Monday, December 29, 2008

NEW IN 2009: A Monthly "One-Liner for the Road"

Dear Faithful Readers,

You may have noticed my most recent post "A One-Liner for the Road". Get excited folks! There's more where that came from.

When the ball drops Dec. 31 concluding the year that was 2008, "The Chicago to D.C. POV" will start a new series of entries called "A One-Liner for the Road".

Look for a new "One-Liner for the Road" each month in addition to weekly opinion posts.

A lot happened in 2008, who knows what will happen in 2009! Stay tuned and thanks for reading.

All My Best,

R.H. Levitin

A One-Liner for the Road [Dec. 2008]

The fear of failure is a solid mean of motivation.

- R.H. Levitin -

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Are you a Tigger or an Eeoyre?

I urge you to pick up Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture."

If you do anything for yourself this holiday season when preparing for the new year, a little self-reflection is the best medicine. Pausch takes you through his journey in an attempt to force others to participate in the same.

Not only did I read it in one sitting, but I was blown away by his love for life while having just months to live.

Pausch allows the reader to follow him around during his last days, rightfully bragging that he has achieved all of his childhood dreams.

Standout moments include smelling a crayon to trigger memories of youth and asking yourself whether you live life as a Tigger or an Eeoyre. According to Pausch, you should try to live life as a Tigger, it's more of a "glass half full" perspective.
I promise you, if you pick up this book you will not be dissapointed.

And with that said...

Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and All My Best,

R.H. Levitin

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Lost on Earth, Found on Titan -- The Meaning of Life According to Kurt

I know the meaning of life. It took me close to 20 years, but I found it.

You might be asking yourself, “How did she do it? She’s far too young to have figured out the greatest mystery of them all.” But I did, and now you can too.

Whoever came up the metaphor was a genius. The metaphor is the most important literary device. It has a larger role in society than people think. It’s not just a lesson in elementary school English class – it’s the only way to find answers to questions that aren’t a simple “yes” or “no.”

I know I’m not alone in saying that I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out what any or all of life means. It’s one of those questions everyone wants to know – like the actual definitions of “beauty”, “truth”, and “love” or “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”

It’s human nature to ask questions we don’t know the answers to. We like to pretend we’re the Sherlock Homes of day-to-day life. We like to think we can find the answers. It’s reassuring. It warms our hearts. It makes us feel good – just like the smell of a hot cup of cocoa on a bitter snowy night, finding answers to questions we don’t fulfills us in ways we can’t completely explain. It’s a gut reaction, a “you-know-it-when-you-feel-it” kind of experience.

I remember the first time I felt that way. I was 14 and convinced myself I was on the verge of discovering the answer to “one of life’s biggest questions.” My eighth grade English class was assigned our final book of our elementary school career – “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger.

“Casual profanity and a rebel without a cause in the middle of his years as an angsty prep school teenager?” It was a match made in heaven.

Salinger read my mind. I never thought anyone could capture how I felt in writing – until then. That put me at east. I felt in charge and somehow obligated to question authority.

Five years later, during the summer following my freshman year of college, I decided to branch out and try my luck by reading a new author. I scanned the Barnes & Noble rack for at least a half hour until coming across a row of books by Kurt Vonnegut. I skimmed plot descriptions, searching for a story that struck my fancy and ended up snatching a copy of the Vonnegut-fan favorite “Cat’s Cradle”.

I didn’t leave the store until I finished “Cat’s Cradle.” I couldn’t put it down. So I took that as a sign – I had to buy another Vonnegut novel.

I decided my second purchase would have to appeal to my self-deprecating side. I didn’t want to be a tragic, misunderstood, brooding female equivalent to “Holden Caulfield” anymore. I wanted a new perspective. It turns out “The Sirens of Titan” had the answer I didn't even know I was looking for.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died in 2007 a few days before the shootings at Virginia Tech. Despite the horrific events experienced in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, I still think the day Vonnegut passed away was a giant loss for America and was overshadowed.

The Pall Mall chain smoking, science-fiction satirist who survived the bombing of Dresden and warmed readers hearts with quick-wit, clever one-liners, and honesty was smart enough to write everything he knew down.

Metaphors are the bullets Vonnegut aims at the human mind with the hope that people will find the pearls of wisdom he’s put inside. His metaphors are gems, each sparkling independent of one another, introducing the trials and tribulations of life as if it were a lotus emerging from its murky waters showcasing its growth into something beautiful. His novels are the means by which he distributes these ideas.

Literary scholars and academics have taken stabs at finding the deeper thematic meanings in Vonnegut’s prose. His stories, science fiction in theme but always about people’s treatment of one another and themselves, are as conversational (if not more so) than Salinger but teach simple lessons that characters learn while living complicated, drama-filled lives.

His novels are equivalent to sticking California pop culture heiresses Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in rural family’s homes for the 2003 Fox reality show “The Simple Life” – judging the way the acted they might as well have been on another planet, but there was always some sort of moral to the end. Vonnegut’s main characters do the same. They leave their comfort zone after experiencing some form of trauma or drama, hoping to find answers elsewhere – whether that’s another planet or another state.

Vonnegut labeled himself with various titles throughout his life whether it was atheist, agnostic, or a free thinker. His interest in Humanism as a way to live life eventually landed him the role of honorary president of the American Humanist Association in 1992, a role he held until his death in 2007.

In a letter to AHA members, Vonnegut said, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”

With that in mind – I entrust you with following theory: Kurt Vonnegut is the only man to ever live who not only knew the meaning of life, but also wrote it down with the confidence that people would read it and apply it to their lives. He did this in his second published novel “The Sirens of Titan.”

There has never been such a simple and logical answer to such a complex question. What is the meaning of life? Vonnegut walks you through the motions of how to find the meaning of life for the duration of his 1959 novel, exchanging his words of wisdom with the reader near the story’s end:

"A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved."

It’s that simple.

It sounds disheartening at first, but this is a sentence worth reading between the lines to understand. Forget about who or what might be controlling the universe. That is irrelevant and unimportant concerning the meaning of life.

The meaning of human life is to love whoever is around to be loved.

The Bible teaches morals. It says to honor thy father and thy mother, thy sister and thy brother. It also says to covet thy neighbor. Since all people were made in the image of God, there’s no reason to not love everyone – whether they’re blood related or not. Vonnegut says people are people, so love them all the same just as long as they're around to be loved. It’s the same as the Bible only Vonnegut’s version is simplified.

People get caught up with life. When that happens, they search for answers in god, in science, and sometimes in illegal and illicit ways. But Kurt Vonnegut attempts to dispel human distraction by reminding people to take the time to love others. According to him, that’s all we’re required to do.

Care about people. Cry when someone’s sad. Yell when someone’s angry. Hug when someone needs it most. Don’t worry about how we got here or where we’re going. That’s not our problem to solve.

The problem with people is that they don’t know how to live in the present. They keep asking “what if” questions and wasting the time that should be spent on loving and living.

This is a lot to think about. After all, I’m not the first person to spend years trying to figure out the meaning of life. Don’t be discouraged though. This theory doesn’t mean there aren’t other possible answers. Keep searching for your own. Never stop.

Vonnegut opened "The Sirens of Titan" by telling readers "Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself. But mankind wasn't always so lucky."

Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but know that the answer's there if you want. So it goes.

PREVIEW: Lost on Earth, Found on Titan -- The Meaning of Life According to Kurt

Ever wonder what the meaning of life is? Look no further than this week's blog entry when I not only tell you the meaning of life but explain why Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most socially aware people to ever live.

Stay tuned!

--R.H. Levitin

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Today's Unsung Hero of Songwriting -- Rachael Yamagata

The following is a concert review of Rachael Yamagata's headlining tour at The Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Va. in September 2008:

Rachael Yamagata is the unsung hero of songwriting today. She proved that point Tuesday night at The Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria.

It was a full house when the songstress, her family, and various fans from the Washington, D.C. area came to hear her newest tracks.

Yamagata debuted her latest double-album, "Elephants ... Teeth Sinking into Heart" to a sold-out crowd shortly after opening act Kevin Devine.

Fans waited four years for Yamagata's latest studio release, after wearing down their copies of her 2004 release "Happenstance." But it was well worth the wait.

This September stop on her second national headlining tour is the cure for the itch fans have -- new music. Now that the wait is over and she's finally on tour, Yamagata treated her fans to an evening of old favorites mixed-in with her latest musical gems.

"Meet Me By the Water," "Be Be Your Love," and "Worn Me Down," were among the few token Yamagata-classics while the rest of the night was devoted to showcasing Yamagata's growth as a songwriter.

If there was only one song to hear the entire night, it would be safe to say that the title track and first single off of "Elephants" is it. Written after a long day of running up and down the mountains in Woodstock, Ny., Yamagata found serenity and awe in nature, prompting her to write how she felt in that moment. The song, which was originally composed by Yamagata a Capella, featured her now classic lush piano phrasings and cello accompaniment.

Yamagata, who admits she can't believe how easy it was to make a career out of making bad decisions and having her heart broken, has a way of commiserating with people about the most common human condition -- love ... or lack thereof.

Devine does the same. His driving guitar rhythms, often reminiscent of a young Bob Dylan, pay homage to the grassroots-style strumming and song structure of the evening. Devine rocked out as much as anyone can with an acoustic guitar in hand, with a style of reminiscent of Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo.

Besides songwriting, Devine and Yamagata share a passion for the written word. Fans and fellow musicians alike note Yamagata's emphasis on the written word in the forefront of her resonant melodies. Devine sticks true to the Yamagata tradition of storytelling through song, making Devine a solid choice for an opening act.

Yamagata proved that she can play just as hard as the boys during the second half of her set.

Although she's known for her soft, whimsical ballads, Yamagata revved up the room with what she called a couple of "feisty, little, sassy songs." The tracks "Faster" and "Sidedish Friend" are two of five rocking tracks on "Teeth Sinking into Heart" -- which is scheduled for an Oct. 8 release -- and were by far the best performances of the night.

The electric crunch and adrenaline rush of the rockin' jams were the yin to Yamagata's swan song yang, mixing the old and new song styles together for a perfect blend of songwriting gold.

In between conversations with the audience about "Lost" and "The Sopranos," Yamagata found time to bond with family as well. Yamagata celebrated her 31st birthday Tuesday night along side her fraternal twin brother Benjamin. She also closed out her encore set with fan-favorite "The Reason Why," which her grandmother shouted out as a request from across the room.

Exposed piano parts and honest vocals catch the ear's attention, but it's Yamagata's brutally honest lyrics that make her stand out among the rest of the artists writing songs today. "Elephants ... Teeth Sinking into Heart" almost guaranties that Yamagata will no longer go unnoticed.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Black and White, There is No Grey -- A Look at Ethics in Journalism

Okay, I’ll admit it – the only reason I saw Billy Ray’s 2003 film “Shattered Glass” is because teen-heartthrob Hayden Christensen played the infamous role of a young reporter by the name of Stephen Glass. It wasn’t until my second year of journalism school that I realized how influential the actions taken by the reporter would be to my education.

Young reporters face the fear of failure every day – which explains why Glass felt the need to fabricate his stories. He wanted success.

According to the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics, reporters must seek the truth and report it. And – ten years ago – Stephen Glass flaunted his expertise as a journalist to enough to make him one of the biggest names in the field despite his age.

How did he do it? Glass’s use of cinematic dialogue and first person accounts is what put readers in a reporter’s shoes. His youthful approach to storytelling enchanted his readers and left them wanting more. But soon after making a name for himself, he became careless and got caught. Sure, he could told great stories – but none of them were accurate.

Accuracy is essential to good journalism. It’s the salt to the journalism’s pepper, the ying to its yang. You can’t have one without the other. Glass didn’t see it that way.

As a journalism student watching “Shattered Glass” in class, I was dumbfounded as to how someone so smart and talented could be so ignorant to his own job description. It is a journalist’s responsibility to provide the public with reliable information that they can use to make important decisions. Storytelling comes in a close second.

Glass didn’t realize that when it comes to ethics, the answers are either black or white. There is no grey. It’s possible to write creative stories and being ethical.

Chicago Tribune columnist and author, Garrison Keillor, brings his stories to life with every piece he publishes. His conversational tone and humorous recounts of his daily routine generates a universal vantage point, making his work relevant and relatable for any reader.

New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, does the same. Her work is angsty but honest, leaving readers both entertained and informed.

The point is: there is no possible reason to ever fabricate a story. There are no excuses. Writers amuse and educate readers every day, without fail, while keeping their artistic integrity. It’s a shame Glass didn’t figure that out before turning news into fiction.

Journalists, young or old, are responsible for providing regular people with vital information to make important decisions daily. Journalists ask the questions that everyone needs the answers to, whether they’re tough or not. It’s their job. And – they do it for all of us.

If young journalists are looking for words of wisdom to follow in a post-Stephen Glass world of reporting, all they have to do follow the words of wisdom Peter Parker’s uncle told him in the first Spiderman movie, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” It’s that simple.

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