Sunday, April 29, 2012

That's a Human with an Issue on the Other End

In one of my recent writing classes, by a nine to one margin—a landslide in any election—participants  agreed that the e-world has made communication more challenging than ever. The majority cited these reasons for their beliefs:
  • They are deluged by more than a hundred emails a day with hardly the time to respond to them properly.
  • They are required to be available 24/7 to clients and managers through their smartphones.
  • They now struggle over the best means of communication to reach their reader.
  • They become less rigorous in assessing the validity and reliability of information they instantaneously access online.
To deepen the problem, representing the 10 percent of dissenters, a young financial analyst in the class said, "Are you all kidding? Communication is easier than ever! I would never read a newspaper or magazine if it weren't for the Internet, and I could instant message my boss or my wife in New York from forty thousand feet over Beijing."

Both sides have great points. Some of the people in that class were not even born in the interoffice envelope days, when a writer had to photocopy, fold, and stuff a copy of a memo for each person on the distribution list. In those days, I sometimes had to perform this tedious task for up to a hundred staff. Writing would take 10 minutes and distribution would take 60 minutes. I'm also reminded of a young person who recently asked me, "What's carbon paper?" For sure, the minority has a good argument about the convenience of instant and paperless communication. No doubt, we will not be giving up our handheld devices anytime soon.

But what about our humanity? Have we sacrificed our own social needs and our empathy for others as we text, chat, and flame away? And what of our ability to focus on the task at hand? Does the endless tide of messages flooding our many inboxes diminish our capacity to understand the impact of a given problem, its underlying causes, and the options for remedying it?

Two articles in The Atlantic have clear opinions about these issues. In "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (July/August 2008), Nicholas G. Carr argues that indeed our amazing online searching capabilities has eroded our attention span. In an interesting sequel to that article, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" (May 2012), Stephen Marche writes that social networking is far from social and, in fact, a contributor to our isolation unto illness and death. Judge for yourself. Both articles are reading for our communication times.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Those Darn Articles, Part 3: It Depends

Carefully read this dialogue for the uses of the definite article (the) and indefinite article (a, an). All uses are correct.

(MOE and ZOE are customers sitting in a diner. JOE, the waiter, stands beside them.)
JOE: Would you like coffee?
MOE: Is the coffee here good?
ZOE: It's great. I'll have coffee.
MOE: I'll have a coffee too. I haven't had coffee in a while.
ZOE: Come to think of it, the last time I had a coffee was right here.  
JOE: Two coffees. Great.

Moe's question with the coffee is easy enough to understand, because he is talking about the specific coffee of the restaurant. But notice how Zoe later says, "I'll have coffee," and Moe says, "I'll have a coffee." Then Moe says, "I haven't had coffee" and Zoe says, "the last time I had a coffee." Downright confusing, eh? 

In their last lines, Zoe and Moe could have added a where they deleted it and deleted a where they said it. This is where the parlance of English comes into play. You have to have a feel for the language.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Finding Inspiration, Part 4: The Show

We capped the magical evening of March 22 with a Broadway show, Porgy and Bess, perhaps my best theatrical experience ever but definitely the most surprising. The show was receiving negative publicity because the 1935 Gershwin-Heyward opera was cut by roughly an hour. Purists disapproved of any tinkering with America's best known opera, and as a lover of the music from Porgy and Bess, I had my own reservations about seeing a show that would cut any music from the original.

Audra McDonald, Bess in Porgy and Bess,
after her performance on March 22
Norm Lewis, Porgy in Porgy and Bess, at the Richard Rodgers Theater 

What I saw that night at the Richard Rodgers Theater was awe-inspiring. The acting and singing talent was incredible. After seeing the performance, we stayed to congratulate the performers, who were to the last one gracious, humble, and good-humored. The photos above show my wife with the amazing Audra McDonald (Bess) and Norm Lewis (Porgy). 

There's nothing like a great dramatic experience to inspire writing. When I got home, I visited the play's official website to learn more about the history of show and Catfish Row, South Carolina, where the musical takes place. There I found a place to write my own review of the show, which appears below:

America's opera has become America's musical. From the first note to the last, from the supporting cast to the leads, this show dazzles with an emotional intensity that I have not found in a half-century of going to the theater.

I want to mention all the performers' names, not only for their transcendent voices but for their electrifying dancing and magnetic acting as well.

Early in the two-and-a-half hour play, Nikki Renee Daniels as Clara sings "Summertime" and is joined by Joshua Henry as Jake. At that moment, I thought can this show get any more magical? But when Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena breaks my heart singing "My Man's Gone Now," I felt that if I had walked out then I would have gotten enough for the price of admission. But things were just warming up. Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy are great together and on their own, Ms. McDonald creates magic in "I Wants You Porgy," seizing the raw essence of her character in her closing stanza like no other performance I've seen on stage. Mr. Lewis shines in "I Got Plenty of Nothing." David Alan Grier devilishly reinvents Sportin' Life, hitting the high notes--both literally and figuratively--in "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Leaving Soon for New York." Philip Boykin commands the stage as Crown, overwhelming everyone around him, making his power over Bess apparent from the start, climaxing in his reappearance on stage in Act Two. I left this play emotionally drained but feeling better for it.

Without question, for its drama, singing, and orchestration, Porgy and Bess is the work of this century, and a stunning acknowledgment of the Porgy and Bess of the last century. Great work, director Diane Paulus, book adapter Suzan-Lori Parks, and music adapter Diedre Murray. May both works live harmoniously to the next century.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Finding Inspiration, Part 3: The Square

Mgarr Church and Square, Mgarr, Malta
When I think of a village square, I think of the many in the tiny nation of Malta. Those  squares usually appear in the village center and are built around enormous churches surrounded by boutiques, bakeries, grocers, cafes, bars, and restaurants. They tend to come alive in the evening after the ghost town atmosphere created by the brutal, blinding daytime sun gives way to the cooling sea breezes of evening, when dozens of people sit on stoops or lean over bar stools sipping a Cisk lager or munching on a pastizzi.

Times Square, New York City
That's not the kind of square I was in on March 22, when my wife and I walked around Times Square after eating dinner at Carmine's and before seeing Porgy and Bess on Broadway. Times Square literally is brighter at night than it is on the most radiant noontime. Blazing  billboards and glittering neon-lit storefronts flash endlessly for teeming crowds larger that the entire Maltese population. The atmosphere is electric. If Atahualpa, king of the sixteenth century Inca Empire, were to see the evening become light on the streets of New York, he would have his subjects worship on the ground of this City of Fire. In fact, half a millennium after the Incas faded, I recall from my childhood the main Times Square feature being the Marlboro cigarette billboard with smoke circle billowing from a cowboy's mouth. Not much more. So I remain dazzled anytime I walk around Times Square.

True, nothing about New York City is routine, but even in Malta the locals know how to break the routine by going someplace out of the ordinary on the 122-square-mile island. I'm reminded of a village square regular who one evening was sitting on the church balustrade, a mere 50 feet across the street from his favorite chair in the local bar. I asked him why he wasn't in his usual spot. "To get a different point of view," he answered. I laughed, but took his answer as a lesson that you don't have to go far to break routine.  Find inspiration not only in breaking the routine but in rediscovering it.

[Next post in this series: The Show.]

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Finding Inspiration, Part 2: The Supper

I'm a big fan of ethnic restaurants. With the exception of Soul and Cajun, which, I suppose, is also international food, I prefer off-the-US-border cuisine. The restaurants I've most enjoyed in New York and New Jersey, as well as in my travels as a communication consultant, have called themselves Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Jamaican, Mexican, Salvadoran, Peruvian, Chilean, Brazilian, Colombian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Burmese, Malaysian, Indian, Pakistani, Afghan, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian, Maltese, Russian, Polish, Romanian, Greek, Turkish, Egyptian, Lebanese, Yemeni, Syrian, and Ethiopian. Of these, the non-European foods most capture my fancy, maybe because I was raised with so much Italian food and had had my fill of it by the time I moved from my parents' house at age 21.

On March 22, with theater tickets in hand and two hours to kill, my wife and I were debating where to eat. “Why not Pomaire (Chilean), Delta Grill (Cajun)or Havana Central (Cuban)?” I asked, hoping she'd approve of one of these restaurants we've eaten in several times. But my wife seemed set on Carmine's, a family-style Italian restaurant frequented by tourists. I grudgingly conceded, not expecting much. 

When I'm not in a place that I want to be, I have at least two choices: complain about being there and drag everyone else down with me, or focus on hanging out with one person whose conversation will distract me from my environment. My only choice that evening was my wife, and I am glad she was it. I had a speaking engagement planned in nine days at an attorneys' retreat for Strasburger & Price. One of the talking points for my presentation was going to be how to free oneself from the self-imposed bondage of smartphones. As practice for that event--after all, I should practice what I preach--I decided not to look at my Droid for the entire supper and listen to whatever my wife wanted to talk about. 

I listened for 90 minutes in Carmine's as she discussed a broad range of topics: her previous meals in this restaurant during theater trips into the city with teacher friends, the particular challenges she faces in teaching her sixth grade students, interesting books that she's read on her Kindle, her take on problems and successes that some of our family and friends are experiencing, and the great pleasure she has been taking in seeing how our daughters' lives are evolving. Looking at her across the table from me, I felt so glad that we have stuck it out together for 36 years. I thought about how awful it would be for anyone else to know me as well as she does. I thought about how lucky I am the she does know me as well as she does and still sticks around. When the bill arrived, I realized two accomplishments: I hadn't bored myself with my own talking and I hadn't looked at my smartphone once. Way to go, Phil!  

From a day in which little was planned, I felt a lot of cool things were already happening. And the day was only half over. Writers need to have planned activities for sure, one of them being planning to write every day, weekends included. But writers should also plan for unplanned times, times in which they get a second take on the familiar--their homes, their family, their daily walks, their situation, their condition. For "creative" writers, a richness of detail may emerge; for business writers, a fresh  perspective on a pressing issue may arise.

By the way, we ordered a dish of mixed seafood with penne, which turned out to be excellent, as was the Montepulciano and tartuffo.

[Next post in this series: The Square.]