And at four hours, the longest Happy Hour Video ever published at Writing Boots. This will have to hold you for awhile, as we're on holiday sabbatical until Jan. 5.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, my friends. As for a Happy New Year ... well, let's not ask for everything all at once.
Now that I am "old and gross," as my aging and decaying friend Suzanne Ecklund likes to put it, I have what my dentist calls "food traps" in my oral Stonehenge.
When I was young, I almost didn't know what toothpicks were for. Now that I get something stuck in my teeth nearly every time I eat, I make toothpicks out of everything around me: receipts, business cards, paper clips, safety pins, lengths of tape, pointy knives, you name it. It's dangerous, and it's disgusting. Like me.
Aging (and grossening) has its compensations, in this case, an important psychological insight:
But when I finally get the food out, I find I miss it—miss having the problem to solve with my tongue and my makeshift toothpicks.
And the longer it was in there, the worse I miss it.
After six years of blogging here at Writing Boots, I finally made a promotional video. My wife hates it. My child hates it. I hate it. Don't watch it!
To be a good one, you have to be (and to raise a good one, you have to teach someone else to be):
Strong and gentle.
Proud and humble.
Enthusiastic and calm.
Fun and serious.
Bold and cautious.
Self-aware but not self-conscious.
Candid and discreet.
Discriminating and democratic.
Loyal (when it's called for).
Generous, but not to a fault.
Self-loving, but not self-worshiping.
Aggressive but not violent.
Intellectual and musical.
Good luck with all that.
To the sweet strains of the Carpenters' Christmas album, Mother hangs lights with dearest daughter Scout, while the springer spaniel Charlie dozes in the kitchen, where Father prepares dinner. Mother storms into the kitchen with the aluminum ladder in one hand and a hammer in the other. She begins rifling through the drawer with increasing agitation before declaring broadly that in case you thought all was right in the world, "The nail situation in this house is fucked up!"
I grew up in suburban Ohio. So when I came to Chicago just after college, I had some learning to do. The curve was steep. And, as I learned yet again early last Sunday morning, long, too.
I moved to Chicago because I liked the Cubs growing up, which should tell you a lot. First game I went to, I rode home drunk on the El train. A guy talked me into playing a "shell game"—guess which cup the ball is under?—and I lost $50, and my watch.
Around that same time I tried out for a job in "marketing," and wound up selling stuffed animals door to door.
Throughout my twenties, I often found myself stumbling home from all-night money pool games, my empty hands covered in blue chalk.
It wasn't until I was into my thirties, during a losing public fight against City Hall, that I even began to understand that it is indeed who you know (and not just in Chicago).
You think these things smarten you up. You feel sorry for people who never left Ohio, or people who live in Des Moines, because they don't know the first thing how people really operate. What jamokes they must be. You read Nelson Algren, with this look on your face.
But then your door bell rings at 7:03 on a Sunday morning. Your daughter is sick and you've been dealing with that. You've dozed off again but now you're up, scrambling to put on your Joe Namath jersey. You run downstairs in your boxers and bare feet, because any visitor at seven on a Sunday morning must mean an emergency.
And indeed it is. A huffing, puffing middle-aged white guy is standing there. He's so sorry to ask, but he's your neighbor down the street, maybe you've seen him around, he's got the pit bull? You think maybe you have because you'd be embarrassed not to know your own fucking neighbors because what kind of self-absorbed prick yuppie doesn't know his neighbors. Anyway, he locked himself out of his house and his nurse wife is working in the emergency room hospital and he can't get ahold of her, she doesn't have access to her cell in there—he's so fuckin' sorry to bug me on a Sunday morning—but do I know a locksmith in the neighborhood.
I don't, but he should come on in. Yeah, come on in, and let's figure this out! Oh thanks, holy fuck, he was out last night at the fireman's Christmas party and he thinks he's still drunk and anyway, he was outside having a smoke and the door slammed behind him. He tried to scale the house (do you see his hands; he broke his belt!) but he couldn't get it.
Maybe I have a ladder—has to be a big one, to get to the second-story window. No, I don't. Get down, Charlie, get down! Wait, maybe there's one in the basement, a big long wooden one .... Has to be 50 feet, he says. I don't think it's 50 feet. Oh holy fuck, he's so, so sorry to be bugging me on a Sunday. No, no, don't worry about it, don't worry about it. Who can we call?
Can you believe it, a fireman who can't get into his own house? Hey—I should take a cab to the hospital. Do you have cab fare—like forty or fifty bucks—I'll pay you back the second I get back, I swear to fucking God.
Oh of course you will, obviously you will, you're my neighbor for Godsakes, now I'm almost sure I've seen you—with the pit bull, right?—let me go get the money. Here's $60. (Never mind that with $60 you could take a cab halfway to Milwaukee, I just want you, need you, must have you out of my house, you shatterer of sacred Sunday morning peace.)
Thanks, thanks, I might be back in 15 minutes, I might be back in an hour, I might be back in two hours. I'll bring you breakfast! No need to do that, good luck!
Obviously I can't go back to sleep. I really can't read the paper, because it's starting to worry me that he might not come back. It's worrying me because my wife, who overheard all this, thinks he is definitely not coming back, thinks he was casing our house for a burglary and why did I let him in. She is from Ohio, too. How did she get so cynical?
I tell her shakily, when the fireman comes back with the money she's going to owe him an apology. Uh-huh.
Eight comes and goes, nine, 10, 10:30. No fireman comes back because no fireman was ever here. A robber was here. A drunk robber. A drunk, noisy, profane robber. And I gave him $60.
Every time something like this happens, I think I'm sadder and wiser. But as the evidence seems to show, I'm only sadder.
A friend wrote to ask, "Not sure if you are interested in writing for free, but blahblah gas whoosh puff waaaaaaaaaaa, pffffffffttttttt monkeypooh kadinkkadonk plopplopfizzfizz murgatroyd andaoneandatwo and aonetwo three braaaaaaap! Sertaperfectsleeper, googly, googly, googly."
A guy walks into a bar and as he's ordering a beer, he notices another fellow, way down at the end of the bar, quietly sobbing. "Say," he whispers to the bartender, "what happened to him?"
"His father died," the bartender reports.
"Oh, gosh, that's terrible. When?"
How much are we supposed to love our parents, and how devoted to them should we be?
I have friends who hate their dead parents and have endeavored to live opposite lives. My own mother was like that—called her parents "creepy," and tried to mother us differently.
I have other friends who rarely refer to their dead parents and seem to regard them dispassionately, as one might remember a childhood babysitter. These are the ones who trouble me. As a wise friend said, "You can try to emulate your parents or you can rebel against them. But you've gotta deal with them either way."
And then there are those of us who may be accused (and may accuse ourselves) of too much filial fealty. I have one friend, a Facebook friend named Kelly Lynch who I've never met in person but who I think I know better than lots of people I have, who admits that he felt this way about his father, who died in August:
A strangely phrased thought has emerged to me lately: I was in love with my dad. I had often been a better son to my dad than I was a good boyfriend to the few women in my life who dared put up with me.
There were brunches, dinners, gifts, trips, and time spent doing things we loved. I left him notes. I set up a little Christmas tree for him one year and the next he did it on his own. We snuck into his apartment once cradling a large scale Polar Express train and set it up under his tree and snuck back out. I sent him articles and photos and had my subscription to Trains Magazine sent to his apartment where he could glance through it first.
Lynch doesn't shy away from referring to his father as "daddy" in his writing. I guess I refer to my father as daddy in my thinking, even as when I try to write about him as an advertising man. Friends have missed my irreverent writing voice in Raised By Mad Men. That is because when I'm writing about my dad, I'm not irreverent.
Every once in awhile my love for both my parents liquifies. Last winter just before Christmas I got a half a snootful of vodka and stormed tearfully around the house and out into the snowy street with my laptop in one hand to provide the soundtrack and a video camera in the other, to gaze into my dead parents' black and white faces.
Even into middle age, it's a neat trick, loving your parents enough to forgive the limitations they placed on your upbringing by simply being themselves and not other parents. Loving enough, forgiving, and living your own life as a sufficient tribute to their lives, but something far greater, too.
On second thought, maybe that's a neat trick. Maybe that's the neat trick.
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, in All the Sad Young Men
The communication gap between the rich and the poor has been with us as long as the economic gap has.
The economic gap has grown over the last several decades, and has reached a point that U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is concerned about it.
The communication gap is growing too. Who will close it? Me, and you.
First, come with me and let’s behold the canyon, not just between the super-rich and the poor, but between the kind-of-rich and the working class.
Soccer parents think they have a right to regularly and severely berate waiters “because I worked at a restaurant in college.”
Well-heeled parents teach their kids about equality and democracy but think nothing of paying extra for “Fast Lane” passes at amusement parks, because they “can’t imagine” waiting in line with everyone else.
Speaking of imagination failures, six-figure Facebook friends seem to think they know more or less what it’s like to live and die in a ghetto made up of one class and color and policed by people primarily of another.
A new-money relative flies first class and jokingly looks forward to making “everyone in steerage feel as envious as I can while ordering as much food and drink and pillow fluffing as possible from the flight attendants. ;)” (Is that funny? Maybe it is, I don’t know.)
“Thank you for your service,” the derivatives trader warmly and automatically tells the soldier just back from Afghanistan, apparently not in the least bit inhibited by the fact that he knows no more about the size or shape of the soldier’s sacrifice than the soldier knows about derivatives.
Seven-figure corporate execs show up for a coat drive every Christmas at an elementary school in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Which is a nice thought, as many of the kids actually do need coats. But many teachers dread the inevitable specter of a horde of washed, waxed and polished corporate executives barging confidently into the building to hand down coats to the children. The execs are overheard referring to “the poor,” and remarking unselfconsciously about how “this is the nicest thing I’ve done all year!”
Speechwriters to the rich and powerful talk about their bosses less as colleagues whose ideas they’re helping to communicate, and more as exalted celebrities whose pools they are cleaning.
On Facebook last week, Writing Boots readers chortled loudly at Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure’s all-employee Thanksgiving memo. Sent "without the typical checking that's regularly done before a CEO sends a message to all of his employees,” the memo hovered between insensitive and insane. It prompted veteran corporate communicator Kristen Ridley to remark, not on the memo’s craziness, but rather its commonness.
“I had a conversation with a colleague just today,” she wrote, “in which I expressed my puzzlement at the utter cluelessness of these executives, whom, we are led to believe, are so very much smarter than the average bear, hence their big fancy offices, sky-high salaries, and bullet-proof parachutes. I keep waiting for one of them—truly, at this point, I'd be thrilled to discover one of them who is not a dunderheaded doofus like this dude!”
And that’s the point. It’s not that the rich are out of touch. That’s always been true: My dad used to tell how Harvey Firestone once refused a Sunday afternoon network slot for the flagging "Voice of Firestone" variety TV show by angrily bellowing that no one would watch it. “I know what people are doing on Sunday afternoons! They’re playing polo!”
But in those bad old days one heard many more stories of bosses who remembered everyone’s name, right down to the boys in the mailroom. Hewlett-Packard founder Dave Packard stood before the company’s top managers in 1958 and told them how important it was to “develop genuine interest in people.” Why? Because you can’t lead people “unless you have a sincere desire to like, respect and be helpful to others. Conversely, you cannot build genuine interest in people until you have experienced the pleasure of working with them in an atmosphere characterized by mutual liking and respect.”
Try to imagine such homely, humanistic thinking coming from the current CEO of Hewlett-Packard, or any other organization. You can’t.
Now, pretty much all leaders of American institutions—corporations and colleges, nonprofits and federal government posts—are either relatively rich or super rich. And the rich are more out of touch than ever. (Even the recently rich: My fundraiser sister has observed that the very first thing newly rich people spend their new money on is ways to avoid contact with the general public, from gated communities to private airplanes.)
These people are so fucking aloof that they won’t even deign to speak with the people who are hired to write their speeches. Yes, they are terribly busy and their jobs are incredibly demanding—much more so than yours or mine. But really. Try to imagine feeling so disconnected from the hoi polloi that you wouldn’t, you couldn’t, make 30 minutes to confer with the professional paid to write the words you’re going to bore a couple hundred poeple with. Imagine it!
Leaders reading speeches for the first time on the podium. It happens. It doesn’t always happen that way—as I hastened to tell my 10-year-old daughter who was morally outraged when she heard that important people don’t always say their own words. (“They should!” she said with authority.) But it happens a lot.
Speechwriters used to complain about not getting access to their speaker. Mostly, they don’t bother complaining anymore.
Here’s what speechwriters ought to do. Here’s what all people who help leaders communicate ought to do. They ought to do what the leaders ought to do. They ought to do what Dave Packard recommended: Develop their own genuine interest in people—all over the organization and all around its industry.
If they’re going to write speeches for out-of-touch CEOs, they ought to write speeches that are as in-touch as possible—seasoned with wisdom, quotes, characters, stories from the real world. You know, the one that feeds the organization with its employees, its customers and its social permission to operate.
A professional communicator, neither rich nor poor, can choose to be a discouraged and lonely dweller in the ivory tower. Or he or she can seek to know everyone in the organization, learn every interesting thing that’s going on, know and contemplate every impact the organization has on the human beings it presumably exists to serve.
And then translate as much of that reality as possible to bosses. When the chief reads the speech for the first time on the podium, he or she ought to learn something.
The communicator who merely begins the impossible task of closing the communication gap between rich and poor (and between comfortable and working class) is doing worthwhile work, not only for the organization and its lost-in-the-clouds leaders, but on behalf of our society, terribly sick from disconnectedness, distrust and the kind of ignorance that rhymes with arrogance.