You'll know that I've stopped giving a hoot about this sunny little column when I start using the most tired rhetorical device in the book--the BIG QUESTION--to commence my publication eviscerations. Like "can Jane survive without Queen Jane?" Or "do the editors of Cat Fancy still fancy cats?" In my experience, the BIG QUESTION cover line/story lead ranks among the surefire tells of creative bankruptcy.

I bring this up because Ode, which bills itself as a title "for intelligent optimists," asks no fewer than two BIG QUESTIONS on the cover of its January/February issue. The optimism thing poses another problem: me, I'm not just a glass-half-empty person, I'm a glass-half-empty-and-is-that-roach-excrement-I-see-at-the-bottom-of-it? person. So Ode had the deck stacked against it before I reached page one.

Ultimately, it won me over, mostly. Ode replicates The Week's time-tested formula (poaching content from other smart folks), but adds a forward-thinking, planet-friendly ideological slant. What the mag's editors are attempting is admirable; I'm just not sure they approach it the right way all the time.

Take the feature on mentoring, much of which is plucked from The piece offers a range of illuminating anecdotes from names big (Ray Charles) and small (a business trainer who founded a program that pairs Dutch managers with African ones). But then the story stalls, courtesy of a dallying sidebar from a "long-time advocate and researcher of mentors," whatever that is, as well as a borrowed blurb from Oprah Winfrey--which the title disingenuously represents on its cover as "Oprah on mentoring."

Equally off-kilter is the "up with old people" feature/essay amalgam, which throws out heady pronouncements ("the wisdom and practical skills older people possess can help bring peace to the stressful lives of teenagers and adults") without supplementing them via research or, really, anything at all. I also question the mag's organizational choices: the cover-billed piece on how homeopathic remedies might prove most effective in treating a superflu, for instance, shares a page with a Q&A with the founders of World Youth Citizens.

Most of the rest of the January/February issue reads far more smoothly. The homeopathy cover feature states its case persuasively, even if you don't necessarily buy its central premise. The story on a Dutch "green bank" that throws its financial weight behind sustainable-energy products and artsy pursuits, on the other hand, gives me hope that someone, somewhere will someday loan me the necessary cash to stage my rock opera about thermoses.

Ode's many blurbs also entice. Stuff I learned: there are DIY alternatives to gasoline which involve titration and, ostensibly, second-degree burns all about the torso; columnists are eager to share their gentle religious jokes, exactly zero of which begin "there was a young priest from Nantucket..."; there was blogging in ancient Sumeria, likely about how Franz Ferdinand has, like, totally sold out; and your eyesight benefits less from glasses or contact lenses than from the "Exercise Your Eyes Total Vision Workout." I didn't run the latter theory by my ophthalmologist dad, as I feared his response would have prominently featured the words "utter" and "horseshit."

Ode also deserves some props for its easy-on-the-eyes design. I wouldn't say there's any wild, unfettered innovation here, but the mag complements its editorial selections with everything from a lush island landscape (for the item on a society that still occasionally uses giant stones as currency) and a first-aid kit teeming with herbs and spices (for the homeopathic remedies feature). The stark "When I Grow Up..." photo spread, which features a gaggle of Ethiopian pre-teens, adds welcome grit.

In its mission statement, proudly positioned right above the masthead, Ode describes itself as "an independent, international journal without strings to the world of commerce and power... We contribute to progress by publishing stories about the people and ideas that are making a difference." I don't entirely buy that--if you're truly without strings to the world of commerce, shouldn't all advertisers be verboten?--but Ode makes a valiant effort to walk the walk. That in itself should merit a hearty slap on the back, if not your undivided monthly attention.

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