In March, we agreed here that the email auto reply is a political act, because, as I said then, "Every job has its own proper sense of urgency, and the requirement for responsiveness varies. But when it comes to evenings, weekends or weeks away, each of us must cultivate our own sense of confidence—that we're worth waiting a week for, that the work will be there when we return, that we deserve time away because we are not 24-hour, seven-day-a-week air traffic controllers or 911 operators."
My new writer pal Jim Reische just added another dimension to this conversation: using the auto-reply as a way to get work done.
Reische, the VP of communication at Grinnell College, attended my recent Leadership Communication Days event in Montreal last month, and contributed a number of unassailable insights, like this one, where he recommended actually drafting a speech at the location it's going to be delivered.
Like lots of speechwriters, Reische handles lots more than speechwriting, and his desk is buzzing all day with people—which is one of the reasons he likes to do his writing elsewhere.
Which he seems to be doing again, because yesterday I sent him a note, and I got this back:
I am out of the office all week to focus on writing projects, and will respond to your message as soon as possible after I return.
For Communications assistance during my absence, please contact [Assistant].
For urgent matters only, call my cell at 641-XXX-XXXX.
Thank you for your patience,
I stood at my desk and applauded. And hoped I wouldn't hear from him until next week. So far, so good. I look forward to reading what Reische is allowing himself to concentrate on writing.
So a novel told through the eyes of a young girl holds up for half a century as a piece of great American literature. And then another novel, written by the same author, presumably based on the same characters but less profoundly imagined and at an earlier stage of creative development, comes out like a turd from the skirt of a uniquely disciplined and now incontinent artist.
That's sad. But that's all that's sad. The rest of the story makes perfect sense.
In a lousy first draft, the hotshot New York writer from Alabama discusses her discovery that her dear old daddy from Alabama is actually backward in his views. In doing so, she creates a piece of dog-bites-man moralism that interests no one. Then, with the help of a good editor, she discovers that the better way to tell the story is through her younger eyes, as the daughter's idolization of her father, who rises above a community's history and his tribal interests as a beacon of courageous, upright humanity. Shazam! A bad book becomes a good book.
To all the sad sacks out there who just can't believe Atticus turned out so bad: Did you think To Kill a Mockingbird was a newspaper story? It was a novel—imagined as remembered by a woman who, as we now know, was feeling disillusioned about her old man, which is something that happens to every emotionally sentient young adult in relation to every parent who is discovered to be a plain old human being in the end.
Go Set a Watchman is not a book I'll read, because I've got a lot to read and the reviews suggest that, like most first drafts, it's just not that good. But I'm pretty embarrassed for anyone whose heart is broken by discovering that To Kill a Mockingbird was written by a grown woman with a literary license who understood as she wrote it that she had not been raised by God himself. She was lucky enough to remember what it felt like to think so.
When my Scout was born, an older friend of mine remembered how his daughters looked at him when they were little. "They thought I was the greatest guy in the whole world," he said, smiling the saddest and most beautiful smile.
I'm a pretty good dad, and even my wife would admit that I'm not the worst husband in the world. I'm not that romantic, but I often get groceries, I usually do dishes, I take the kid to soccer practice, I cook dinner, I mow the lawn awesomely, I get the oil changed, I appeal our property tax bill, and I rarely leave my people in the lurch because there's something I want to do that I won't reschedule.
But I'm discovering that a life of duty to others isn't my natural way.
I usually look forward to the occasional temporary bachelorhood, but traditionally, I've wound up wandering down Division Street talking to myself because I forget other people can hear me because I forget I exist ... and then find myself half-drunk, sitting in the back pew of Holy Innocence church listening to Mass in Spanish. (That really happened once.)
You don't know what the spiritual center of your life is until it isn't around.
Well, apparently I've gotten shallower since then. (You can't get shallower as you age, can you? Isn't that like getting hungrier as you eat?)
In any case, this week I've found the spiritual center of my life. It's me.
Things are going pretty well so far. Sunday was a stunningly beautiful day in Chicago. I had breakfast at Wimbledon, then rode my motorcycle to a tennis match of my own before riding it to brunch, where I read The New York Times until I began to feel sleepy, at which time I headed home for a little nappy-pooh.
By now, I'm organizing the entire globe and all the creatures on it into a series of amusements for me. Let's see, if I finish work at 5:00 I bet there's time to head over for fish tacos super quick before the 6:15 art documentary. What time does that let out? 8:00! Great! I'll call Schmidt and see if he wants to grab a drink and catch the end of the All-Star game. Then, if I can get rid of Schmidt and boogie home, I'll still have time to read for an hour or so before turning in early so I can get up at dawn and sneak in a quick round of golf before work. Now, where should I get lunch tomorrow? I wonder if the weather will be good so I can ride my motorcycle? Wait! How will I fit in my workout?!
The Greek debt crisis: How could that make my Wednesday more interesting? The Iranian arms deal: Could it affect my dinner reservations at Sultan's Market? Another Nigerian atrocity? Oh my buzzkill.
Do you see what's missing from that thinking? Anybody but me! Any considerations but my own! Thank God I have work obligations, or I might actually implode into a self-centered black hole of narcissism, before the return of the People Who Keep Me Sane By Requiring Me to Consider Their Needs.
Lord, what would I do without them? Well, for starters, I'd do a lot more steak tartare brunches at the Paramount Room ....
How was your summer family road trip? Kind of rough!
How was your rolling hostage situation? Easy peasy!
When you're traveling by car, train, subway and hoof with a spouse and one or more children—for instance, to Montreal, New York, Washington and Niagara Falls—it can be difficult to consistently communicate open-mindedness, flexibility and good natured consideration of everyone's physical needs and psychological desires.
Or, let me put it another way: When you're trying to lay down some miles so you can actually see some of the sites you did all this planning, spent all this money and came all this way to see, you need people to occasionally hold their bladders, suffer a moment's peckshiness, put the wee toe blister into perspective, shut the motherfuck up and listen close while I read the goddamn fucking Gettysburg Address, at the proper cadence and with necessary parenthetical oral annotation, off the Lincoln Memorial wall.
But we're a healthy family. You know how I know? My people got better at going along with me—and I became less Great Santini-esque and Clark Griswold-ish—as the trip went along.
So that the trip became so unlike a hostage situation, that it almost felt, at times, like a vacation. Almost.
I was sitting in mcsorley's. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing. Inside snug and evil. —e.e. cummings
Well I was sitting in McSorley's Old Ale House one quiet Sunday afternoon last month, with The New York Times. The Gay Pride parade crashed by, down Fifth Avenue. The pride was endless this year, and the parade was too. I had by some miracle somehow forded Fifth from the east to make my way into McSorley's, on the west. I hoped to read my paper there. But it was too quiet.
Four guys quietly mourned one guy's layoff at one table, a couple of guys talked baseball at another, and this guy, standing at the bar, asking me if I had the crossword puzzle. I was sorry to say I did not.
Rather than read the paper, I started thinking of some of the people I know—people with whom I would people my own personal McSorley's, if a personal McSorley's had I.
I would invite:
A happily married man who says that if anything ever happens to his wife, he will look for someone with large breasts who enjoys banana-based desserts as much as he does.
Another man who, when he feels the need to have a bowel movement on the highway, drives past all the grubby rest stops in search of a sign with a blue H. He walks right into the front door with his paper under his arm and asks the first nurse he sees, "Where's the Men's?"
A woman who is so terrified of dental problems that she insists the doctor use a "map metaphor" when explaining to her the condition of her teeth. When the doc gets too specific, she becomes agitated, reprimanding him to speak "in continents, not countries!"
A man who thinks of poems but can't be bothered to write them down, "because they're already finished, in my head." He assures me, "Some of them are pretty good."
A woman who frequently wakes up at four-thirty a.m. feeling hungry, eats a bowl of cereal and returns to bed.
A man who named his baby son Clark Kent.
A man who refuses to eat at a restaurant any closer than a block away from a gas station.
A woman who got divorced from a man named Bruce, and married another guy, who looks just like Bruce, and is also named Bruce.
A man who was once so hung over, he checked himself into the hospital. (This is not the man who goes to hospitals to crap.)
A man who has a favorite restaurant for fights with his wife.
A professional speechwriter named Lucinda Holdforth, who is currently kicking a giant corporation in its corporate balls.
A tattoo-covered skate punk who doesn't drink coffee on days he's working as a messenger, because, "It makes me go poohpooh."
A peace-loving liberal amputee who frequently becomes infuriated at the disappointment people show when they learn he didn't lose the leg in a war.
There's plenty more room, as you can see.
Who else should we invite?
One of the residents of a seven-unit condo building in Chicago recently brought in a contractor for counsel regarding some rusting railings in the back of the building. The contractor recommended sanding and painting, and the resident shared the findings with the other members of the association. Here was one of the replies; we present it unabridged:
I completely disagree that the rusting of the exterior metal is something we need to address before the roof. Unfortunately for them, contractors can't lie to a chemical engineer about rust. Rusting is the oxidation of metal from the iron portion of the metal coming into contact with oxygen from air. The type of rust that flakes off of metal is hydrated iron oxides and sometimes iron oxide-hydroxide. The metal, likely carbon steel, is schedule 40 thus 0.140 inch wall thickness. Electron transfer from iron to oxygen to create rust is a slow process and, at atmospheric conditions, proceeds at a rate of 0.003 inch per year. At that rate, the metal is gone in 46.67 years. Structural carbon steel is compromised at 60% original wall thickness thus it will take 18.67 years to be an issue. I have over $1 billion million worth of 30-year old metal equipment in some of the most extremely corrosive environmental on the planet that I manage - I think about rust pretty frequently and can promise you all, this is nothing to worry about.
You'll get about 5 extra years of life by putting an oxygen-sealed coating of paint over the metal. 10-15 years if you scrape off the existing rust first with a metal wire brush.
This is yet another simple example of something we can address ourselves without paying labor cost.
Let me make my position clear: The only issue I am willing to tackle now because of the immediate need and the long term ramifications of doing nothing is the roof. Followed closely by the concrete work because that is a slips, trips, and falls hazard for the occupants. We can sand the rust off the metal and put a special coating of paint on to reduce the oxidation rate and prolong the life. And finally, the garage is purely cosmetic.
There is one thing I refuse to vote my 24% stake in this association in favor of - paying someone else to do any type of painting (except that which requires a high reach or JLG) when we have perfectly capable bodies to do the work ourselves. If this association wants to waste it's money on bringing in a contractor, you can do it after I sell my stake so someone else. I will not be a part of such fiscal irresponsibility.
My mentor Larry Ragan used to say professional writers should have their left pinky fingers chopped off, to make sure they don't overuse the little symbol over the 1. He had a point!
Back then, 99 percent of exclamation points typed in the world were by typed by amateurs and imbeciles.
I'd be surprised if I ever used one in a print article or a serious correspondence of any kind.
But occasionally in a work email, especially one sent to a non-writer whose linguistic taste I didn't need to consider, I'd allow myself a super-enthusiastic "Thanks!" "Sounds good!" "Hope this helps!"
Now I email, IM and text on all manner of matters, and conveying a non-leaden voice seems important—and, in brief exchanges, difficult. I find the exclamation point is such an easy shortcut to sounding sprightly and cooperative!!!
I find myself reluctantly erasing exclamation points in draft emails, and rewriting the sentence to show how much I care. But how long will I hold out? How long can I hold out?!
I'm thinking about getting my left pinky chopped off.
Tell me why I shouldn't.