A Confession from a Hypocrite: Alas, I, too, am a Free Rider

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It was the most regrettable thing I had ever done in my entire life. At the time I thought it was a giant step forward, a statement that, because of who I was, because of who we were, would make a difference.

Organizing the protest had other alluring advantages. Our teacher encouraged us. We respected her and she respected us. She treated us like adults. We liked that. It presented us with the ultimate reward: greater self-esteem. In addition, the entire class participated. That meant we could be with our friends, and all the social rewards that brings. Finally, only our class was allowed to participate. It was a reward for getting our schoolwork done in a timely fashion. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment to fill the soul with self-confidence.

Of course, it helped that we hooked our wagon to a national movement. It was the first Continue Reading “A Confession from a Hypocrite: Alas, I, too, am a Free Rider”

Why 7-15-60 is the Winning Combination of Every Group that Wants Lasting Influence

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Civic associations represent the backbone of a vibrant democracy. They have fueled American Exceptionalism since the very beginning of our country. But don’t take my word. Read what one of history’s most quoted experts had to say on this very subject.

“Among democratic nations, on the contrary, all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another. …if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered.”

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations… The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools… Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”

Continue Reading “Why 7-15-60 is the Winning Combination of Every Group that Wants Lasting Influence”

Today’s Columnists Find Their Roots in Revolutionary War Era Pamphleteers

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On the afternoon of June 9, while chasing the fugitive sloop Hannah, the unthinkable happened. The HMS Gaspee ran aground in low waters off the Rhode Island shore on what was then called Namquit Point. Unnamed Sons of Liberty, once alerted, sprang into action. In the early morning hours of June 10, before high tide could rescue the British man-of-war, the rebels boarded it, shot its commander, and burned the ill-fated vessel to its waterline.

The year was 1772 and the newspaper industry was dying. Of the thirty-seven weekly broadsheets published in the thirteen colonies, only eleven reported on what came to be known as “The Gaspee Affair.” By 1783, primarily due to lack of revenue and the logistical problems caused by the Revolutionary War, the Colonies would be down to only about twenty newspapers.

Still, the story of the Gaspee Affair stirred the American patriots. Why? Because an itinerant Continue Reading “Today’s Columnists Find Their Roots in Revolutionary War Era Pamphleteers”

Merrymaking in the ‘Nati

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The Championship Winners flank either side of the affable play-by-lay announcer. NSNC Photo

As I sat down to write this account, a profound thought struck me: It’s much easier to go from writer to talker than from talker to writer. I’ve been both. I’ve had fun at both. But never, until now, have I ever attempted to shift from play-by-play announcer to sportswriter. But here goes…

Named for George Washington’s Roman protégé, with a nod to that ancient empire’s capital the city of Cincinnati has long been called the City of Seven Hills. Indeed, for a hundred or so of the nation’s finest columnists, the undulating topography of Cincinnati’s inclined streets no doubt left an ache in the shins that echoed for several days.

Nonetheless, it was in this Queen City of the West that they gathered. At once to dine at the Mecklenburg Gardens – a dinner that lasted well past its “sell-by” date – and to cavort with the giraffes during happy hour at the Cincinnati Zoo.

For many, though, the highlight of the event wasn’t Jerry Springer apologizing for ruining the culture, or even George Clooney’s equally famous dad Nick regaling the crowd with stories of Walter Cronkite and ruffage. For attendees, and at least a handful of the hotel staff, the pinnacle of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Annual Conference was Continue Reading “Merrymaking in the ‘Nati”

Graduates: How to Let Your Passion Become Your Talent

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It’s a perfectly acceptable question: How does a trained astrophysicist become a nationally recognized newspaper columnist? The answer, obviously, is by spending three decades working as a registered investment adviser.

OK, OK, maybe this requires some explaining.

Let me begin, however, by talking about you. You and I are very similar. We both want things we can’t have, we’re not “supposed” to have, and we aren’t even at the right station in life to come close to having. And there’s nothing wrong with desiring more – more renown, more wealth, more satisfaction. Don’t ever let someone tell you “You can’t do that.” Dream. Dream big. Never stop dreaming big.

Why?

Because such dreams spur you to far greater heights than you can imagine. They possess these three critical components for consistent success: Continue Reading “Graduates: How to Let Your Passion Become Your Talent”

You Can Create a Pleasant and Unforgettable Memory by Following These Three Rules

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It was a small planting bed, not more than 20 feet wide and three feet deep. Located beneath the cantilever on the north side of the family’s newly built raised ranch, the moist topsoil glistened in the summer shade. “You’ve got to mix it in with the old dirt,” said my father.

You could tell the difference. The dusty brown dirt stood apart from the rich loam we had just imported from the nursery. We spent that morning doing the rough work. We dug the hard clay and turned it over. Actually, Dad did that job. The dense dirt proved too tough for me and my brother, then mere pre-schoolers.

Our father, aware of our physical limitations, knew precisely the kind of activity that motivates young bucks like us. “OK, boys,” he said, “after I turn it over you come in behind me and Continue Reading “You Can Create a Pleasant and Unforgettable Memory by Following These Three Rules”

Buffalo’s Mystically Magic Resurgence

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With twin Romanesque columns towering over either side like two rooks joined at the hip, Henry Hobson Richardson’s 19th century creation looms like full scale Gotham City prop. Traveling along a long-abandoned side road that circles the vast complex, one sees up close the details from the decades of decay. Unattended since 1994, New York State left what remained of the old Buffalo State Asylum to the elements.

The wind-swept snows of Lake Erie would take its toll on the buildings as well as the 200 acres of once elegant grounds laid out by none other than Frederick Law Olmstead. Western New York’s famous winters have only enhanced the eerie feel of the place. Built in oversized fashion from garnet-colored Medina Sandstone and industrial-red brick, the institution carries the burden of its initial purpose.

Elisabeth Stevens once wrote of the building (The Baltimore Sun, Saturday, August 11, 1979, page 7), “…one can conveniently imagine the character such as Mr. Rochester’s wife (in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte) screaming wildly at one of the uppermost windows of the twin, medievalizing towers of the central Romaneque-style building.”

Yet, for all this creepy sensation, Richardson’s realized vision remains alluring. “It’s haunted. There’s a history here that you have to experience,” says Kelly Reitnour of Continue Reading “Buffalo’s Mystically Magic Resurgence”

Here’s How to Get the Latest… on Everything

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Kids are great. They offer so much. They give you a reason to excel. They force you to look deep inside yourself. They make you laugh, smile, and (sometimes) cry, but, always leave you filled with a sense of satisfying purpose.

They also do one other thing. Kids, especially those that are a little older but not too old, act like a canary in a coal mine.

Now, before you get to scrunched up in your high heels, I don’t mean they’re something you can use as a sort of human shield. (Truth be told, when they were very young, just before they went to sleep our children would often ask us why we had them. Even before Betsy could break an adoring smile, I blurted out my quick, simple, and direct answer: “To be there so the monster could eat you first.” Soon after, Betsy insisted that only she tuck the children in for the night. I love it when a plan works.)

Here’s what I really mean. They may be the clue to the Fountain of Youth. Kids act like a canary in the coal mine of popular culture. We weary parents, consumed with matters of far greater import (something about “food, clothing, and shelter”), find we cannot keep up with modern culture. Like canaries, kids have an innate ability to smell what’s coming before the rest of us.

You know what I’m talking about. One day, you know every single record on the Top 40. The next day, you find out there’s no such things as records anymore. Heck, there’s no such thing as “Top 40” anymore either. Everyone has their own personal playlist on Spotify.

How do you react to this?

At first you resist. “That’s not the way we did it in my day.” Then you come to realize it is the way you did it in your day. Only better.

You used to make your own playlists. You put your favorite songs on cassettes. You called them “mix tapes.” After all that hard work, you couldn’t help but feel amazed the first time you listened to your new mix tape.

That feeling didn’t last long. You got bored with them really fast because the songs always appeared in the same order. So, you went back to listening to the radio. The radio might not play all your favorite songs, but at least the anticipation of not knowing what song was coming up next would keep you interested, if not excited.

Close your eyes and imagine combining these two wants: all your favorite songs coming at you in a random order. It’s the best of all possible worlds. Sirius Radio attempts to offer this, but, then again, it’s Sirius Radio. Personalized playlists on platforms like Spotify truly do offer the best of both worlds.

And, if not for your kids, you’d never know this.

For those of you who are still bothered by the canary metaphor, allow me to offer a more erudite analogy.

Children are like the Plato’s shadows. You know the shadows I’m talking about. They’re the ones that reflected on the walls in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It’s from one of his most-read works: Republic. You might remember Plato’s Republic as that thick book you didn’t read in college. It’s probably most famous for convincing people they didn’t need to take philosophy courses.

Anyways, Plato presents the Allegory of the Cave through a dialogue between his brother Glaucon and Socrates, who acts as narrator. He begins by describing the inhabitants of the cave. They are prisoners, forever chained to the wall of the cave. They cannot see the activity going on outside the cave. They do, however, see the shadows of that activity reflected on the cave wall.

Only, they don’t understand the shadows are only shadows. They think the shadows are the reality. In a way, for the prisoners, this doesn’t matter, for the shadows – real or not – do show what’s going on outside the cave.

In a way, parents (or, for that matter, all adults) are like prisoners in Plato’s Cave. The duties and obligations of everyday life bind them like prisoners. These chains make it impossible for them to see what’s happening in the outside world, especially popular culture.

We’ll tweak Plato a bit to say adults once kept up with popular culture – when they were kids. But now, as adults, they’re shackled. They’re unable to keep abreast of the latest. And not just in pop culture, but in fashion, interior decorating (or is that the same thing?), and technology. At most, all they can see are the shadows.

And the shadows are the kids. Kids have idle time. Their naivete allows them to disregard standard operating procedures of life. After all, they’re not of age and aren’t yet expected to have memorized life’s operating manual. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to run life’s machinery. It just means they haven’t been formally trained.

To fill this void, curiosity leads them to explore (often strange) new options. This is the behavior represented by the shadows on the cave wall. These shadows introduce adults to new ways of doing things. Watching what the children do helps adults keep up on the latest.

Every once in a while – and here’s where the Allegory of the Cave is most revealing – an adult breaks free of his bondage and re-enters the world of youth. But, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step in the same river twice.”

For those of you who have had enough of Ancient Greece, that’s what Ella Winter meant when she asked Thomas Wolfe: “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?” Thomas Wolfe – not the same person who wrote The Right Stuff – asked Winter for permission to title his last book You Can’t Go Home Again, which was published posthumously in 1940.

Like Plato’s escaped prisoner, that adult who attempts to re-enter the world of youth quickly realizes the modern world is much more complicated than the kids make it seem. That adult accepts there remains only one safe space – living in the cave with the shadows. Alas, the Fountain of Youth remains elusive.

And that’s why we adults rely on our kids to run the VCR (or DVR or Hulu or On-Demand or what ever they call it now).

Are You a Laurel or a Yanni?

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A few days before it went viral, Peter asked Betsy and me to listen to something and tell him what we heard. This was the now famous “Laurel/Yanni” audio illusion.

An audio illusion is like an optical illusion. You use your eyes with optical illusions and your ears with audio illusions. With optical illusions, the same drawing reveals two completely different pictures. What you see depends entirely on what you’re looking for. In an identical way, an audio illusion contains one string of sounds. You hear what you want (or expect) to hear.

In the case of the Laurel/Yanni audio illusion, listeners convince themselves the string of sounds says “Laurel” or “Yanni.” Although the sound is the same, different people hear different things. Some people (like Peter) can hear either one, depending on what they’re listening for.

And therein lies the critical lesson of this latest internet sensation, the audio version of the Continue Reading “Are You a Laurel or a Yanni?”

Ode to a Fallen Tree

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I remember buying it. It was, maybe, eight inches tall. Despite its size, it formed the perfect shape of a tiny Christmas tree. It didn’t look like a Bonsai Tree. Its needles were full size, out of scale and too big for a Bonsai Tree.

The little blue spruce wasn’t the only tree I bought that day. It was the fall of 1986 and my house was brand new. I had no furniture of my own. I had no family of my own. I had no lawn, no landscaping, no home, really.

I was in the process of making my house a home. The first thing I needed to address had Continue Reading “Ode to a Fallen Tree”