A Page Borrowed from Twain

By J.F. McKenna

Mike Pitts is a South Carolina legislator whose sense of constitutionally telling mischief reaches across the nation. Interestingly enough, he reminds me of an old mischief-maker named Sam Clemens, who made it a professional practice to gore oxen with reckless abandon.

The Republican Pitts, with prepared legislation reportedly in hand Tuesday, proposed a mandatory journalist registry and potential jail sentences for violators. The legislation itself even carried a fancy name for censorship—the “South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry.”

As U.S. News and World Report explained this week—with complete freedom, I should add—“If it became law, people working as journalists without registering would face $25 fines. Second offenses would be misdemeanors punishable by a $100 fine and 15 days in jail, and repeat offenders would face $500 fines and 30 days in jail.

“Media outlets,” the magazine continued, “would have to conduct criminal record background checks on prospective hires and journalists would be ineligible for registry if they had ‘demonstrated a reckless disregard of the basic codes and canons of professional journalism associations, including a disregard of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability.’”

No surprise to this long-unlicensed member of the press, the uproar was quick and certain. Many network television and print journos found their Brooks Brothers’ knickers in a bunch, and they rushed on camera to discuss the imminent fall of the Republic.

The hour’s top story: Woe to We the People. Right after this message.

Being a semi-reformed troublemaker myself, I suspect Mike Pitts of the S.C. legislature was having a good laugh. The day after unloading his constitutionally errant measure, he wrote this on Facebook:

“I filed this legislation as an experiment to make a point about the media and how they only care about the Constitution when it comes their portion of the 1st Amendment. In doing so, I put the media under the microscope, and they did not like it.

“They constantly attack people who follow their Christian beliefs and attempt to portray them as bigots, and they certainly do not like the fact that normal everyday Americans gather to petition the government and air grievances. Look no further than how they have demonized the Tea Party. Furthermore, they love to trample on our 2nd Amendment rights to ‘Keep and Bear Arms.’ If they had their way, there would be no 2nd Amendment.”

As various gored oxen wailed in the background, Pitt had made his point: The U.S. Constitution is not a legislative buffet for those who think they can simply opt for a figurative salad and cottage cheese and deny another patron his ground steak and french fries. Take it the way it has been served since 1787.

That sly Rep. Pitts would certainly win plaudits from old Sam Clemens, who said that “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”

At his 1873 talk at the Hartford, Conn., Monday Evening Club, Clemens continued with this critique: “[The press] has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular. It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a United States Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is, they are so morally blind, and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.

“I am putting all this odious state of things upon the newspaper, and I believe it belongs there — chiefly, at any rate. It is a free press — a press that is more than free — a press which is licensed to say any infamous thing it chooses about a private or a public man, or advocate any outrageous doctrine it pleases. It is tied in no way. The public opinion which should hold it in bounds it has itself degraded to its own level.”

“Though his admonitions target the newspaper as the archetypal press, it’s remarkable to consider how prescient his remarks are in the context of today’s online media,” noted Maria Popova in her wonderful website, Brain Pickings—brainpickings.org .  Do check it out.

Applying so-called “fixes” to any part of the Bill of Rights is tampering with all constitutional security. To quote the Hudson Institute scholar Christopher DeMuth Sr., “Our Constitution is treated as a reliquary, worthy of reverence but no longer of much practical use. Yet the Constitution reflects, in many deep and subtle ways, the character of the people who established it and have lived and prospered under it for centuries.”

People like Mike Pitts and Sam Clemens, that cagey book author who observed that “in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small and informal literary gathering near Pittsburgh. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dog, Lord Max. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com .

Deja Vu Jerry

By Doug Magill

Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same timeSteven Wright

With apologies to Santayana, nothing is ever really new – except to liberals.  Since intellectual curiosity and an understanding of history seems to be foreign to them, the continuing fallacies of human nature always continue to surprise.

The latest example, of course, being the moral indignation directed toward those who realize the climate-change imbroglio is just the latest in a series of apocalyptic scientific scandals which – as soon as it subsides – will be superseded by an even scarier one.  What is fun about this one is that California Governor Jerry Brown seems to be a recurring figure in climate-related ones associated with droughts in a state that has a penchant for not managing its water resources well.

I confess to being embarrassed to admit this, but I remember the last doomsday scenario in which our ever-loony Jerry was notable.  During Gov. Brown’s first term in 1976, California was suffering from another significant drought, except the cause was trumpeted as global cooling.  Similar scenarios of distress were being played out – including fires, extreme dryness and water rationing.

The word consensus wasn’t being thrown around in those days to silence debate, but the prevailing attitude was that most scientists were considered to believe in a global cooling period.  And that would lead to – wait for it – erratic weather patterns that could have devastating effects on the world’s population.  The ultimate concern was that the earth was entering another ice age, and even our earnest Earth Day organizers predicted disaster due to global cooling.

Scientific forecasting told us that the world would be several degrees colder by the 1990s, and by the turn of the century we would be well beyond the stage in which another ice age was a certainty.

These days we get the usual wailing about human-caused changes to the climate, which now is warming and, by the way, must be causing the California drought today.  As noted, liberals hate to have history explained to them, but California is known to be subject to regular periods of drought; and even our let’s-hide-the changes-we’ve-made-to-the-climate-data-NOAA admits that California’s current difficulties are due to recurring weather patterns that have nothing to do with any supposed climate change, man-induced or otherwise.

Back in the 1970s, when faced with the same situation, Brown talked about difficult choices and sacrifices required of California’s long-suffering citizens.  He could have at least reused portions of those speeches in the last couple of years, but environmental politics preclude remembering the wasted rallying cries of yesteryear.

Another thing that liberals hate to admit to is the cronyism and mismanagement of California’s water infrastructure due to decades of one-party rule.  Money that should have been spent on needed improvements has gone to paying off the normal cast of characters locked in the monetary embrace of unions, special interests and rich donors that control California politics.   The drought is driven by nature, but the issues associated with it are exacerbated by weak policies.

The political exigencies of rich environmentalists override the needs of the majority of the population as over 50% of the state’s water is flushed to the ocean, since reservoirs are emptied to enable assisted river flows for small numbers of fish.  Desalinization plants, which have provided sufficient drinking water for the desert lands of Israel, are not being built for political reasons.

Extreme left-wing anti-humanity groups continue to work, funded by government grants, to destroy development while fighting viciously against new water storage capability which is necessary for a growing population.  And what of the future?  It has been known for decades that without new storage there will be no ability to manage through those times when nature doesn’t bless the Golden State.

Who knows – maybe in another 30 years Jerry Brown’s preserved brain will be giving speeches about drought conditions caused by excessive cosmic rays from Van Allen Belt depletion triggered by asteroid mining at the lunar LaGrange points?

Or maybe we can just recycle his speeches from the 1970s.

 

Doug Magill is a consultant and freelance writer.  He can be reached at doug@magillmedia.net

 

Holiday Slices of Days Gone By

By J.F. McKenna

Thanksgiving Day. Let all give humble, hearty, and sincere thanks now, but the turkeys.

 – “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar”

My first brush with entrepreneurship, once commonly known as small business, came complete with turkey, duck and chicken feathers as well as the gentle aromas of cow stalls.  My father’s bachelor brothers owned a 35-acre farm off Sprague Road in Columbia Station from the late 1940s until 1966; all the McKenna boys, their spouses (those that had such), and my cousins and my sister participated each in his or her own way to this business affair over time.  Being the youngest of the next generation, I typically contributed the least during my weekend trips to the farm family.

Were they still with us, Uncle Leo and Uncle Don would most certainly agree with that assessment.

By the time Ike was settling into the White House, I was settling into life on Cleveland’s West Side—a mere ten houses from the home in which my father was reared—along with settling into weekly visits to the farm. By then, all family adults stressed to me the importance of careful listening and strict observance to adult commands: “Do not…do not…touch the fence at the front of the barn, Joey.” No comprehensive explanation was ever included with this caution, or any other commands, for that matter: just stern tones laced with references to Michael the Archangel and the constant temperature of Hades.

As I reached age four, my curiosity went into an early stage of overdrive—I touched the fence in front of the barn, I wasn’t killed instantly, and I confidently, if erroneously, assessed that adults were often wrong in their warnings. I carried that notion as an iron chain around my neck for many decades.

But in youth I took time out from resentment at family to enjoy the pleasures that came from being part of a clan that owned a farm. Uncle Leo brought me a puppy to our West 100th Street home; it was back at the farm by the end of the weekend.

Never easily deterred, UL decided a pair of rabbits would be perfect companions for me; he should have checked with Mom. Back went the hoppers.

The uncles finally compromised with Mom: I could keep a duck at the farm. The duck was christened Joey Jr., and he proved to be the most disagreeable creature in Ohio, reestablishing his reputation every day by chasing customers around the front of the property and biting their legs.

Of course, even the youngest of our brood got a victory to savor every so often. One day while Mary Ann and was doing a chore or two, Uncle Leo came through the backdoor of the house and announced he would be “doing an egg run.”

“Can I go with you, Uncle Leo?” asked Mary Ann, applying a pleading voice that she would later hear come from the mouths of her own children.

“No,” said Uncle Leo. “Look you have cow crap on the front of your coat. I’ll take your brother, instead.”

That day I went on the egg delivery with Uncle Leo, who started our journey with a stop to the corner market for a box of Dutch Masters and a box of Tootsie-Rolls. Sometimes it pays to be five and quiet. And to be wearing a clean jacket.

The fact of the matter is that my older male cousins—Tom, Dick, Jerry, and Michael—were pulled out of school before Thanksgivings to help with dressing turkeys. As they related their tales at family gatherings much later, the hard work of the latter cancels out the pleasure of the former. And as a frequent ringside observer of fowl preparation myself, I can attest that Uncle Don was a master of the game but he never raised poultry prep to the level of a sweet science. Frankly, it’s just messy.

Of course, cousin Jerry told the tale best at one family gathering: “I hated helping prep turkeys—hated it. You know, I haven’t tasted turkey in years.”

When I got a little bigger, Uncle Don entrusted me with candling eggs for customers. I quickly proved so inept that my good uncle pulled me off that duty posthaste. Many an egg was saved because of that fine business decision.

Bachelors running a farm do not a particularly good business plan make, especially when strapping nephews show more interest in other working pursuits. But all of us McKenna kids learned how to present ourselves to customers and how to be as helpful as possible. Uncle Leo often headed up our customer-relations classes.

“Uncle Leo, babshi walked over from her farm to get some duck blood,” Mary Ann said. “Do we have some fresh?”

“No,” said our uncle. “But there is some chicken blood. Give that to her.”

 

 

In 2011 John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley was the inspiration for a magazine article about Lady Carol and my regular turnpike shuttles between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The hook of this human-interest feature was our loud and loveable Beagle, Holly, aka The Duchess of Hollingsworth. As four-legged companions go, Holly was the best. (See: http://www.steinbecknow.com/2014/07/19/travels-with-charley-portable-steinbeck/ ) After more than two months suffering with an intestinal blockage, our sweetheart died on November 10. Carol, Max and I miss her terribly. Reach me at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com .

 

Words Well Written, a Life Well Spent

By J.F. McKenna

Writing well is a pleasure in itself. The joining of the ideal subject to the perfect verb, the crafting of paragraphs that tell a story long on clarity and style, the fashioning of a clever lead promising an equally clever ending—all are delights of writing well.

No one knew that better than William Zinsser. And few preached the joy of writing well to others better than Zinsser.

“Don’t assume that bad English can still be good journalism, or good business writing, or good technical writing, or good travel writing, or good sports writing. It can’t,” declared the writer, editor and teacher in his 1998 introduction to On Writing Well, the best-known of his shelf of books. “Good English is your passport to wherever you need to go in your writing, your work and your life. All the writers I’ve quoted in this book are vastly different in personality and style. But all of them write good English. You can, too.”

William Knowlton Zinsser won’t be with his disciples to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his classic next year. The East Coast native and one-time drama critic of The New York Herald Tribune died this past May at 92. I’m sorry I never got to meet him in person, or to introduce him to the journalists who literally guided me in my apprenticeship in Cleveland—Russ Faist, Stan Modic, Joe Breig. Stan would have been fiercely devoted to Zinsser’s advice that “when you’re ready to stop, stop,” and Zinsser would have gladly endorsed Russ’ favorite newsroom doggerel: Get it right. Write it tight. Make it bright. And make it march.

Zinsser started creating On Writing Well in 1974, the year I talked my way into a Kent State-approved journalism internship at the weekly Universe Bulletin. “By then I had been teaching at Yale for four years,” Zinsser would later recall in his 2009 memoir, Writing Places, “and I liked the idea of trying to capture my course in a book.” Back in that Summer of Watergate, I would have considered myself lucky to have just a copy of Zinsser’s notes to go with my frontline education from such old pros as Joe and Russ at East 9th Street and Superior Avenue.

“Joe, with Randy on his vacation, you’re going to handle obituaries, ok?” Russ said. “It’s standard stuff, a chance to pick up house style. You’ll get it quick.”

“Got it, Russ.”

“One more thing, Joe. No one in this paper ever ‘passed away.’ Here one moment, gone the next. Everyone ‘died.’”

By the end of that summer I had moved from obits to news and feature stories—and to this day I still haven’t lost my appreciation for the basics of any craft, but especially journalism. A couple of years after that internship, I discovered William Zinsser and On Writing Well. The discovery has proved my continuing post-graduate education in the word trade.

Here’s how the author, in his 2009 book, Writing Places, recalled putting together the first edition of On Writing Well:

I began by writing brief chapters on fundamental principles such as clarity, simplicity, brevity, usage and the elimination of clutter. Then I settled into the heart of the book—longer chapters explaining how to write a lead, how to write an ending, how to conduct and construct an interview how to write about travel and science and technology and sports and the arts, and how to write topical humor. Throughout I provided examples of writing I admired in those fields. The authors I chose were very different in personality and style, but all of them wrote good English. That was the premise I wanted to establish: that nonfiction is hospitable to an infinite number of voices. Any style is acceptable if the writing is clear.

For many non-journalists, On Writing Well has been a trusted guide, too. “Countless careers,” Zinsser advises in the book, “rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently….But just because people work for an institution, they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pomposity….”

So sayeth still—from the eternity of book publishing, that is—William Zinsser, a man who spent 13 years at the Herald Tribune, 11 years as a freelance writer and other years as a writing teacher at Yale and to the larger world. Hard credentials to ignore. And, for extra measure, add in his other books, including Mitchell & Russ and Spring Training, a book about my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.

Zinsser modestly called himself “a writer who taught”—until glaucoma brought an end to seventy years of writing in 2012. And even then he welcomed requests for help with writing problems. As he said, “No project too weird.”

So is there a suitable epitaph for William Zinsser, a fellow who said he was cursed with optimism, an acknowledged demon who chased word clutter, and a common man’s philosopher who was often wary about security in life as a goal? That epitaph is found in the last paragraph of Writing Places:

And yet, stuck with my traditional skills, I’m not feeling obsolete. Language is still king, writing still the supreme conveyor of thoughts and ideas and memories and emotions. Somebody will staff  and have to write those Web sites and blogs and video scripts and audio scripts….Whatever new technology may come along, writers will continue to write, going wherever their curiosities and affections beckon. That can make an interesting life.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Lady Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small and informal literary gathering near Pittsburgh. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com .

The Debate Is Over: America Celebrates a Platinum Exec

By J.F. McKenna

To this day Britain cherishes its Iron Lady, the tough-talking, tougher-acting former PM Margaret Thatcher. Now we can send our counterpart, America’s Platinum Executive, to the White House.

That is, if we’re smart enough as a nation to elect her.

(Just in case you’re thinking I’m writing about Hilary Whatshername, please leave the site immediately. CBR has a closely administered IQ minimum for readers.)

With the digital housekeeping rules executed, let’s get back to Carly Fiorina, and to her exceptional performance at that sometimes chaotic CNN presidential debate. All totaled, hers was a 13-minute performance marked by facts, honesty, clarity and toughness.

No surprise, though, given the source. Here’s a bit of what I wrote about Carly from this corner back in March—  http://clevelandbusinessreview.org/2015/03/17/taking-occams-razor-to-campaign-2016/ :

Former business executive Carly Fiorina is no stranger to success, and certainly no stranger to making mistakes and failures out in the open. What really stands out—and makes her ideal for the toughest exec job in the world—is that Fiorina has learned management lessons in the unforgiving private sector.

As The New York Times recently chronicled, “When Ms. Fiorina, formerly a top executive at Lucent Technologies, took over at Hewlett-Packard in 1999, it was the largest publicly traded company ever to be led by a woman. Yet she also outraged some feminists by saying, ‘I hope that we are at a point that everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling.’ Her business career ended a few years later in one of the more notorious flameouts in modern corporate history. After orchestrating a merger with Compaq that was then widely seen as a failure, she was ousted in 2005.”

An unabashed and outspoken conservative, Fiorina has stayed on the nation’s radar, even after losing a Senate challenge to California’s Barbara Boxer in 2010 and sharing such sentiments as “America is the most innovative country” while cautioning the U.S. that it can’t keep said status if its runs away “from the reality of the global economy.”

And, as noted, she’s not above owning up to her own failings. When the Los Angeles Times showed she had failed to vote in most elections, Fiorina responded: “I’m a lifelong registered Republican but I haven’t always voted, and I will provide no excuse for it. You know, people die for the right to vote. And there are many, many Californians and Americans who exercise that civic duty on a regular basis. I didn’t. Shame on me.”

Certainly this 2005 Fiorina quote suggests a Lincolnesque job-readiness for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: “The worst thing I could have imagined happened. I lost my job in the most public way possible, and the press had a field day with it all over the world. And guess what? I’m still here. I am at peace and my soul is intact. ”

These days, the Platinum Exec’s soul looks even stronger. Only days before the CNN debate at the Reagan Library, Carly had been asked about The Donald’s smarmy comment about her face. Her answer was that she didn’t “really care what Donald Trump thinks about my face.”

The question came up again at the debate, and Carly shut it down by saying that all American women had clearly heard the comment. Case closed.

On the far more serious issue of foreign affairs, she won my heart with her comment on her first planned day in the Oval Office. She’d call PM Bibi Netanyahu to say America has Israel’s back again and then call Iran’s leadership to employ a much-less-friendly tone about nuclear inspections.

Likewise, when the debate turned to the issue of abortion and federal law, the Platinum Exec donned her executive cloak on behalf of all America and spoke about “the character of our nation,” a phrase that has been misused as a thin and tasteless rhetorical topping as of late.

“I can win this job,” Carly said the day after the debate, “and I can do this job.”

As I wrote in March, I tell myself that it would be great to elect a woman president.  The right one, I said then. The Platinum Exec, I say now.

J.F. McKenna, a former resident of Cleveland’s West Park, has worked as a reporter, business editor, speech writer and communication specialist. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. The Cleveland native and his wife, Lady Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com .

Summer Break on Cannery Row

By J.F. McKenna

Waves rhythmically gather toward shore and then recede, and the sight and the sound of such action deliver a sense of comfort in most of us. That same sense also comes when this child of Lake Erie takes refuge in the pages of John Steinbeck. That is particularly true after the past year’s winter, which painted the Northeast a dull gray day after day, week after week. Is it any wonder, then, that I have chosen this summer to indulge myself in a brief break inside the author’s Cannery Row? There any open-minded reader can find renewal amid “weedy lots and junk heaps…laboratories and flop houses.”

Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches, by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

Published 70 years ago this year, Cannery Row makes an ideal escape from the frenetic 2015 world of e-mails, 24-7 news and an Apple growing on one’s wrist.  Despite its seemingly hard-luck Depression Era venue, the row—modeled on the old Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, California—is Steinbeck’s portrait of unadorned fellowship, featuring roadside philosopher Mack, Bear Flag Restaurant madam Dora Flood, wily entrepreneur Lee Chong and, of course, beloved marine biologist Doc.

Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini tagged the short novel as “a poisoned cream puff thrown at society beyond the town lines,” adding that “Steinbeck, writing at his most lyrical in places, indicts his country and its materialistic values—a theme that will resurface without the covering froth of charm in his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent.”

“It has always seemed strange to me,”said Doc.“The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Where else in literature can one attend some ne’er-do-wells’ party for Doc and find timeless insights about the whole world? Only in Steinbeck.

But, hey, my midyear break is defined by the pursuit of pleasure and relaxation. And Steinbeck’s styling in Cannery Row offers both in abundance. For Steinbeck, writes biographer Jackson J. Benson, “one of the most important ingredients in writing was sound,” noting that Steinbeck’s “intricate patterning of a novel such as Cannery Row…suggests that this interest in musical forms may have continued until late in his career….”  Here are a few of from-the-row samples in which I continue to delight:

He was such a wonder Gay was—the little mechanic of God, the St. Francis of all things that turn and twist and explode, the St. Francis of coils and armatures and gears.

The word is a symbol and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories, and Pekinese. Then the Thing becomes the Word and back to the Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern.

Over a period of years Doc dug himself into Cannery Row to an extent not even he expected. He became the fountain of philosophy and science and art….Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom….And everyone who thought of him thought next, “I really must do something nice for Doc.”

This Summer of 2015, Doc and the others of Cannery Row have done something not merely nice but special for me. Would I recommend just such a getaway? Damn right I would. The cost of the visit is minimal: Half-Price Books can arrange the trip for a couple of bucks.

And, to the author’s everlasting credit, the visit always proves priceless.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. A native of Cleveland, he and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach McKenna at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna. Other McKenna thoughts on Steinbeck can be found in the online archives of Will Ray’s http://www.steinbecknow.com/ .

 

The Art of Messaging Today

By J.F. McKenna

During my often misspent days at St. Edward High School, how I wished I had someone like Arthur Plotnik to spice my daily diet of Warriners English Grammar and Composition, the standard-issue manual on sentence building and righteous rhetoric. Lawrence Cody, my sophomore-year English teacher, cleverly leveraged Mr. Warriner’s tome to fashion students who could communicate properly and effectively; and for that I have long been grateful. Messrs. Cody and Warriner’s diligent efforts duly if belatedly acknowledged, I still insist even a dollop of sagacious sass from Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite would have enlivened my Brothers of Holy Cross education.

I’m just glad I discovered Spunk & Bite after its debut less than a decade ago.

Plotnik, a bestselling author and former publishing executive, is a wordsmith after my own heart. He readily acknowledges the long-standing impact of Will Strunk and E.B. White’s iconic The Elements of Style, pointing out that the little book of English usage—often seen in the company of Warriner’s text in my SEHS days—“may yet save America from choking on its own jargon and obfuscation.” At the same time, Plotnik correctly declares that even the compact good-writing supplement understands “that bending the rules—judiciously breaking them—can give writing its distinction, its edge, its very style.”

So with a punny nod to Strunk and White through his book’s title, Plotnik lays out a writing strategy for our hyper-wired 21st-century world.

“With…readers drawn to ever-new distractions, who can afford a writing-as-usual attitude?” asks the author of the journalistic classic The Elements of Editing. “Not creative writers, not journalists, copywriters, or corporate communicators. Nor can writing students gear up in all the old ways. Even bloggers, even Match.com troubadours, must realize that in today’s forest an undistinguished post falls soundlessly.”

Hallelujah! say I. (Particularly in the last few years I haven’t seen so much settled content since my days as a bulk-buyer of generic mac-n-cheese dinner. My family, friends and colleagues—savvy media consumers all—share that sentiment, if not my preference for the perfect entree.) With no slight at all to the use of middle-of-the-road grammar, Plotnik constructs a compelling 275-page case to the message-makers “whose composition skills compare with the next writer’s, but who itch for creative ideas, smart locutions, and realistic takes on language for today’s media.”

Wisely observing that “readers love surprise,” Plotnik advises his writers to look for the figurative route to Unexpected Stimuli. But while on the road, AP adds, always stay alert.

“Even as you set out to be surprising,” Plotnik cautions, “gangs of predictable idioms and images will bully their way into first drafts. Let them appear, as they tend to do when the brain is spewing words. But in the editing process, show no mercy. Occide, verba, ure! Kill, beat, and burn—sniff out and destroy everything that smells predictable. cliched, formulaic, labored, or lazy. Force yourself to fill the gaps with language that hoists a big exclamation point (but not a question mark) above the reader’s head.”

Great stuff, eh? And that’s only a slice of Chapter Two. From there Plotnik acts as a sure guide to negotiating verb tenses, commanding both hyphen and semicolon, looting a Thesaurus like a literate pirate, and more.

At the end of his playbook Coach Plotnik delivers a rousing go-get-’em speech to his players in prose, each of whose next big game may involve an email, a critical proposal or a website feature:

When virtuosity of language and style starts to overwhelm story (or, in nonfiction, the point), it is time to tug at the reins. But writers often rein in themselves in from the start, never giving sacred frenzy a start….

Writing has always been about surmounting fears. But at the end of the dayat the beginning, tooonly a single fear, that of boring your readers, merits a change in the direction of one’s language and style….

And if you occasionally land on your tokus, that is only the journey, the way, of spunk and bite.

This St. Edward alum’s advice to those at the alma mater in 2015—and to writers everywhere else, for that matter—is simple. Plunk down $12.95 for that copy of Arthur Plotnik’s book. I look forward to reading your spunky and biting thank-yous.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a 71 SEHS graduate and longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com . Check out Arthur Plotnik at http://www.artplotnik.com .

 

A Vision Not Up For Debate

By J.F. McKenna

When that rabble of Republican presidential hopefuls arrives in Cleveland this August, the hotel managers will cheer. Calculating the profit from the pols, their minions and the media visiting C-town, the inn keepers are guaranteed an actual payoff connected to the 2016 election—even if other Clevelanders, along with the rest of the nation, can’t be equally certain. As of right now, even the most delusional political Pollyannas expect little more than an evening of confusing crosstalk among the top-10 GOP candidates for the White House.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be as bleak as just described. And given the national and international challenges that post-Obama America will face in January 2017—it shouldn’t be.

As management guru Peter Drucker once wrote, creating a customer—or, in this case, a voter—demands mastery of marketing and innovation. The aim of marketing, Drucker explained, is “to make marketing superfluous,” which means “knowing and understanding the customer so well that the product and service fits him and sells itself.” Drucker also insisted that the second function of a business—or, in this case, the federal government—is innovation, which the father of modern management defined as “the provision of different economic satisfactions.”

“It is not enough for the business to provide just any economic goods and services; it must provide better and more economic ones,” Drucker preached in his 1974 classic, Management, Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “It is not necessary for a business to grow bigger; but it is necessary that it constantly grows better.”

Which brings me to the upcoming hot August night in my hometown. What if the candidates were to junk their debate notes, jettison their over-rehearsed ripostes and pass on the empty if telegenic posturing? What if these Grand Old Partiers simply gather and present the American voter with their united vision of what the nation needs, must have and can be in the 21st century?

Kind of a revolutionary idea, in that truly American sense, no?

Without question, the framers of the Constitution didn’t agree with one another on every detail of what ensures national greatness; nonetheless, they worked out a common vision “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility…and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosperity….”

Surely 10 folks scoring rhetorical points against one another can’t compare with the preceding eloquence—even if the stage is in good old Cleveland. But a common vision delivered from that stage is a worthy restart toward national recovery.

And there can be plenty of vision to share with that “customer” who has his hard-earned vote to invest. Take the economy, just for starts. Or as the classic comedian Henny Youngman might quip, “Take my economy—please!”

“Take the case of Barack Obama,” Forbes columnist and eminent historian Paul Johnson wrote earlier this year. “By any standards he’s been a bad President—idle, muddled, contradictory and weak. His one major achievement, ObamaCare, is likely to prove costly and inefficient….Obama’s Administration is crowded with enemies of business. If it has an ideology, it’s watered-down socialism. Obama has done nothing positive for the economy, and many of his decisions have been discouraging and obstructive to private enterprise.”

Johnson’s lyrics may sound a bit rough to the untrained ear, but his notes ring true. In this exclusive appearance near the shores of Lake Erie, the Cleveland Ten can assemble quite a common song book from which to sing this summer. And the candidates will find a receptive audience on opening night. Moreover, a tune never sticks better in the listener’s mind as when each singer is harmonizing with the others. Time enough for solo performances.

Certainly the encore that evening should focus on national security, and the candidates can start by jointly recommitting to the words of one of the country’s three basic documents: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

You bet the devil’s in the details of that oath. I’m too experienced a business writer to believe otherwise. But the rest of America and I want to hear these job candidates, in their own words, convince us that any of one of them is up to the task of fulfilling that oath to our expectations. In a world threatened by ISIS and its thug-brethren, each voter especially wants to hear a pledge to principles, not reheated platitudes.

Overall, as my hero Drucker also wrote, “What distinguishes the leader from the misleader are his goals. Whether the compromise he makes with the constraints of reality—which may involve political, economic, financial or interpersonal problems—are compatible with his mission and goals or lead away from them determines whether he is an effective leader.”

For starters agree on that, candidates. And enjoy your visit to Cleveland.

We citizens can figure out the rest on our own.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com .

Duty and the Well of Fortitude

by Doug Magill

A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.  Winston Churchill

On a moonless Pacific night during World War II, the pilot of a Hellcat fighter returning from a routine patrol desperately searched for the comfort of an aircraft carrier he would never find. My father, directing fighter operations on the ship that was the home of the lost plane, listened in horror to the static-roughened panic in the young man’s voice. His radio direction-finding equipment had failed and fleet orders prevented the carrier crew from illuminating the ship due to nearby Japanese submarines.

Disappearing into the blackness of the sea, terrified and alone, the pilot was not considered a coward by his shipmates. My father first told me this story when I was young, and I asked him how a brave military pilot could panic. With a soft and faraway look in his eyes, he replied, “It’s just that his well of fortitude ran dry. We all never knew how deep it really was for any of us.”

Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I combat pilot once said, “There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” He understood that there is a well of fortitude within that can be drawn upon time and again, under even the most terrifying circumstances.  And yet, military men know that there are occasions when even that is not enough, when fear can overcome even the hardiest soul, when there is no more bravery, no more strength, no more belief. Still they are drawn beyond what can be humanly expected by their sense of duty – to themselves, to their comrades, to their country.

During the war my father was aboard a jeep carrier, the USS Cowpens, which was attacked by kamikaze aircraft, and barely survived the monstrous waves of Halsey’s typhoon (Typhoon Cobra), a ferocious cyclone in the Pacific Ocean that struck the Pacific Fleet with one-hundred twenty mph winds and sank three ships.

Cowpens

USS Cowpens (CVL-25) during Typhoon Cobra
18 December 1944

The Cowpens was also sent as a decoy into the Sea of Japan without escorts.  When I asked Dad if he was scared, he would only say that he was able to draw from his well of fortitude during those times, and hang on. At times he was so frightened that he couldn’t move, but when he saw his shipmates doing their duty he felt he had to do his job and not let them down. He never boasted or showed pride, only relief that he had performed his duty and not failed his shipmates.

Landing on the beaches of Okinawa with the 1st Marine Division, my uncle Tom suffered from migraine headaches which prevented him from seeing. All he could do was hang onto the web belt of the man in front of him. His comrades would tell him where to aim so that he could shoot. Though he didn’t share many details of that bloody island, he told me of times when he was so afraid he couldn’t move, or shoot, and that the chaos of war gave countless opportunities for heroism and panic, often to the same person in the space of moments. He described the jungle and the insects, the heat, and the constant fear. He told me, “I was afraid all the time, and felt suffocated because there was nowhere to hide. It was a relief sometimes to dig leeches out of my legs with my combat knife. The pain was real, and distracted me from the fear.” He drew deeply from his well of fortitude, time and again shaking and panicked. Wanting to do his duty for the men around him he would take that next, halting step which kept him going for one more minute, one more agonizing hour, one more terrifying day.

Proud of their service, both my father and my uncle never described themselves as heroic or deserving of special consideration. They knew that brave men could panic, and cowards could become unexpected heroes. Incredible feats of courage were often not recognized and medals were awarded for trivial things, or for momentary political purposes.

To most veterans, medals and awards are not indicative of the value of one’s service, and do not imply a hierarchy of bravery. They do not judge the value of one’s duty, as they know that even clerks in Washington are important, as are the bases and supply ships manned by tired and overworked soldiers, sailors and airmen – who will never be recognized. They, too, perform their duty and may have had to draw upon their wells of fortitude due to accidents, weather, or other events that required bravery unrelated to combat.

A childhood friend of mine declined a Bronze Star during his service in Vietnam because his sense of honor caused him to feel that others deserved it more. Dan felt it would have been false pride to accept a decoration that he didn’t feel he deserved, though he knew he had performed his duty and saw combat that tested him.

Most veterans understand that medals aren’t scorecards for manliness. Performing their duty was all that mattered. The rest was randomness and fate.  A man performed his duty when required, regardless of acknowledgement or reward, and without complaint. The concept of duty is something that these warriors passed on to their children.  I have many childhood memories of completing required tasks, hoping in vain for recognition from my father. Acting responsibly was not worthy of note.

Most military men would react with disdain to a leader who attempted to take credit for the actions of men at arms when all he did was to make a politically-calculated decision to send them in harm’s way.  Particularly after requiring the overall commander of the operation to sign a document that would place blame on him should the operation fail.

A leader takes responsibility first, and credit last.

Military men know that courage is what is shown, not claimed.  And, that duty is what takes them beyond courage.

To shiver for days on end while being underfed and improperly clothed, waiting as your comrades slink away, knowing that you will soon be asked again to fight a professional enemy vastly better equipped and trained than you are.

To walk in ramrod-straight pride up a hill in sweltering July heat knowing that those you are attacking are entrenched and will soon devastate your comrades in a hail of grapeshot and gunfire.

To endure endless days and nights of rain and snow while your ship becomes coated with ice and knowing that a relentless foe is marshalling submarines and aircraft to send the ships you are bound to protect to searing moments of hell followed by the iciness of the depths.

To be starving and shivering in the relentless snow, surrounded by arrogant troops believing they will crush your dwindling forces as you run out of ammunition, and finding those last moments of pride when your leader responded to a request for your surrender with a single word, “Nuts!”

To be asked that one last measure of energy and strength to defend a wind-blasted hilltop in cold so deep your weapons have frozen and your arms are so heavy it is a burden to place your bayonet on your rifle to repulse one more charge of a fanatical foe.

To find the heat of the jungle dissipate and the sweat on your body chill as you crawl into a tunnel pursuing a mind-numbed enemy who plants traps to maim you and hides behind children and executes women as an example and who will never stand and fight directly.

To step carefully through the blasted remains of buildings knowing that a relentless foe wishes to take your legs or arms without ever having to fight you as you search through the stench and the garbage in deadening heat for men for whom cowardice is a moral code.

And yes, to feel the vibrations of the helicopter engine in your back as you prepare to leap into the night of a foreign country where you don’t know the strength of your enemy and the deviousness of his waiting traps.

Because your country needs you to.

Because you have been ordered to.

Because your comrades depend on you.

Because in all, it needs to be done.

These are the men who have found the meaning of courage, and duty.  Not those who issue commands and boast in comfort and security behind the protection that they and their comrades provide every day.

These are the men we remember today.

As the young Hellcat pilot found in his last moments before entering the silent embrace of the sea, duty doesn’t always involve the risks of combat. His service and death were nonetheless noble and honorable. Military men will forever salute him because of that. Today, it would be fitting for those who profess to lead us, and for those who evaluate them, to humbly remember all of those who have died nobly, regardless of circumstances. They owe the opportunity to do such things in a democracy to those who performed their duty for all of us, even if their well of fortitude ran dry in darkness and solitude, far from home.

Doug Magill is a communications consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at doug@magillmedia.net

Unburdening the Past

The Russians developed a well-earned reputation for dark humor during the days of their failed socialistic experiment when they slaughtered millions in the name of equality.  One of their lesser known expressions was that the future is known, it is the past that keeps changing.

Today, our academic commissars believe that the future can be controlled by destroying the past:

Under New AP Standards American History Will not be About America

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