"Foolishness," said The Murr, "is feeling misunderstood by a person who has known you for twenty-five years."
Sometimes I use this blog to sharpen my knives before digging them into other meat.
Often I write a post to find out what I think.
Occasionally I use it to start a fight, because some days a fight is what I need and somebody, somewhere, surely needs a punch in the nose.
Every once in awhile, I actually have an idea that I want to describe to see if it holds up in paragraph form.
Often I use it to double-check, in the noiseless vacuum of my work-at-home mind, that I actually exist.
And I use it to make myself a writer, every day, no matter what else I might also be. ("Am a writer," my writer mother wrote. "Get to call myself that, because I write.")
Thanks, Writing Boots reader, for reassuring me, every day, that I make a sound—and for making your fine sounds back.
It hit me the other day during a meeting with my business manager, that I know a little bit about what it's like to have Alzheimer's disease.
That is because I have Statsheimer's disease.
This means that I can concentrate on a figure or a whole set of figures or a whole set of sets of figures on a big long spreadsheet, and master them: Add 'em, subtract 'em, multiply and divide 'em. Contemplate them. Appreciate them! Own their boring little bitch asses.
Until six days later, when I encounter them again.
"Hey, Murrman!" the statistics say, giving me a familiar little slap on the cheek.
"Heeeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyy ... you!" I say, reddening, scrambling, stammering—knowing I'm supposed to know them, but not recognizing them from Pi. "Forgive me. Where do I know you from?"
Words, I can tell you where they were on the page when I read them in high school. "What do people plan?" said Daisy Buchanan near the bottom of a left-hand page in my Scribner paperback edition of The Great Gatsby.
But was it a $30,000 profit we made last year, or $300,000? I knew it yesterday, before it beaded on my brain, and ran out my ears.
Statsheimer's. I think I've suffered from it all my life, however many years that's been.
"We are a leader in business communications, and we can help your business improve their online presence and branding."
I don't normally post on Sundays, because you don't pay for Sunday delivery. But today is my daughter Scout's 12th birthday, and there's something I'd like to say.
When Scout was a baby, I remember telling my best pal Tommy, who didn't have kids yet, that going into Scout's room every morning was like getting a brand new Christmas present every day.
Not just because it was nice to see her again. Because she actually was new! She actually looked different to me, every morning, than she did the night before. She had grown a little over night, changed shape—I swear! Her smile was more confident. She'd had dreams and they'd changed the look of her eyes. She was brand new—and brand new surprise every morning.
Tommy indulged what I'm sure he thought was a little bit of beery parenting blarney. (He has two kids and knows better now.)
But here's the new surprise: Scout is 12—complicated and becoming more so every day; not always primarily interested in hanging around the original hero; becoming a woman and fully aware of it and taking one more step every day down a road of her own—and I'm still getting a new present every single day. Only now the present isn't just in the morning, when I go into her room and find her in her crib. It's whenever I feel discouraged. Or lonely. Or bored. Or worried. Or worst of all, when I feel nothing at all.
I just think of Scout. I just think: Scout. My new present. My always brand new present.
And I'm happy.
How to make an apple pie: First, get a stove.
A similarly overlooked first step:
I've written before about the Ron Santo Rule of Communication, which states that people should ask for what they want.
I called it the Ron Santo Rule, because for many consecutive years, when the Hall of Fame ballot came up, Chicago reporters went to Ron Santo, a radio announcer and a longtime star Cub third baseman, and asked him how he was feeling about his chances of getting in. Santo, who had lost both legs to diabetes, more or less cried out in agony every year: He wanted so badly to be voted into the Hall, he believed he deserved to be in, and he was trying not to get his hopes up for the umpteenth straight year of crushing disappointment (Santo retired in 1975 and this went on until he died in 2010). Then, every year, he wouldn't get in, and the reporters would drag their cameras back, and Santo would wail again. Maybe next year.
People loved Santo—not despite the guileless enthusiasm with which he played ...
... and with which he lived. People like people who ask directly for what they want—partly because we're all so used to dealing with people who ask for one thing when they really want another—and want to do their best to give it to them.
My daughter Scout has figured this out.
Yesterday my wife and I were at Scout's parent-teacher conferences. She's in sixth grade, so we had to see four teachers—science, social studies, reading and math. Lots of waiting for these brief encounters. At one point, we'd seen three out of the four. Scout has all As. Did we really need to wait around to talk to the math teacher?
"Yes!" Scout said.
"Why?" we said, hungry and hot and tired of being there.
"Because she's going to say a bunch of nice things about me, and I want you guys to hear it."
"But we already know it."
"Yes, but I want you to hear her say it, while I'm sitting there."
"Look! I've worked really hard and I just want you to listen to my teacher saying good things about me!"
What, pray tell, is the proper retort to that?
Ron Santo's sleeve-sewn heart didn't get him into the Hall of Fame in this life—he was inducted posthumously—but it won him the adoration of millions of baseball fans and almost everyone in Chicago, a love that kept him on the radio until the end, despite his rather thin talent as a color announcer.
And yeah, we waited around to hear Mrs. Novak tell us what a delight it is to have Scout in class.
All on account of the oft-forgotten Ron Santo Rule of Communication.
I know how writers like Theodore Geisel and Kurt Vonnegut—[and Charles Dickens, as reader Glynn Young suggests in the comments]—conjured bizarre worlds and set them here in this one. It was easy! They merely looked through government directories, as I have been doing lately for reasons I won't disclose because then you'd realize that life at Writing Boots isn't as glamorous as it seems (and it didn't seem so glamorous in the first place!).
They ran across names like Miffy Wiggs, Molly Motherwell, Karen Strangl, CoCo Good, Gayle McJunkin, Amy Sprinkles, Sparkle Anderson and Hillary Shine. The old masters knew why Richard "Rick" Virgin was so insistent upon "Rick," and why Richard "Rich" Bagger specified "Rich." But they must have scratched their heads at Sandra "Punky" Moore.
It was the job titles that gave them their big ideas. The U.S. Navy employs a Flag Writer, NASA has an Asteroid Grand Challenge Program Executive, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a Coordinator for the Federal Duck Stamp Office. Other real titles:
Correspondence and Information Control Specialist
Director of Correspondence Control
Privacy Officer for the Office of the Chief Information Officer
Confidential Assistant to the Chairman
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs
Human Exploration and Operations Directorate Public Affairs Officer
Secretary of Delegation
Communication and Liaison Disclosure Officer
Director, Threat Information Office
Director, Whistleblowing and Transparency
Inoperability Program Manager
And it's not just the government:
The National Confectioners Association employs an Executive Director of Chocolate.
The NFL has a Vice President of Football Communications. (I know a lot of guys who could excel at that.)
One large hospital system employs a "Public Contact Coach," and another employs an "Empathy Coach." (I know a lot of guys who could use those.)
I think I'm starting to lose it ... or maybe it's just starting to come to me.
1. The speaker opens up by sharing some Googlepuke about how many kajillions of megabytes of information people receive every day "these days," and claims the average attention span is now less than five—oh look, a shiny thing!
And you know what's coming. After the statistics and the honed anecdotes and a strategically placed swear word to give the whiff of authenticity, the speaker is going to promise you that by using her special technique, yours can be the one message that gets through to the helpless, info-saturated, benumbed bobbleheads that make up your target audience.
At some level, you realize that this sales gambit is older than social media, older than the Internet, older than television. It's about as old as Times Square.
Raise your hand and ask her: If people now have the mental focus of raccoons, then why are Hollywood movies still the same length that they were back when people had the attention spans of Job? Do movie directors use your special communication tricks? Or do they simply tell stories interesting and true enough to keep people from checking their phones every five minutes? And wasn't that the really the problem all along, the one consultants can't help with: Your organization's leaders have nothing interesting to say.
2. The speaker argues that any communication that does not create "behavior change" is a "missed opportunity."
The speaker frames his point as "provocative," creating the implication that if you don't like the message, maybe it's because you're part of the problem. You're just another one of those complacent communicators, who go around saying a bunch of junk for no reason at all, not knowing or caring whether it's advancing the wise and glorious strategic plan. You're just drawing a check, like some kind of corporate communication welfare queen.
And maybe you are a corporate welfare queen. But the speaker/salesman cares about the health of your company even less than you do, because he doesn't know what your company is, as you are just another face in the crowd. So then why does it pierce his tender heart to think of your chief executive giving some remarks somewhere to an audience not perfectly aligned with a key business driver?
Look, if you could measurably change behavior every time you communicated, you'd start at home. And you'd be so lovingly waited-on, well-fed and oversexed, you wouldn't have the motivation to go to work at all. You'd be a real welfare queen!
3. The speaker offers everything in threes.
There's nothing wrong with conference speakers who are selling you something. In fact, business conferences are in large part sales events—chances for all speakers, and all participants, to sell themselves and their services, to anyone who might be hiring.
But when a speaker is making a pitch you've heard a thousand times before, you should not be naive enough to expect that the speaker has ideas you haven't also tried a thousand times before.
During the Cold War, President Kennedy urged Americans:
"So, let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
ISIS: Do these people truly inhabit this small planet, breathe the same air, cherish their children's future and operate on the assumption of their own mortality? Or do they really live on another planet, with different air and in disregard of the earthly future of humanity?
If we don't share these most common basic links, then our morality this struggle may have to come down to the simple kill-or-be-killed desperation with which our writers and movie makers have imagined fighting an invasion of aliens from outer space.
My dad fought in World War II. By the time he found himself in Europe, the American government and the newspapers had filled his head with so much propaganda about these animals, the Germans, that he practically expected them to have green skin and fangs. At the very least, he was prepared to do battle with supermen, and evil incarnate. The first week he was in France, a German Focke Wulf fighter plane was shot down and crash landed in a field. My dad's green unit approached the plane cautiously to see if the pilot was alive and to take him prisoner. It took them almost an hour to pull him out of the cockpit, because he was so scared, he was stiff. And at that moment my 18-year-old father realized to his astonishment, as he explained as he looked into my wide, eight-year-old eyes, "These are just boys, exactly like us."
ISIS: Are these just boys, exactly like us?
Or are they animals, and nothing like us?
It's not the only question we must answer, but it seems to me it must be the first one.