A communication manager at a big federal agency was explaining the difficulty of managing a staff of civil servants who he could not fire without an Act of Congress, and for whom he had no budget for bonuses or raises.
"I've got no carrot," he said with a shrug, "and no stick."
This sounds alarmingly important:
think thru Code, Council website
Alarmingly, because I have no idea what Code, or what Council's website I am supposed to be thinking thru.
(Ah, GOT IT: posting the newly minted Speechwriter's Code of Ethics and the Professional Speechwriters Association's Advisory Council on the PSA website. Done. Now what is "Geaugsahva," and what am I supposed to do about it?)
A very good writer who grew up in a small town in Illinois and now works as a writer in the city wrote a really thoughtful piece last week about why the people who go for Trump, go for Trump. "I was born and raised in Trump country," David Wong writes. "My family are Trump people. If I hadn't moved away and gotten this ridiculous job, I'd be voting for him. I know I would."
I have just enough authority to praise the piece because I ride my motorcycle on backroads through the rural, red counties in Illinois. Over Labor Day weekend last year, I took Ogden Road out of Chicago and drove it on a southwest diagonal through many of these counties down to the Mississippi. I recorded a little of what I saw and felt on the way there and back. Reading Wong's piece, I felt like I was back on Rt. 34—but this time, riding past the hundreds of Trump signs that are surely there now. Excerpts from Wong in italics, excerpts from mine in Roman.
As a kid, visiting Chicago was like, well, Katniss visiting the capital. Or like Zoey visiting the city of the future in this ridiculous book. "Their ways are strange."
And the whole goddamned world revolves around them.
Every TV show is about LA or New York, maybe with some Chicago or Baltimore thrown in. When they did make a show about us, we were jokes—either wide-eyed, naive fluffballs (Parks And Recreation, and before that, Newhart) or filthy murderous mutants (True Detective, and before that, Deliverance). You could feel the arrogance from hundreds of miles away. …
Hey, remember when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans? Kind of weird that a big hurricane hundreds of miles across managed to snipe one specific city and avoid everything else. To watch the news (or the multiple movies and TV shows about it), you'd barely hear about how the storm utterly steamrolled rural Mississippi, killing 238 people and doing an astounding $125 billion in damage.
But who cares about those people, right?
To those ignored, suffering people, Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites. "Are you assholes listening now?"
Urban sprawl turns into rural road in Oswego—you feel it. And you could probably get a good country breakfast at Plano, Sandwich or Somanauk, but I didn’t take any chances. I waited until I hit Mendota, about 100 miles west.
I had waited long enough. Having been hurtling face-first through the wind for a couple hours, I walked into Ziggies Family Room Restaurant in a zombie state familiar to me, from lots of back-road rides through America and Canada (my Triumph passed 20,000 miles on this trip). I tried to appear as a normal human being despite the intense introversion that two hours of engine meditation creates. Tried to appear as a normal American through the self-protective shell you build to keep Chicago out. Tried not to rub my helmet-itchy scalp while ordering my eggs.
Six old guys sat at the next table over, theorizing about why a tractor axel had broken one day and not another day, talking about a record flathead catch (81 lbs., and the guy threw it back!) and debating with some humor and at great length the proper size of a regulation corn dog, thus to determine what constitutes a “jumbo corn dog,” being advertised on the Ziggies menu.
The waitress finally gave in to her curiosity about the spaced-out drifter at the counter, and she asked me where I’d come from. When I said Chicago, she said her sister had dated a fellow in Chicago once.
“Chicago’s not so bad,” she said, provided you learn a few tricks about city life. For instance, she learned the hard way never to give homeless people money. Because if you give money to one, they’ll gather around you by the dozens.
“Give them toothpaste or soap,” she said. “Anything but money!”
The foundation upon which America was undeniably built—family, faith, and hard work—had been deemed unfashionable and small-minded. Those snooty elites up in their ivory tower laughed as they kicked away that foundation, and then wrote 10,000-word thinkpieces blaming the builders for the ensuing collapse. ...
Rural jobs used to be based around one big local business—a factory, a coal mine, etc. When it dies, the town dies. Where I grew up, it was an oil refinery closing that did us in. I was raised in the hollowed-out shell of what the town had once been.
You open the classifieds and all of the job listings will be for fast food or convenience stores. The "downtown" is just the corpses of mom and pop stores left shattered in Walmart's blast crater, the "suburbs" are trailer parks. There are parts of these towns that look post-apocalyptic.
I'm telling you, the hopelessness eats you alive.
The next stretch is farm fields punctuated by happy speed reductions into towns so small—Dover, Princeton, Wyanet, Sheffield, Neponset—that when you hit Kewaunee (pop. 12,676), it feels like a metropolis, and you’re glad to back out to the country, and to Galva (pop. 2,758) and then Altona (pop. 531) and Oneida (pop. 700).
I stopped and listened to the Altona Tigers marching band, rehearsing out of their uniforms; they didn’t sound good, but they sounded wonderful. I think it was also in Altona that I took a photo of a Lutheran church sign, “Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want!”
The rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and you smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I'm telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying. It's not their imagination. No movie about the future portrays it as being full of traditional families, hunters, and coal mines. Well, except for Hunger Games, and that was depicted as an apocalypse.
On the return trip: the utter stillness of Labor Day in the country. I rode through many towns without seeing a soul; I was looking for a tavern for lunch, but even most of those were closed. I resigned myself to wait until the big city in Kewanee, where they’d just be wrapping up their annual Labor Day Hog Days Festival and some places would have to be open. But then I spotted Mary’s Restaurant, on the eastern outskirts of Galva. There were a few cars outside.
Eight locals and a middle-aged biker couple nursed beers in dim light. The kitchen wasn’t open, so the only food available was chicken soup and chili, simmering in crock pots. Six dollars, all you could eat, out of Styrofoam bowls. And so utterly home-made, passing it up would have been like snubbing your grandmother.
The Cubs played the Cardinals on the TV. It emerged that half the crowd was Cub fans, half Cardinals’. The Cubs were winning, but the Cub fans knew this was the Cardinals’ year, and so did the Cardinals’ fans.
“You must be Mary,” one of the bikers said to the woman behind the bar.
“Who else works on holidays?” Mary asked, rhetorically.
So yes, they vote for the guy promising to put things back the way they were, the guy who'd be a wake-up call to the blue islands. They voted for the brick through the window.
It was a vote of desperation.
I pulled off to look at the Hennepin Canal. A little later, I rode past a no-trespassing sign, a quarter mile down a narrow path through a soybean field to the base of a wind turbine, for a picture. I rode through the parking lot of a rollicking biker bar in a grain mill near Langley, but didn’t stop for a beer because I wasn’t feeling bold enough to walk alone into a place called Psycho Silo.
In the next town I saw another church sign—someone ought to collect these messages in a coffee table book—that said, “Living without God is like dribbling a football.”
And I rode to the back of a cemetery at Wyanet and lay down in the grass for a nap. Though I was exhausted, unseen insects tickled my arms and neck each time I started to drift off.
"But Trump is objectively a piece of shit!" you say. "He insults people, he objectifies women, and cheats whenever possible! And he's not an everyman; he's a smarmy, arrogant billionaire!"
You've never rooted for somebody like that? Someone powerful who gives your enemies the insults they deserve? Somebody with big fun appetites who screws up just enough to make them relatable? Like Dr. House or Walter White? Or any of the several million renegade cop characters who can break all the rules because they get shit done? Who only get shit done because they don't care about the rules?
I sat at a hundred red lights, burning from above in the 90-degree late-afternoon sun and baking from below by the heat of my own engine, as Rt. 34 turned back into Ogden and a record-long strip mall and then the city and a family of eight sisters almost killed some of themselves running across Cicero and cops ran a red light just because it was the ghetto and I almost crashed my bike trying to get a stupid video shot of the approaching skyline as I emerged from the bridge at Ogden and Western.
It didn’t seem like Labor Day in the city. It didn’t seem like any holiday at all. Who works on holidays? Mary in Galva, insects in Wyanet, and all Chicagoans, just to survive.
What kind of a life is this? It’s a rigorous life, at least. It’s our life, for sure. It’s important to know there is also other life, not so far away—and to see it, as clearly as we can, to the extent we can will ourselves to slow down and look, make eye contact and see, calm down and communicate.
Already some of you have gotten angry, feeling this gut-level revulsion at any attempt to excuse or even understand these people. After all, they're hardly people, right? Aren't they just a mass of ignorant, rageful, crude, cursing, spitting subhumans?
Gee, I hope not. I have to hug a bunch of them at Thanksgiving. And when I do, it will be with the knowledge that if I hadn't moved away, I'd be on the other side of the fence, leaving nasty comments on this article the alternate universe version of me wrote. ...
It feels good to dismiss people, to mock them, to write them off as deplorables. But you might as well take time to try to understand them, because I'm telling you, they'll still be around long after Trump is gone.
Reader, if you liked this piece at all, please read David Wong's piece in its nuanced entirety. When the next brick comes through the window, you'll be less surprised.
"That poor bastard doesn't know whether to pick the low-hanging fruit or leverage his core competencies."
It used to be called charm school, or finishing school. Some girls probably enjoyed attending it and other girls no doubt did not.
These days, charm school is called "overcoming the gender divide," and men with Master's degrees presume to publicly administer it to 68-year-old women who have won and lost hundreds of battles in public life beginning right around the time the men were born.
Men like "leadership author Louis Carter," whose article on how Hillary Clinton should prepare for the last presidential debate was pitched to me this week for possible publication at Vital Speeches' website.
Some of Mr. Carter's modern insights sound like just the sorts of things girls were taught in the 1940s:
Interruptions – Trump has an even greater risk of coming across as a bully if he interrupts. Clinton also risks seeming domineering and masculine if she interrupts too much. ...
Body language – Clinton will be seen as masculine if she uses extreme or excessive body language. Her body needs to be tightly controlled. Trump’s body language will be used to increase his dominance of the space. As he has at other debates, he will widen his arms, increasing his physical presence on the stage to broadcast his dominance.
Tone and pitch – Clinton cannot shift her pitch much, without risking sounding shrill. She must use a clear tone (no breathiness). Trump will use his full pitch range to sound engaged and passionate.
Sentences – Clinton must use clear, crisp sentences. She cannot use any women’s speech markers. ... If she sounds too long-winded, she’ll lose points. Trump can use as many feminine speech markers as he likes because if he is using them, they will be coded as masculine. His sentences will be short and repetitive.
Compassion – At some point, female politicians must exhibit compassion or be judged as unfeeling. Clinton must show that although she is a politician, she remains, at heart, an idealized woman. Trump does not have to worry about this marker at all.
To be fair, the publicist who pitched Carter's piece to me called the gender gap unfair. But like so many political advisors and pundits we've listened to during this never-ending year, Louis Carter comes off as altogether too accepting of the most hopelessly conventional and old-fashioned range of acceptable women's behavior, as if he has not ever heard of Barbara Jordan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah Winfrey, Billie Jean King, Condoleeza Rice, Meryl Streep, Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Clare Boothe Luce, Lady Gaga or Elizabeth Warren.
Or Hillary Clinton, who after a 47-year career spent contending with the "gender gap"—a career launched by a fine college graduation speech in 1969 about "the art of making what appears to be impossible possible"—finds herself debating a man who likes to grab women by the pussy.
What she oughta do is kick him in the balls.
(But she doesn't need my advice either.)
My dad's best friend Carl Ally, a Mad Men-era skirt chaser, liked to hang around a filthy-mouthed womanizer who talked about women like Donald Trump talks about women.
My dad didn't swear, let alone hit on women. But occasionally he'd find himself in social situations with Carl's filthy friend.
"Carl," my dad finally said by way of telling Carl to keep the guy away from him, "when he walks in the room, all the air goes out of it for me."
That's how I've felt on occasions when a friend of a friend shows up at the bachelor party talking in ways that separate tits and asses from brains and souls.
The subject must be changed.
You don't want to hurt your friend's feelings—or, really, even the feelings of the poor bastard who thinks of women that way. Or worse, who thinks you'll think he is cool if he acts like he thinks of women that way.
So you smile politely and you find the first chance to switch the conversation to something, anything, else. Not in high moral dudgeon or righteous defense of your revered mother and sister and daughter, but because you don't want to spend another 30 seconds pretending this shit is normal, let alone fun or interesting.
To your relief, you find that changing the subject is not that hard to do. And the poor bastard usually understands what's happening, because it happens to him a lot. Because most men don't like to talk like this. So you're gentle with him, as you would be with anyone with something seriously wrong with him.
But you're firm—because you do have to breathe after all.
Donald, how 'bout these Cubs?
"Content" is a backroom term that should never be used in front of the customers, to whom it does not appeal.
We look forward to reading the Sunday paper while we watch the political shows. But we don't want to think of ourselves consuming print and video "content" any more than we want to think we are ingesting dietary macronutrients for breakfast.
This seems like such an obvious point to me that I'm always astonished when a video ad tells me, "Your content will resume shortly." And I laughed last week when the journalists Chicago's alternative paper, The Reader, were marching for a new contract, and thought they'd dictate these terms:
"Hey, Honey! Did you hear the Reader reporters got a new contract?! You know what that means, right?"
"More money can only mean ... MORE CONTENT. Huzzah!"
I hope the Reader folks do get their new contract, which is why I showed up at their march. But even if they do, I won't pick up the paper expecting "more content." Honestly, I'd settle for better shit.