Sunday, March 29, 2009

World's First Jewish Prayer Flag

This is the world's first Jewish prayer flag. I see a lot of Buddhist prayer flags in my neighborhood, and I think they're pretty cool, so I decided to invent one for the Jews.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Welcome to the Fight

Welcome to the Fight
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its last issue today. One hundred and seventy men and women spent their last day as employees of the Hearst Corporation, which owned the paper, and which decided to close it and lock the doors.

Tomorrow those same 170 people will become independent journalists, and I say, "Welcome to the Fight."
You didn't choose freedom, but you got it anyway. You are free to write, publish, sell and distribute anything you chose. You are free to praise and criticize. You are free to disseminate your views in any medium that you choose.

The First Amendment guarantees this right, and Hearst could never grant this as a privilege or take it away. It is your right as a citizen, and I have the greatest hopes in seeing your work as new-born independent journalists.
Or, to put it another way, your mother does love you -- you don't need to check that out -- but the Hearst Corporation never loved you.

They have just done you and the people of Seattle a big favor. They were only in it for the money, and now everyone knows the truth.

Welcome to the fight, brothers and sisters. Welcome to the street. Freedom is a beautiful feeling.

A lot of people will miss the P-I, and I have sympathy for anyone who loses a job. But after the grief comes a new day. And that's what the news is all about.

I was in Manhattan in the spring of 1972. I had expenses, but I didn't have a plan, so I met up with Seymour the hustler. He was a cripple with a Rasputin beard, massive shoulders and gimpy legs.

He said he could fix me up. I could run numbers up to Harlem. That was very profitable, but dangerous.

I said, "Seymour, I need something more lightweight." He offered me a chance to drive a gypsy cab in Brooklyn. That was not dangerous, but still I'm a kid from out of town and not that street smart. "What else do you have?"

"Balloons," he said. "You can sell balloons." That was the right thing, so he fixed me up, told me where to get supplies and a cart, where to get set up on the street, how to deal with the police, and his real magic, "I'm going to show you how to work the crowd and get them to buy your balloons."

He showed me a lot of tricks, which were of a somewhat manipulative nature, but I'm in New York City, and everybody has to make a living. Besides, people spend their money one place or another, why shouldn't they buy a balloon?

I got myself a spot in Central Park, on Fifth Avenue, right across the street from the Plaza Hotel. This was real class. I saw style and money like I had never seen. Big shots, movie stars, you name it, they walked by, coming in and out of the Plaza, and just walking down the street, like they were nobody special.

Me and the other vendors were all too cool to bother any famous person. "So they're a big deal! What am I, nobody? This is America. This is Manhattan. This is my street as good as anybody's."

I did pretty well. Seymour coached me plus I developed my own riffs. I made it fun. The spring weather was soft and delightful. People were in a good mood, and I made money, cash, every day, which I spent every evening, going about town to places high and low.

It wasn't a plan, but it worked for awhile. That's the key. Seymour was a Life Coach. To this day, I don't know why he helped me, because he got nothing out of it, and I never saw him again after he set me up.

It could be that New Yorkers, for all their grit and hustle, are very kind people and Seymour just wanted to help me get a start.

As I said, this gig didn't last, but one day I was looking up and down the street and here comes Aristotle Onassis, out of the hotel, and just out for a walk.

I recognized him instantly, wearing sunglasses, in a suit and tie, his hair slicked back, holding a substantial cigar in his right hand.

He had no body guard, no entourage. Only Onassis. You could tell, just by the way he walked, that he was a very, very wealthy man -- He had such courage and such indifference.

It was like he was on the street, out for a walk, because that's what he wanted to do, as if it was no more important than buying a yacht or an island in the Mediterranean Sea.

Onassis, who owned a hundred ships, came walking past me.
I said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Onassis. It looks like a pretty nice day."

He heard me. He slowed a bit, and looked up at the sky, and then over to me, and nodded his head.
That was money. That was power. That was the man who loved Maria Callas.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is It All Going to Hell?

How bad is the economic disaster? Here's one key indicator: I have a natural tendency to become very calm in the face of danger. I have been very calm lately. My calmness indicates that we are in quite a dangerous situation.

The panic reaction, conversely, is only useful when things are going well. In fact, if you're having a good day today, you might start jumping and shouting and getting your co-workers to join you in a Chinese Fire Drill run around the building.

The panic reaction, done rightly, is actually the party reaction. Get that nervous energy out of your system, and be prepared to face danger calmly.

LOCATION: THE ZEITGEIST CAFE, PIONEER SQUARE, SEATTLE. At the meeting of Emerging Media Alternatives, the topic was the end of newspapers and journalism as we know it. It is a sad thing and a big change, but it is not wrong. I realized this last night. The banking system has collapsed -- a much greater problem -- because of the greed and carelessness of our financial leaders who took extreme risks with other people's money and who should have known better. The bankers are rightly accused and deserve judgment, and those individuals who are proven wrong will face punishment.

But the media situation is completely different -- the emerging world of digital media is an innocent venture. The inventors of Craigs List had no intention to destroy the classified advertising industry which was a mainstay of newspaper income. Craigs List is a marvelous product, we use it all the time, and yet it has caused the loss of thousands of jobs in the newspaper industry -- Elizabeth Jorgenson, that lady you used to call, to place an ad for your garage sale, she is either unemployed or working someplace else now.

Elizabeth liked her job and it supported her family, but no one wants to resurrect the classified ad department. Life goes on. She will survive.

Print journalists, who work for the same company as Ms. Jorgenson, are mistaken if they think they are more special than she is. "But we are professionals, we have a calling," they may cry. Not so. It is good to dignify your work, but it is not good to pull rank on somebody else. It is wrong to say, "For you it's just a job, but for me, it's a way of life."

We discussed all this at the meeting of Emerging Alternative Media. We discussed new standards of objectivity. That has always been a difficult word. Objectivity is the Truth without religious overtones. Objectivity is the courage to put a little distance between yourself and the people who pay you. Objectivity is always colored by your context and tarnished by your experience but it is still a strong and useful means of communication.

And finally, objectivity is not the exclusive property of print journalists.
Okay, we established that. Then we moved to a hazier topic -- Confidence. There it is lacking -- We are a bunch of nerds and geeks and tweets and wannabes, with day jobs and silly dreams. The newspapers are falling apart, and we are frankly not ready to take over because we're scared of how hard it will be.

Well, that's a start. Claim your fears and go from there.
I hope this all makes sense. The sun is shining, I'm going out to the garden in a little bit for spring cleanup -- starting with some branches that Pat pruned last Fall, still laying in a heap by the basement door.

The Frog Hospital subscription drive continues. The mailing list is private, never shared or traded. All Frog Hospital readers are encouraged to forward this newsletter as much as possible -- Spread the Joy. You may also post it on your blog if you give credit.
You can stay on the mailing for free and forever, as long as enough people send in a check and make it worthwhile.
An appropriate saying here, as the world of media changes, is that Information Wants to be Free, but Somehow Groceries want to be Paid For.

Make a check for $25 to Fred Owens and mail it to

Fred Owens
Box 1292
LaConner, WA 98257

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Here's a story about Frog Hospital that appeared on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on November 25, 2000.

Life lessons via e-mail from La Conner The story behind Fred Owens' Frog Hospital? 'It’s just how I think'

Friday, November 24, 2000 SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER STAFF LA CONNER -- Lessons on life flow from here, and they're free for the asking. Once a week, sometimes not that often, Fred Owens fires up his computer, writes nine screens full of history and politics and wit, and sends the musings by e-mail to 300 friends, acquaintances and strangers.

Welcome to Frog Hospital, a reading experience that will take you from a parking lot in La Conner to a children's hospital in New York to the White House to the local library and back. It is journalism, in a sense, but not in the form we usually get it. Owens, 54, claims he doesn't even know how to write a true lead -- the opening paragraph of a news story. He starts with Woody Allen, for example, then rambles about The New York Times and libraries, which leads him to Franklin Roosevelt, which brings him to the subject at hand: courage. "I don't do this on purpose," he said. "It's just how I think."

Frog Hospital is like the Internet. "You can go from chairs to hippopotamus to spark plugs to china and back to chairs again. That's the way I write." "Thanksgiving is approaching in every family. It is the time to express gratitude and act in harmony, but we are faced with this damnable tie vote. If Gore had simply lost, I would stay at home and sulk and paint the bedroom, and let the other side have their parade -- at least I wouldn't have to talk with those people. "The limits of accuracy and technology have already been reached in Florida. Out of 6 million votes cast, I estimate that 500 voters were legally drunk at the time and don't even remember who they voted for. Roughly 1,500 voters, highly informed and motivated, were unable to vote because of traffic jams or last-minute family emergencies.

"Error is a minor deity, at whose shrine we now light incense, because error will not be banished."

Owens, an unassuming, thoughtful man who still appreciates life's little joys, has been writing these missives, in one form or another, for 16 years. He's a fisherman, cook and landscaper, a storyteller and journalist. The words come slowly, carefully. He doesn't want to offend; he wants people to think, to laugh. Mostly, he wants them to talk to each other. He sends his thoughts from to childhood friends in Chicago, former neighbors in Boston and Africa, residents of Skagit Valley, anyone who asks to be on his mailing list. He e-mails the newsletter rather than posting it on a Web site. That way, he knows the people he's writing to. He loosely follows a format and includes no more than one local joke. The tone is friendly, sometimes conciliatory, sometimes frustrated, occasionally angry. He doesn't write about class issues, and he's careful about broaching controversies involving race. But most anything else -- foreign policy, country music, universal health care -- is fair game for this observer of politics and history.

Owens met President Kennedy at a rally in 1960. In 1962, he went with his high school class to city hall in Chicago on election night to help count ballots. Four years later, he participated in civil rights marches and, in 1968, he was in Chicago for the Democratic convention. He admits to being a Berkeley hippie, and there are telltale signs. He's still a student, studying at Western Washington University for a master's degree in history. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and on a daffodil farm. And he still yearns to create a buzz with his writing, to bring an issue to people and get them talking about it. "It's like a party -- introduce people, and they start talking." That's what he wanted in 1984 when he started a quarterly fishing newspaper, the Northwest Fishing Forecast. He'd been a sport fisherman, and when he wrote a story about it, he knew nobody would publish it "because it didn't fit the type."

"I wrote about sport fishing and tribal fishing and commercial fishing. I was writing about three communities that wouldn't speak to each other. I said, 'You guys ought to talk to each other,' " and he put their stories on the same page. Commercially, he said, the Forecast was a disaster. So he turned to newspapers, hoping they'd be more lucrative.

His monthly newspaper, Puget Sound Mail, lasted four years until he ran out of money. Then he turned it into a newsletter, which morphed as he moved from La Conner to Boston to Zimbabwe and back. In Boston, inspired by Malcolm Forbes' success with Forbes magazine, he called his publication Owens. He wrote about gardening and cooking. "I was cooking a lot of the time, so I wrote a cookbook. But it was more like a story with recipes. I kept a cooking journal and worked it up as a story."

In Africa, it was The Zimbabwe Edition, a marriage of horticulture and journalism. And then he moved back to the Skagit Valley and his missives became Frog Hospital.

Frog Hospital was a nickname for the old grocery store in La Conner, he said. That wasn't its real name, but that's what people called it. "There is a story behind this name, and I don't know it," Owens said. "It's a local name, a hippie name, an Internet name. With a name like Frog Hospital, I can be serious, but I don't have to be." His goal has always been the same: to put things in perspective and provide background. "The name's changed, and the focus, but this linkage is steady. The idea is to communicate. I've always seen relationships where other people don't seem to see them. So I stick with that. I'm happy to point them out, and if I do my work right, other people will see them, too."

"I know about autism. Years ago I worked at Rockland State Hospital (in New York) . . . a huge place back then, with thousands of patients, many warehoused. I worked in the children's autistic ward or 'cottage 4.' "I remember Randy, who was a small, very handsome boy, very graceful and coordinated in his movement, and he looked so intelligent. I just knew he was smart, but he never said a word to anybody, hadn't spoken in years. Randy liked to run away. He would scamper out the door, if he could sneak by, then streak across the lawn, and start taking his clothes off, and then run naked through traffic and down the street. It made me feel like a real killjoy because it was my job to catch him and bring him back, when I wanted to run naked through the street myself. "From autism, I learned two things: You can care about somebody even though they are not able, or not willing, to care for you. And you can ask somebody a question, and there is no promise on heaven or earth that says you are entitled to an answer."

It's important to care, Owens said. It's important to have fun but not to provoke people for no reason. He likes La Conner because he knows nearly everybody, and "because it's home, and I know how to live there." He's bought a house, finally. He's enjoying transplanting the rhododendrons in his own yard. That's what he does to relax. When things get too stressful, or someone sends hate mail, "it's time to play in the dirt."

There's some frustration with Frog Hospital. He has no editor to keep him in check. He has no affiliation, no publisher to back him or provide insurance. His landscaping paychecks don't provide the stability he'd like. Still, he perseveres. "I have never published anything without annoying somebody," he wrote in September. "Besides making a general apology and saying, 'Excuse me for living,' I'm going to proceed."

This feature story was written by Candy Hatcher. Her name didn't appear on the byline because the staff of the P-I was on strike at the time. Candy is still in journalism. She left the P-I and worked at the Chicago Tribune for a few years. Currently she is working for a daily newspaper in the tidewater region of Virginia.Candy has been a Frog Hospital reader all this time. She and I continuously disagree on the merit of mainstream journalism.