"You'd worry less about what other people thought of you," my old man told his kids during our insecure teenage years, "if you knew how seldom they do."
My mother put it differently. About anyone who didn't approve of her or someone loved she said, "Fuck him if he can't take a joke."
I have taken both dicta to heart, but my dad's comes in especially handy in the world I inhabit, as an email raconteur, provocateur, self-defender and salesman.
I send several dozen emails most days, as it usually turns out. Forty five, yesterday, and that wasn't a heavy day. (I say, "turns out," because if I actually knew every morning that I had 50 or 60 emails to send that day, I would not be able to get up; in fact, I'm now thinking of going back to bed.)
Lots of times I send emails that don't require responses, and wind up receiving long responses. Occasionally I'll query someone I don't expect to hear back from right away, but I do. (Governor Hickenlooper's ghostwriter, yesterday, for instance.)
And often enough, I send emails that I reckon will get responses, and they don't.
Is it because I wrote something thoughtless and barbaric that I, through the one-way mirror of my own, narcissism, cannot see?
Or is it because the person has always loathed me, and has recently been inspired by the Sepp Blatter story to forward my email to the FBI?
Really, those are the only two choices.
Except, 999 times out of 1,000, the truth is, my email is stuck in the other person's spam folder, the other person has been on a massive deadline or an alcoholic bender, the other person needs to check with her boss, the other person was waiting for a suitable time to write me a thoughtful reply, the other person has been shopping my email to Hollywood because he thinks it would make a great feature film.
The point is, it's almost never about me. It's almost always about the other person.
Of course it's the thousandth one that gets you.
R.A.L., why won't you write me back?
Tanith Lee died last month. You probably never heard of her, but she rated a New York Times obit for her fantasy and horror novels. In a note to her readers before she died, she wrote of the writer's immortality:
"Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told—on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others—there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change—passing on the fire like a torch—forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all.”
Do you believe that bullshit?
When I was in college, I wrote in an early journal that I wouldn't be satisfied with my writing career even if I turned out to be the next Shakespeare.
Forgive me. (And know that I was probably right.)
Architects have buildings to show. Teachers have alums. Ditch diggers have ditches.
What do writers have, aside from this weird statue of the "Anonymous Writer," in Budapest, Hungary? We have a closet full of yellowing clippings, an Internet scattered with dated references and mostly forgotten stories.
By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I understood what my publisher Larry Ragan—one of the best writing stylists I've ever read—meant when he mused at length at the unexpected and outsize joy he felt upon meeting someone at church and discovering the man had read and enjoyed an obscure magazine he had edited decades before. A random man. An obscure magazine. An old editor, happy for one evening.
How do writers measure their worth?
I quote Mike O'Malley, another dead and forgotten writer—he an erudite speechwriter I knew who also wrote novels, I think—in a (free) white paper I wrote for the Professional Speechwriters Association, "What Is a Speechwriter?"
The last essay in O’Malley’s book quotes a William Gass novel, Omensetter’s Luck. In it, a preacher prepares for a sermon, confident in the knowledge that “there’d be land in the shape of his syllables, a sea singing, a sky like an echo, plants in bloom burning with speech.”
O’Malley writes that speechwriters make “hard ideas in hard words, easy ways out in soft words, clarion calls in trumpets of words: the ideas are as real as cliffs rising out of the sea.
We plant them here and there, at times scattered widely, at times a paragraph as laced with quiet bloom as a floral centerpiece. We are at once the garden, the resident, the passerby: we string a verbal landscape with occasional jewels.
No one is recording these speeches. There are no books of them that readers save and treasure. Our files will be tossed on the scrap heap when we leave or retire.
But we have been sitting at a typewriter making land, a sea, a sky, burning words. That’s enough. It is more than most have.
Do you believe that bullshit? If you are a writer, you must.
The question is, do you dare to believe in more?
I worry about our confidence, in the West. We have this sense that the East—India and China in particular—is going to eat our economic lunch some day, in one bite. I guess this is what we get for all those centuries of arrogance and ignorance. We summed up China's contribution as Chop Suey, and when we found native Americans where we thought India was, we just called 'em Indians anyway, because what the hell.
But even a properly humbled hemisphere needs some ways in which to feel legitimately superior. Like the rich white guys who still run Augusta National Golf Club like it is 1933, all Westerners need to have "our thing," that we're better at than everyone else, and that no one can take away from us.
Our thing, I propose, is public oratory.
As editor of Vital Speeches International magazine, I read dozens of speeches every month, delivered by speakers from around the world. And I can tell you: In the West, we're better at speechwriting than they are in the East. Not different. Better.
Obviously, there are good speeches in the West, and bad ones. In Africa there are good ones and bad ones. In the Middle East there are good ones and bad ones. But in the East, there are only bad ones. Nearly every speech I have ever read from the East is nothing more than a collection of verbal sky lanterns.
The Eastern speechwriting style is fairly represented by this excerpt from a speech, delivered to muckety-mucks in Mongolia last month, by India's prime minister, Narendra Modi:
Ours is a relationship that is not measured on the scale of commerce or driven by competition against others.
It is a relationship of immeasurable positive energy that comes from our spiritual links and shared ideals.
It is the energy that seeks the well being of our two nations and the common good of the world.
This is a form of energy that has enormous power to be the force of peace, progress and prosperity in the world.
It is a force that can unite the world and direct our thoughts and efforts to the well being of the weak and the poor.
It can help preserve our beautiful planet. …
This is a bond that will be the eternal flame of light and hope for our people and our world.
You'd need a heap of strong reefer just to write that gibberish—let alone stand in front of an audience and say it with a straight face.
I know I know I know I know—there are cultural factors at work here. On a trip to China I learned that while Western writers work to keep clichés and common idioms out of their work, Chinese writers prove their mastery by peppering their prose with as many familiar phrases as possible. Reading Chinese prose or listening to Chinese speakers, we are liable to hear an intractable problem stiffly compared to “a wet blanket on a long-suffering yak,” a worrier equated with “an ant on a hot stove” and a superfluous detail referred to as “drawing legs on a snake.”
The Chinese cling to their idioms like a drunk to a lamppost! And so do the Indians, by and large, though Indian and Japanese politicians do sometimes attempt to use words to persuade. But mostly, speeches in the East (including Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, whose speeches I have read extensively in English translation) are ceremonial and symbolic readings—kind of like commencement speeches in the U.S.!—rather than sincere attempts to communicate.
I offer all of the above from my limited perspective, hoping sincerely to be clarified, contradicted, amplified or enlightened by others with more and differing experience with oral communication in Asia.
But speak now, or forever hold your East.
... Suzanne Ecklund, who posted this on Facebook:
I spent the last 15 minutes trying to rescue a giant roach that had inadvertently walked onto a lint roller. Many of you know this from your own experiences of rescuing giant roaches from lint rollers that once you free one leg, the roach then walks forward onto more sticky tape and you're back to square one. So you have to put paper down on the exposed sticky tape so that the roach has a non-sticky place to walk once its limbs are free. (I know you know all of this. Sorry for the redundancy.) Anyway, I was having a really hard time getting the right object to free the legs from the sticky tape. (I don't own a Roach Freedom Device, though, hint: Christmas 2015.) So I used a needle on one of my cat's disposable syringes. (He's diabetic and gets insulin shots, naturally.) The needle worked well because I could slide it under the roach's legs and free the legs from the tape. When I finished this rescue effort, I put the emergency flares away and went to cap the needle before throwing it away. But rather than capping it, I just stabbed myself.
POSTSCRIPT, 6/1: "Roach update: Last night I made a humane roach trap out of a greased jar and a paper towel soaked in beer. Of course, when I was releasing the roaches in the garden this morning, my neighbor came out with his dogs. He looked at me strangely so I had to explain."
Apropos of yesterday's uplifting post about death, here's a little Friday happy hour ditty from Woody Guthrie.
Your million dollar fortune,
Your mansion glittering white,
You can't take it with you
When the train moves in the night ...
Scout, 11: "Aunt Susy, do you use Snapchat?"
Susy, 65: "Is it time for snacks yet?!"
I remember watching TV with my dad when he was in his 80s.
Though he'd been an advertising man, had all his faculties and not only read the newspaper every day but wrote for it ... he was plum mystified by about 75 percent of the commercials.
Like, he didn't know what they were even getting at. Bud Light promised "Drinkability." "Isn't that a bare minimum for a beer?" Dad said without sarcasm.
He didn't even know what they were trying to sell. What in tarnation was "Go Daddy"?
Confused suspicion that the modern world is in one place and we're in another: I'm not there yet. Aunt Susy isn't there yet. But, Shel Holtz notwithstanding, we're all getting there.
And maybe this is one consolation about death in this shallow, high-tech society of ours: Maybe it's a little less sad to leave the party when you no longer know what in the world anyone is talking about anyway.
I won't even bother linking to the "study" that shows every year that the public's regard for the journalists' reputations is tied with those of lawyers, and hovering precariously over used-car salesmen and lobbyists. Like "binge-drinking epidemic on college campuses!" you've read the story a thousand times.
And obviously there are plenty of good reasons why the public loathes journalists, the leading reason being: The public mostly consumes news via TV, and TV news people are 80 percent creeps. Also, 20 percent of print reporters are creeps. So the American public, having gone to American public schools, does the math, and figures that journalists are 100 percent creeps.
But lately I've noticed that there's another reason that Americans distrust journalists. Americans are really stupid about journalism!
I started to get this sense a few years ago during that horrible Jayson Blair affair, where the young star New York Times reporter made up a bunch of details for stories he'd written. Investigating Blair, the Times asked a bunch of his sources why they didn't report his lies years before he was caught. The consensus response was, We thought all reporters made shit up.
No, you Big Stoops, all reporters don't make stuff up! Most reporters, even if they have biases and angles, would never make stuff up!
This is the kind of naive suspiciousness of hicks in the big city who always think cabbies are driving them in circles just to steal their bread. (Thieves don't generally drive cabs, and liars don't generally go into journalism.)
It's not just hillbillies who think journalists are professional tall-tale tellers.
Last weekend a corporate IT exec friend expressed astonishment when he heard that I once wrote an unflattering profile of a town's mayor, after having interviewed the guy for a day. "But he had given you money!" my friend said, reasoning that the fee I had received from the magazine was partly owed to the subject of the article, without access to whom I might not have gotten the assignment.
"So you actually think that since this guy agreed to sit down with me and I got paid for the article, I flat-out owed him a positive piece!?" Yes, he confirmed, that's exactly what he thought. It was hard to know who was more incredulous—my friend, that I would stab my subject/benefactor in the back, or me, that an educated voter thinks journalism is so perfectly quid pro quo.
Other people think of journalists as their personal propagandists.
A neighbor woman who I think of as fairly sophisticated recently called me in a panic because she needed something written—and quick—about some tenants in a building she owns in Indiana, who are suing her over something or other. Because she was calling me from a courthouse and sounded panicky, I assumed she meant that she wanted me to craft some kind of powerful advocacy statement for the court.
Nope. It turned out she wanted me to write something scathing about these tenants in the Chicago Tribune!
Does she imagine lots of the newspaper articles she reads come about as the result of a journalist's acquaintance having a personal beef with someone?
The imbecility extends to the corporate world, too. The latest Edelman Trust Index finds that people trust journalists who write about companies less than they trust companies writing about themselves. But they don't trust CEOs, about anything. And they trust their Facebook friends over everyone. Or something like that.
I think we need another poll, where journalists rank the public. I bet the public would rank just above a rabid, staggering, growling, foaming mad dog more wisely shot than communicated with.
Muhammad Ali said he was so fast that he cut the light off and was in bed before the room got dark. I'm like that about replying to emails.
I often shock my correspondents with my quick responses. Email is instant messaging for me.
With friends, family, colleagues, strangers who write to Vital Speeches seeking advice. "Wow!" I often hear. "Thanks for the quick response!"
Part of it is, I follow the old time-management rule of "touch every piece of paper only once"; I want to respond and move on, not waste time chewing over your email six different times before I weigh in.
But there's a much more salient reason why I respond so quickly, and I came across it in the New York Times obituary a few weeks ago, of the screenwriter Don Mankiewicz, whose father was a writer too. He remembered once, when his father was working on a script at home, and the doorbell rang and he answered the door.
“Of course, being a writer, he’s going to answer the door, because if he doesn’t answer the door he’s going to have to be writing. I understand that personally; I answer the door, every time. It’s better than facing an empty page.”
Your message is very important to me, of course. But it's also true that writing back to you is better than facing an empty page.
I hear people talking these days about motorcycle gangs. I listen politely while they expound indignorantly about lawlessness and mindlessness—and hairfullness and tattoofullness.
And then I ask them, "Did you know that I am in a motorcycle gang?" This usually stops them cold. They did not know I am in a motorcycle gang. That's because I don't look like a "typical" motorcycle gangster—in my "running shoes," cutting out early every day from my "writing job" to drive my "cute daughter" to her "soccer practice" in my "Subaru."
But I'm indeed a member of a gang, and let me tell you brother, we are stone cold. We go by the name, the Hard Cases. And that's just exactly what we are. One time, we raided the small town of Ottawa, Ill. It was a bloodbath, and if you'll start at the 3:00 mark, you'll see that the aftermath looked much like those terrible scenes from Waco last weekend.
So if you want to know about motorcycle gangs, talk to me, because I know all about 'em.
But if you just want to insult our free-spirited, devil-may-care, fuck-you-if-you-can't-take-a-joke way of life, take it someplace else, lest the Hard Cases come down hard on you.