, I couldn’t remember the last time my daughter actually saw me reading a book, an actual book–and that saddened me quite a bit.

I am fairly sure she knows that I read books; our house is filled with them, and there’s a whole shelf and stack next to my side of the bed. She’s a smart girl, and my guess is that without ever thinking about it, she assumes I read those books just as she reads hers.

Yet that assumption isn’t the same thing is the literal, in-front-of-your-eyes knowledge of seeing your parents reading. It just can’t be. In an all-digital, iEverything age, the shared experiences of families takes a different form, and this whole thing gave me one more reason to feel slightly sad about its seeming inescapability. When I was young, I saw my parents reading all the time. Sure, they did other things too, but on a summer weekend afternoon, my dad was often inseparable from a book, or from one issue out of a stack of New Yorkers or New York Review of Books that he was trying to catch up on. I understood implicitly that this was an activity central to his life. I want my daughter to be able to say the same about me. Likewise, I want her to know the shared joy that comes from reading together–reading separate things, together, in the same place, whether it’s on a beach in summer or around a fireplace in winter, or just on a random evening at home.

With all these digital devices, her experience is different–as is mine, of course. I read, often, but holding my phone or my iPad I could just as easily be playing a game; there’s no book spine to give it away. Likewise, I spend time with these devices writing (as I am now, drafting on my iPad, editing on my laptop), and while she can discover these blogs when she’s older and look back with some understanding of what I might have been doing while typing away … I could just as easily have been sending a text message or an email or something else equally fleeting.

In theory, the fix for this should be easy: read more–more books, especially–around my daughter. This will likely be just as important for my younger son, who likes books but who could probably do with more evident modeling of the Life of a Reader. Talking more about books would help, too, to make evident the connection between their physical presence and our digestion of them. I love being a writer, and that’s an identity I would be happy to have my daughter understand–but as a writer, few things are as important as good readers. And as a reader, I want her to have the best shot I can provide at staying engaged with books for the rest of her life.

October 9th, 2011

Dvar Torah 2011 & 5772

This summer, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky asked me if I would give the dvar Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah–in our synagogue, a speaking spot usually reserved for someone from the congregation. I accepted with some trepidation; Torah study hasn’t exactly been my strength. But I looked over the text for that Torah portion (English translation: Va-yera, Genesis 18:1-22:24, though on Rosh Hashanah we read only 22:1-22:24), came up with a couple of ideas, and discussed them with the rabbi.

We settled on one that seemed the strongest: to try to explore the impact of the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham, on Isaac’s psyche and life. What interested me about this idea is that there seems to be so little written about it: both the text and most of the subsequent commentary focus on Abraham, which seems rather unjust given that he’s not the one who nearly lost his life. It’s a terrible and terrifying story–and that might be precisely what makes it good for Rosh Hashanah, day 2.

The complete text of my dvar Torah can be downloaded/opened here as a PDF. Writing this was a great, and challenging, experience. For anyone who is ever offered the chance, I encourage you to accept the offer: it is not only a great honor, but a great opportunity to engage with and think about Judaism (or whatever religion) through a new, different, and very personal lens. That cannot help but enhance its meaning.