I apologize to my fans, but I cannot blog for you this week. For I am in another world. I am in Content Marketing World, a kind of Big Rock Candy Mountain where the whole forest is orange: the tree trunks and their leaves, the sky and the clouds, the squirrels and their nuts. And a river of Orange Crush runs through it.
All per the monochromatic orders of Content Marketing World's orange-clad impressario, Joe Pulizzi.
The color orange is said to be an "uplifiting color," according to a color expert I consulted on the Internet. "In fact orange is so optimistic that we should all find ways to use it in our everyday life, even if it is just an orange colored pen that we use." But orange is an accent color. Days on end floating in an ocean of orange cuts one off from those not at Content Marketing World. All of you in what we refer to here as, "The Sad World."
At Content Marketing World one gets great Internet reception. But why? Blog from here? I won't even call my wife from here. She wouldn't understand a word I was saying.
When one is back home from Content Marketing World, if one makes it all the way back, one will remember some things, and may apply them to The Sad World. And the relationships one makes here are forever bathed in an orange glow.
But while I am at Content Marketing World, I cannot speak to anyone outside it. I can just float along in this orange bliss, staring, dreaming, concentrating on my breathing. (And occasionally singing live band karaoke.)
They tell me this is my fifth straight year attending Content Marketing World. They're putting my photograph on a "Wall of Fame." (I'm serious about this.)
Good God, maybe this it. Maybe this time I'm not coming back.
I loved you all. I loved you more than you will ever know. But I must have loved the Orange more.
An Internet troll stepped right up, on learning of Joan Rivers' death:
"I couldn't stand that woman. And she never should have won Celebrity Apprentice. She was funny at times, but also could be an extremely annoying Jewish woman. I realize many loved her and will find my comments offensive at the timing here. Still, I have a right to my opinion. And please don't waste your time hating on me. I don't read the comments anywho."
Yeah, you and Joan both, pal ...
My need for spirituality has always been satisfied by the idea that the best (and, true, the worst) parts of our spirits live on through the people we touch, and through people they touch, and the people those people touch, and on and on forever—or at least until nobody is paying attention anymore.
Here's how it works:
Late in his life my dad bought a Volkswagen Passat station wagon. It was green. He liked to give cars nicknames (he was a Detroit ad man; cars were part of the family). Dad liked nutty nicknames. So he called the VW "The Green Bean."
He owned The Green Bean when he died. I needed a car at the time and The Green Bean had only 30,000 miles on it and it was a pretty sweet ride: sunroof, heated seats, a good sound system (with what must have been the world's last cassette player). So I bought it from the estate.
The VW turned out to be something of a lemon, and over the last six years I've poured a bundle into it, $1,000 at a time. Finally the transmission gave up the ghost and I didn't even bother trying to get my wife to swallow the $3K bill to fix it. We traded it in for a new Subaru over the weekend.
My dad got his cancer diagnosis right after Labor Day six years ago, the same week the stock market crashed and a bizarre wind storm on a sunny afternoon knocked out all the power in Dad's hometown of Middletown, Ohio. He was gone four months later.
The night after we traded in Dad's car, I told Scout (and retold Cristie) the story of that epic fall and gothic winter.
"You've been talking about your dad a lot lately," Cristie said.
"Because of The Green Bean!" Scout interjected.
T.S. Eliot famously said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."
It was a notion that as an English major I smugly agreed with until I heard my friend Bill Sweetland say, "Fuck T.S. Eliot." Because how exactly did Eliot think himself uniquely worthy of making such a statement about people he never met.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni criticized President Obama yesterday for saying things like this:
"If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart."
"The world has always been messy."
"We don't have a strategy yet" for dealing with Islamic extremists in Syria.
"America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything."
Bruni acknowledges those statements are all true. "But that doesn't make it the right message for the world's lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate," Bruni writes.
Why not? Because, I guess, Bruni seems to believe that world stability relies upon a lie, that the world is ruled by an omniscient Sherrif Andy Taylor who, in time, will know and solve everything.
And maybe world order does rely on that lie. But a lie, it surely is. And I think President Obama's instinct is to try to breathe max reality (as he sees it) into the public conversation geopolitics. I've written before about my essential agreement with Obama's communication instincts.
I'm not sure he's doing the right thing here. Sometimes I do think his intellectual, academic side—which I don't despise, but rather admire—speaks when his inner Tony Soprano ought to be in charge.
But I do understand why he's saying these kinds of things: out of at least a theoretical respect for me and you, and the belief that we can indeed bear very much reality—that we already fucking do bear very much reality, no matter what the President says. And that the mere uttering of reality won't make the world like a bubble burst, all at once and nothing first.
Who does President Obama think he is, trying his mad experiments when the stakes are so high? How can he depart from the Guaranteed Geopolitical Best Practices that brought you Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea, all while Russia and China, at intervals, murderously repressed billions of their citizens behind an Iron Curtain and a Great Wall?
He can, because he's the President of the United States, the current Guesser in Chief. That's who.
And what if we learn as a result of the professor's plain talk that the President of the United States can publicly throw up his hands every once in awhile? What if it turns out that when the president does that in some situations, other countries suddenly find a way to step up themselves to a dictatorial douche like Putin. Well, then President Obama will have made a contribution to honesty in geopolitics, and he'll have added a sane caveat or two to our current Paternal Desperation Policy of Pretending We Really Do Control Everything (Oh Fuck, Who Drank All the Scotch?).
And if President Obama is wrong? Well, he can retire and take up watercolor painting, like the rest of us do when we have tried and failed.
Meanwhile, what does ISIS think, aside from being irritated that President Obama keeps calling them ISIL?
They know damn well that the very first chance he gets, he's going to wipe their ass out, no matter what he tells the world.
"The fourth period of my fourth grade year," she said, "was the best period in my school career."
And of course, I'm flattered.
A marketing agency is advertising a session at SXSW:
"How to make data your b*tch."
"Pardon our language," the description begins, "but even sophisticated marketing executives understand the value of getting people’s attention. They also understand the value of data to form new insights and discoveries ...."
Actually, the best way to get people's attention is by introducing them to a new idea. Short of that—and short of that, we so often are—here's a rule of thumb for marketers who would use obscenities in headlines: Have the stones to spell the motherfuckers out.
Frank told me the story on the last night of the trip. Actually he sort of divulged it, kind of coughed it up involuntarily.
Frank’s older brother, who he idolized and adored and modeled himself after—and who had loved him and watched out for him all growing up, taking the place of a father who wasn’t there—Frank’s older brother was killed in a car accident when Frank was about 13.
Forty-five hours and 10,000 stories from this guy, and I was just hearing now about what must have been the single most formative moment of Frank’s life?
And I was hearing it, told in a quiet, honest, true way, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean, I could see Frank’s face in the faint glow of the electronic compass. Even behind his mustache, it was the face of a 13-year-old boy.
After a silence, I tried to express that I understood that Frank’s brother’s death must have been devastating. In fact, I was already beginning to understand that such a death might be so catastrophic and soul-tearing as to cause a human being to turn into a 24-hour broadcasting radio station with a tall tower and a razor-wire fence around it.
“I can’t imagine how crushing that must have been,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “It was real hard on my mom.”
And with that story—story number 10,001—Frank was utterly and forever transformed in my mind—from an example of something, from a type of something, from something to be shown to people—he was transformed from a hologram, into a human being.
And when a person is transformed in that way, you don’t have to like him, of course—another sailing trip with Frank will be on strict conditions—but you do have respect him, acknowledge him as a fellow traveler, and in a way, love him.
And ultimately, that’s what we want our audiences to feel about their leaders, right?
The moral of stories: A person can tell stories all night long. But if the stories are going to do any good at all, they’ve got to deliver the bomb.
All we talk about in communication circles these days is storytelling—or, as the storytelling consultants preciously put it, "the power of story."
I'm afraid that all we're going to do with these stories is to turn our companies, and the people who lead them, into the kinds of gaffers who populate American Legion halls, dusty taverns and boat docks.
Let me tell you a story about storytelling: how it works, and how it doesn't.
A few years ago I had the wonderful good fortune of helping my brother-in-law sail his sailboat across a fat stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, from Baltimore to the Virgin Islands. I also had the disastrous bad fortune of having as my night watch mate a guy who we’ll call Frank, just in case. But really, the guy is so deeply oblivious to the world around him that there is absolutely no chance he will ever hear of my telling this story.
A little background: On a long-distance trip, you 0bviously sail through the nights too … and someone on the boat needs to keep watch at all times. So the captain assigns shifts, and everyone usually gets a partner, because it’s easier to stay awake in the pitching blackness when you have someone else to talk to.
We had only four people on this trip, and one was my brother-in-law’s daughter. She couldn’t stand Frank, and so lobbied to be her dad’s watch-mate, claiming with a minx-like smile that she wanted “quality time with my dad.”
So I got Frank, every night. Every night, from midnight to five, just me and Frank. To say Frank was a difficult watch mate is to fail to say he was a challenge to my philosophical understanding of the meaning and purpose of human interaction.
Frank was a radio station that never went off the air and a radio that couldn’t be turned down. He unspooled uninterrupted and uniformly empty yarns about his career as a fireman and his semi-retirement as a professional sailor; about his girlfriend in Mexico and his wife in California; about himself, himself, himself.
Never once did Frank express any curiosity about me or ask any question at all beyond those phony kinds of queries designed to set up another yarn. “Have you ever found yourself at the edge of a raging forest fire with only a shovel in one hand and a pickaxe in the other? No? Well let me tell you …”
Every night at midnight I had to rise from my bunk and step up into the dark, chilly cockpit for five more hours, all by myself, with Frank’s narcissism, his shallowness, his uneducated smugness, his phony bravado, his questionable morality and his sheer boringness!
It wasn’t that Frank was painful to deal with. It was that he was an affront to everything my dear departed parents had told me to value in human beings: curiosity, humor, depth, candor. It was as if my dead and divorced parents in heaven had set aside their differences for long enough to get together and search the world for the one perfect asshole. They had found Frank, and arranged for me to share night duty with him just as a test of fealty to them! There were moments that I felt that if I didn’t throw Frank overboard or jump into the middle of the ocean myself, I was being disloyal to my parents’ memory.
For nine days and nine nights, he must have told me 10,000 stories, all of which added up to exactly nothing. They were so much patter, designed to fill dead air with words that made their speaker appear the way he hoped his audience would see him: calm and knowing and capable, humble and brave and wise.
Of those 10,000 stories, I can’t remember a single one. Those nights I spent with Frank—those 45 hours in the windy black—I remember those nights as one night, a waking coma from which I was lucky to emerge with most of my faculties.
And yet, in a magazine article that I wrote about the trip, I described Frank as “loquacious.”
I wrote: “Night watches put a premium on a skill that’s rare in this day and age: a person’s ability to make a short story long. Frank is the Michael Jordan of that skill.”
Now, how did I come to like Frank well enough to be able to write about him graciously—and even remember him fondly? Not gradually, but all of a sudden—with one story. It wasn't much of a story. It was probably the shortest story he told the whole trip. But the story explained everything.
What was it?
Ah, life is long. What's the rush?
I'll tell you tomorrow.