Thursday, October 30, 2014

Venturing Capital...


If you want to give away money and do good in the world, I can help. I have a substantial record of working with families and individuals to achieve influential results in some important social and environmental matters. Check out for a brief outline.

While concentrating on building the business, I'll be doing fewer off-the-top-of-head pieces that this blog was designed to feature. Below you'll find a sampler. Links to the right can take you to published pieces, usually of a more sober character.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dearest Etta

ETTA JAMES DIED THIS WEEK. As the obituaries noted, Etta James was the embodiment of a soulful blues singer. But she could do many things: deliver an Irving Berlin standard straight-up, play like a kitten with jazz syncopations, or just go completely rent-party funky. She did tough and tender, sassy and clingy, sexy and rejecting. Every note sounded felt, every phrase sounded considered. She delivered creative expression that was sophisticated and basic at the same time.

She was also a bridge builder between her mostly-Black original fan base and the mostly-White audiences that supported her in recent years. She connects uptown joints, race records, Chess label royalty, decades of neglect and abuse, and then a late-life "comeback" that's better described as a re-discovery.

The death of Etta James came six months after the death of Amy Winehouse, the finest blues singer of this young century, and a talent hard to imagine without the influence of the great Etta James. RIP.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another Game

[This 2011 piece was commissioned by, and appeared in,, a site devised and managed by ESPN correspondent Paul Lukas. Hence the obsessive attention to uniforms, insignia, colors, etc.]

AT 09.00 SATURDAY MORNING I WILL BOARD A TRAIN in New York. Ninety-six minutes later, maybe, I will disembark in New Haven and walk to the Yale Bowl, where Yale and Harvard will play a football game for the 128th time. The Bowl is a 61,400-seat amphitheater built in 1913 (when it sat 70,900). It was the biggest stadium of its time, built for the giant crowds that flocked to New Haven to watch the best football in the world. It's still a beauty.

In a field near the Bowl I will rendez-vous with classmate Don Chiofaro, linebacker, captain of Harvard 1967, and – according to Calvin Hill – one of the hardest hitters of the era. The Chief will introduce me to the loyal corps of recidivists who try never to miss a Harvard-Yale game. There will be picnic fare and drinks and heavy slagging. Shameful moments of early adulthood will be trotted out as ID markers. If I may use the word without irony, it will be jolly.

That's it for socio-historic context. I've noticed that the default position for writers on Harvard-Yale games is to feed not in the rich meadow of football information but in the deep silage of cultural stereotype. "The Game" and all that. Class privilege, snobbery, fustian traditionalism, ubiquitous smarty-pants-isms, snotty halftime shows by bands dressed to signify superior distancing from State U, adorable chants along the lines of "You'll Work For Us!" et cetera.

Shoot me. Nobody in that parking lot will refer to "The Game." And plutocrats will be in disguise. New Haven tailgaters look like Ann Arbor tailgaters or Bloomington tailgaters. No one under 60 says "Hah-vud" (though the drink's on me if you do). There will be class and rank and income issues swirling 'round the Yale Bowl on Saturday, and they'd be fun to talk about, but not today.  Today we concentrate on other things that matter: uniforms, school colors, mascots.

Because Harvard and Yale – and their dapper common enemy, Princeton – were among the first American colleges to play football, the gear they were wearing in the late-19th/early-20th centuries, when football first gained a mass following, provided the template that everybody else used as their uni Square One. The basic look was vest and plus-fours in a neutral color, usually tan or gray, with some or all of the sleeves and stockings in a bold color chosen to signify the particular college. Next stop in uni evolution: school-colored jerseys, in solid or striped patterns. Then colored pants, then stripes down the pants, then colored helmets, then logos on helmets, then logos everywhere. Neither Yale nor Harvard wielded much sartorial influence after 1920. They followed trends rather than set them.

With some modest adjustments, the uniforms that Harvard and Yale will wear today are based on their garb of the mid-1960s. Harvard has lost the pants stripes, but added black outlining of numbers, a Harvard VE-RI-TAS shield on the tops of the shoulders (where they are barely glimpsed), and a block H on the sides of the helmet where TV numbers used to go. Both the Harvard helmet and the Yale helmet sport the 1960s triple-stripe motif that has proved so durable in the NFL.

If we can posit that today's H and Y looks are relatively OK, let me assure you that the old Harvard-Yale stuff is really much better. This is true for uniforms, I think, but much more dramatically in the realm of illustration and graphic design. Look no further than the chronology of Harvard program covers and Yale program covers put together by the wonderful people at Historic Football Posters. Look how great they were until Chiofaro and I got to Cambridge in 1964. Look how bad programs have become. Look at the designs of today's Harvard and Yale sports websites: uninspired, charmless. 

There are all sorts of explanations for the decline of football graphics from witty cartoons to banal photographs, from hand-lettering to dull fonts. But in the Harvard-Yale case, there's a clear line that marks when everything went to hell: the departure of the great Boston Herald illustrator Vic Johnson from his side job as an Ivy League cartoonist. Look here, here, and here. When Vic Johnson left, Harvard-Yale lost its graphic wit and flair.

To Vic Johnson we also owe the revival of a 17th Century puritan male as the cartoon symbol of Harvard football. Johnson's Ur-Yankee was a skinny tall guy, dressed in crimson, always topped off with a high hat. His lanky build, thin face, prominent teeth, and ready smile were based, Johnson said, on Leverett Saltonstall, the much-loved, much-parodied Massachusetts Governor and US Senator back when there were liberal Republicans. I miss him!

We all understand that the drop-off in the quality of intercollegiate sports imagery was a general phenomenon, not limited by any means to the Ivies. It's just that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton produced the first batch of beautiful athletic graphics in this country, and I would argue that through the 1950s they stayed among the best. You don't have to be in thrall to snooty early-20th Century Anglo-Saxon notions of superiority and refinement to argue that football graphics were best when serious fans had to consider Yale and Harvard the same way that serious fans today have to consider LSU and Ohio State. A debatable proposition, to be sure, but debatable propositions R us.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


THE NUMBER OF AMERICAN NEWBORNS with hyphenated surnames is in decline. Oddly enough, the Census Bureau hasn't kept count: their computer records automatically change Smith-Jones into Smithjones. But judging from the reports of birth registrars around the country and lots of first-person narratives, it appears that surname hyphenization peaked in the late 1980s / early 1990s.

As a general but not ironclad rule, hyphenizer parents were either college-educated pro-feminist couples or single/divorced mothers who wanted their kids to have their name as well as the name of their absent fathers. The overall number of people who fit in those two categories has continued to increase relative to the general population, but the number of new hyphenated baby surnames is sharply down. Among the reasons given: record-keeping confusions; the problem of exponential surname growth as hyphenated persons sire children with other hyphenated persons; a general tendency for a new generation of feminists to distinguish itself from the pioneer cohort of the 1970s.

As a recidivist procreator, I have a personal angle on the hyphen craze. In 1977, when my first wife was pregnant with our first child, we had to decide on a last name. My wife thought hyphenization made sense. I didn't like the hyphen for a number of reasons. It was, historically, an anglophile affectation (Simon Babbington-Smythe, Basil Fornsby-Trotwood), and I always tried to be conspicuously Irish. The potential for awkward complications in second and third generations was pretty obvious. And, in general, the custom of hyphenating the surnames of offspring to advertise a family's commitment to equality was too identified with a social and political class to which I belonged but with whom I didn't want to identify. So my wife and I made a deal. We agreed to follow what we thought would be a growing trend: give a baby boy his father's surname and a baby girl her mother's. Hence Benjamin Nugent, born 1977, and Annie Baker, born 1981. The growing trend turned out to be nothing of the kind, of course, and so when NugeFam 2.0 was launched in 1999, all the kids, both sexes, got dad's moniker. No big deal. And you have to admit that Annie Baker is a great name.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Wolves of The Angels

AMONG ROCK-N-ROLL FANS you can always pick a cheap fight over the essentially stupid question of the Greatest Band Still Going. Still going is key: nobody dead or retired, and nobody who plays oldies-only shows in big hockey arenas. Essentially stupid is important too, since it denotes the inapplicability of any universal criterion and, hence, the impossibility of being right or wrong. That's part of the attraction of aimless opinionizing. What's better than an argument with no verdict?

The greatest band still going (GBSG) in North America is Los Lobos. [Here's a picture of them, with guest Carlos Santana, playing at the recent Mariachi Festival in San Jose.] I love Los Lobos because they are an American guitar band that really rocks, that knows how to blast ahead in that locomotive energy of rockabilly and early r&b ("I Got Loaded"). I also love Los Lobos because they are a great traditional Mexican band ("La Guacamaya"), a great East LA band ("La Pistola y El Corazón"), and a super covers band ("What's Goin' On," "Shoot Out The Lights"). If your favorite America is a mixed-up, draw-on-all-traditions ongoing audition, and if you haven't played Los Lobos since Colossal Head, I recommend some Continuing Ed listening.

Free MP3s on request.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


I WAS BORN IN DUBLIN, and remain an Irish citizen. My parents were Irish-Americans who lived in Ireland for a few years while my engineer father built a factory that converted the gypsum deposits of County Cavan into sheetrock. The combination of all-Irish ancestors and this anomaly of birthplace has always prompted me to think of myself as a little more attached to my Irishness than most white Americans are attached to their whatever-ness. I'm almost Jewish in this regard.

There have been three big news stories from Ireland over the course of the past ten years: 1) the Celtic Tiger of spectacular economic growth; 2) reports documenting decades of molestations and beatings visited upon thousands of Irish boys and girls by Catholic priests and nuns into whose care the children had been remanded; and 3) death of the Celtic Tiger. Number Two – the disgrace of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland – may be the most lingeringly important.

The frequency and duration of the abuses of so many Irish clergy lifts the scandal to a shattering level. Shame – not guilt – has always been the stereotype Irish reaction to sin and failure. We know about shame. But now we are compelled to recognize the causal connections between sentiments of shame and acts of shameful behavior. It's as if the Irish soul has been indicted.

My mother loved Ireland, and returned frequently. She was enchanted by the religiosity and casual poetry of the place. My father disliked Ireland and never went back. He thought the whole country was a mean-spirited, begrudging, pietistic village. I inherited both views. Today's Ireland is a less bitter, more tolerant, better educated, and (not coincidentally) richer country than the Ireland of the workhouses and orphanages. A better place in eight of ten ways. Which is fortunate, for now the Irish need all the resources they can muster: they must own a grave evil long tolerated.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Favorite Job

MY PAL D.J. AND I have been toiling over new URL homes for some old hard-copy articles and papers. We're trying to forge links for that "Writing Sampler" list over on the right-hand column of this page. I have had to pry open many old boxes. Some of the contents have not aged well, aesthetically speaking. Some are painful.

Most of those old pieces, both bad and less bad, were fun to write. Maybe not "fun," exactly, but certainly enjoyable. And nothing was more enjoyable than producing the 200+ daily columns and the unsigned copy of the old Liberty Tree website (RIP, 1998). All the intellectual property of Liberty Tree was bequeathed to Grist, an altogether excellent (and solvent) venture of Chip Giller and his colleagues. Grist beats Liberty Tree seventeen ways to Monday, but Liberty Tree holds up OK, I think, as an innovative experiment in the crystal-radio days of the early Internet. And, man, was it fun.