Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Plots Against Shyness

November 15th, 2013

Yes, I write this personal blog. Yes, I have a weekly audio podcast. Yes, I advocate for marriage equality. Yes, I’ve interviewed and written about many folk in politics, business and beyond over a long time.

I’m still shy, moderately introverted and far more comfortable when the attention is on someone else.

I got a double dash of public yesterday headed to and then in my fiction-writing workshop. I think such surprises can only be good for us shy sorts.

The class is in the main Copley public library, starting after dark. I was perking along, head down, when a TV reporter popped out of his van, leading with the innocuous, “Do you live in Boston.” It turns out that along Boylston Street close to last spring’s Marathon bombings, various crews were getting guy-on-the-street quotes about Bill Maher’s provocative attempts at humor on the subject.

Maher surely should have realized how lame he had been when Anthony Weiner, of all people, sitting beside him modulated the situation. When Weiner is the voice of reason, compassion and morality in the situation, Maher seriously goofed up.

I had little to say. I did manage to tell the BZ mic hand and cameraman something like Maher was being a fool. Normally he’s bright and insightful but not then. I was turning into myself in shyness and likely would not have added the Weiner judgment had it come to mind then and not 20 feet later as I headed to the library.

I very rarely watch any TV. I would not have been aware they used my ho-hum clip if chums had not let me know.

Inside, much more intense and prolonged was the psychodrama that was the last half of the class. An out-there writer who joined the class had us act out. She’d don’t corporate training and such. She said she had a useful exercise to help us commit to regular writing schedules. That sounded good but quickly stretched my comfort elastic.

The way it worked for the five of us, her included, was that one after another, we stood in a close circle. The person of the moment identified three obstacles to writing, actually writing. One person would take the role of each, such as the lure of social media drawing us away from creative work. One person would be the support. The subject heard simultaneous bombardment of reasons to procrastinate or doubt, while the lone support person and whatever messages the subject could play internally played. There was four or five very intense minutes.

Each of us came to a sort of denouement, believing that we had a handle on responses to the distractions. That was her intent and we’ll see how it plays out. We have pledged to bring in one to five pages of new work next week as proof…and then each week.

For extroverts, that kind of psychodrama without having to dress up must seem benign. It was about all I could handle. Of course, the hardest moments were when I was in the center of the circle, the focus.

I suspect both events last evening were good for me. I don’t know that I’m ready to seek more like those, but I survived.

Young, youngish, still too young corpses

September 5th, 2013

Noticing the box with half my mother’s ashes, I thought again of three good folk I knew who died unnaturally young — or maybe naturally if you consider invidious, insidious disease to be our shared fate. Certainly going before 60 doesn’t seem right to me.

Today would have been my mother’s 89th birthday. She was outside the too-young range. She died 9 years ago.

nycchumsAt 33, Paula Delancey went first. We went to high school together, dated, and in our early 20s ended up becoming really close friends. She went to the CIA (as in chef’s school up the Hudson) and spent weekends in my West Village apartment. Hyde Park NY was not theater central nor where her friends lived and played.

“Her ambition is to be happy,” was beside her HS-yearbook pic.She was terrifically bright and well read. I couldn’t believe what a vapid, inane thing to write. Now of course, the older I get, the wiser that aim is.

She was a lot of fun, constantly laughing and joking, even ridiculing her own blunders and shortcomings.She looked forward to being a fabulous old lady.

The pic is, right to left, Paula, Isabel Wolfe (now Frischman) and I in Isabel’s NYC apartment.

She never got there. After being the first woman ever to graduate at the head of her class at the CIA, she worked in several NYC restaurants and then was head chef at a couple of others. She ended up making great money, taking her mother on an extended luxury trip to Paris and heading toward those two goals of being a grande dame and staying happy. Then she got cancer of the spine.

Apparently there’s little to do. She gave NYU Medical its best shot at chemo, radiation and surgery. She faded, continuing to sicken, go bald and suffer. She died in 1981. That was my first eulogy, delivered to a chapel in Brick Township NJ filled with a few of her friends and many of her aged parents’.

neil

At 40 , Neil Passariello was also far too young and far too vital to have died. This month he will have been dead 23 years.

He was the long-term partner of my friend from college, Jasper Lawson. He died of effects related to AIDS. He was finishing his doctorate in clinical psychology (Jasper already that one).  There is a regular colloquium in his honor.

I like to think I gave him a last bit of earthly pleasure. When he was in the bed where he died, I bought a bouquet of coriander I picked from my garden. He loved the herb and would say every meal needed a dish with cilantro and of course a pasta course. He no longer opened his eyes when we visited that last time, but he definitely smiled as I held the coriander close to him.

Surely all of his family and friends remember him as funny, dramatic, loud and passionate. An Italian-American, he referred to his heritage as he spoke intensely of food, of sex, of music. He could and did literally break out into song, generally an aria from an Italian opera.

His death did not seem right or timely or fair. He made others’ lives better and more fun, both personally and professionally.

Jasper and I have laughed more than once about how Neil made Jasper seem so WASPy, mannered and tame in contrast.

Jasper’s husband, Jay Landers, is remarkably patient when friends accidentally refer to him as Neil. On occasion, I make that faux pas. Supposedly that is expected with first “spouses,” although Neil died before same-sex marriage was legal. His intensity brings him to mind, quite understandably.

rehfieldAt 57.  John Rehfield still fits in the too-young category. He was remarkable in many ways. I can say for certain he was one of my two favorite managers (I married the other one).

John was a trade-magazine anomaly in being a civil engineer who was a good, no, a superb writer. He won every possible award in construction and trade journalism. He hired me to write for Construction Equipment knowing my only building experience was on carpentry crews during college summers. The day he hired me he said he could teach me anything I needed to know about construction but he couldn’t teach his engineers how to write.

He was very tall and light bulb shaped (his head at the screw end) and even laughed at his odd physique. He was an incessant punster. He came to work at dawn and completed his own before the rest of us arrived. He spent his day dealing with company matters and forever being there to help his writers, editors and art director. Oh, and he always wore a Mickey Mouse watch; he explained that he bought his children Disney stock when they were born, largely for the cartoon characters around the border of the certificates. They became surprisingly wealthy as the stock split repeatedly. He figured the watch was the least loyalty he could show.

He did wonderful motivational deeds too. Every so often and not related to the scheduled reviews, he’d come around to mention he was giving me a raise, just because I was doing a good job and writing good articles. I overheard him yelling at the publisher, telling him to keep his sales reps away from me; I ran the national directory of equipment and they all wanted favors for their customers.

Alas, Conover-Mast, across from the Daily News building in the literally heart of Manhattan, fell prey to Boston-based Cahners. The new parent sent the kids to Boston or Chicago. Moving to lower-tier towns was too much for those of us young and single. Most of us didn’t go.

Within 7 years, John died of cancer. Even though my sister and her kids were in Chicago, I would have felt stranded had I followed him there. I prefer to recall him as healthy and funny.

In fact, I remember each of these three for their virtue and joy they took in life.

Fiercebook strikes

July 30th, 2013

turtlefaceLaddies and germs, Facebook bloats like a dead animal in the sun, bigger and more intense daily. Yet, if my chums are any measure, some demographics have run in terror or trepidation.

I thought it was silly. In many ways, I’m still right. Back when I first looked at FB, ain’t-my-kitten and ain’t-my-kid and ain’t-girlfriend cute pix ruled. Double bleech.

I avoided it until my wife went canoeing with other aged Girl Scouts to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.There, the daughter of one of these former Brownie chums led extended paddling/camping expos. When she returned, she announced that the only place the commentary and images of the trip appeared and would ever appear would be on Facebook.

Thence I joined and have remained…for the past six years.

Truth be told, I don’t and never have stalked or even checked up on former girlfriends or more intimate sorts. Yet, I do post my photos. I do keep tabs with a few former HS and college classmates. I do get updated by and update various relatives and friends. I have many political acquaintances on my friends lists. I plug into events, restaurants, bars and such. FB has become a casual, occasional part of life that takes from a few minutes to a half hour a day for myriad info exchanges.

Lately though, there’s been a bifurcation among my chums, like my drinking buddies. Several have announced, always self-righteously, that they closed out their FB accounts. One is an efficient sort, shifting to a new line of service business. He has fair reasoning that he was spending too much time on FB, got most of what he needed professionally from Linked In, and did a cost/benefit analysis. In truth, what I actually heard was that he lacked self-control and didn’t manage his FB interactions well. Moreover, in his new service biz, he’ll likely regret missing out on customers who expect to find him on FB.

Another is more typical, the turtle sort. He’s a fair Luddite, always convinced that with a moment’s inattention, the latest virus or malware will eat up his hard drive. FB is just another risk, like the easy, pretty girl in high school everyone suspected of carrying VD.

fiercebook

To these two and many I know or know of like them, Facebook has become FierceBook. There’s something not quite right, something risky, something d-a-n-g-e-r-o-u-s about it.

An even odder aspect is that several of the guys hear others of us talking about trips, pictures, blog posts and other personal info we’d shared and enjoyed online. Even hearing about such splendid moments, they remain in their anti-FB shells.

I’m not the best self-promoter around, far from it in fact. I have a couple of good friends, one an artist and the other a musician, who share the so-so marketing bent. We could all do far, far better at pitching our wares. FB is just one of those places to do that.

I think of my friend Steve Garfield, a paragon and god on FB, twitter and his own site.  He understands how to use them all. His social media work for him, not the other way around.

I guess it’s not too surprising to hear of Boomers tucking back in their shells, increasingly convinced that something terrible will befall them on the scary internet.

Yet, many of my chums stay on and actively contribute to FB, twitter and their own blogs.

I draw my personal line at texting. I consider that lowbrow and simpleminded. I fall into tweets when I want it down and dirty. I see texting as for the immature and still impulsive.

Perhaps there’s a spectrum of social media if my thoughts and feelings hold. I am only surprised at how many I know who fear FB.

 

Things I Learned from Space Salesmen

April 10th, 2013

I’m a notorious TV disdainer. That’s odd for a boomer who grew up, enjoyed and benefited mightily from the box. I’ve aged to much rather do a cryptic puzzle, read a book or use the net.

I’m the least TV-centric in the family. Yet, I do like a few series that the family watches — Treme, Downton Abbey, and Mad Men. It’s the latter that had me reminiscing and projecting.

I’m a child who followed the WWII generation, not one of them. I did work with and know those guys (almost all men) and their younger siblings/nephews in the 1970s New York City.

I worked trade and business magazines in the 3-martini-lunch era. In fact, one publisher always ordered the same drink, “A triple Bombay martini, hold the olives and hold the vermouth.” It was all three martinis in one, very engineering efficient and thus appropriate for a construction mag.

Drunken afternoons were less of a shock to me as the dissolute lives of those magic creatures the space salesmen. The very term space salesman seems mythological if not metaphysical. Selling space…ooooo. The mundanity of actually pitching ads for print media does not rise to the phrase.

I knew a lot of these guys, men whose work brought in my salary. They often shocked me with the likes of their casual comparisons of sexual conquests of women customers, sales reps, waitresses and even friends’ wives.

However, I also got a few life lessons that have rooted.

I certainly recall the best space salesman I knew at Construction Equipment magazine. I’m comfortable using his name, Larry Huckle. He was one of the wholesome guys. He was also the company’s best salesman year upon year. That was particularly odd as he had Texas and the Southwest, virtually devoid of equipment manufacturers. He skunked the other reps time after time.

He and I were at a bar at the mag’s sales meeting in Boca Raton one time. As a former newspaper reporter, I just had to ask him how he did it. I had grilled the other editors and they claimed not to know. Larry was candid and had no fear of giving up his secret. He said, “I know one thing the other guys don’t. When you’ve made your sale, shut up.”

Sure enough, later on sales calls with various ad guys, I’d see them goof up a sure deal again and again by talking about themselves, making inane talk about the customer or otherwise souring a deal in the bag.

I found as a single guy that Larry’s advice was as good for someone seeking companionship as well. That’s another sale.

Likewise, I came to appreciate a silly rejoinder from another space salesman. He’d inveritably come back to the rhetorical, “How ya doing?” with “Any day I’m not pushing up daisies is a good day.”

That certainly falls in the class of painfully obvious. Yet, the longer I live, the more emotional, intellectually and physical troubles that visit me, the more meaningful and sensible that seems. It’s certainly better than the meaningless, “Fine.” And it inspires introspection.

A third space salesman had another iterative response when anyone did the drama-queen whine about a birthday. To one who complained about marking another year older, he’d always say, “Consider the alternative.” Sure enough, death would remove any joy or even observance of a birthday.

Space salesmen, as well as engineers and other stereotypical literal sorts can pluck all the feathers from our social conventions. After all, they have jobs to do that yield to metrics. To those other of us who like to think that everything is fungible, malleable, such brutal realism can only be good.

Ubiquitous Obsolescence and Ephemera

March 21st, 2012

A lot of years ago when I was the editor of a grocery magazine, I wrote a feature about throwaway products. By today’s standards, it would surely fall into a rant.

The point was that our readers made a lot of money on items like disposable razors. These non-foods or HABA (health and beauty aids) as supermarket and convenience store folk call them are where the margins are. Overall, a grocery may average a profit margin of under 5%. Contrast that to, say, software companies that may have margins of 45% to 95%. Profits on toiletries are among the highest in the stores.

So when use-and-toss products like razors, condoms and such sell, store owners do little capitalist dances.

My concentration at the time, convenience stores, even measure inventory turn differently. They think in terms of square inches and not square feet. Turns per inch per month determine what they stock, which is why you likely won’t find your favorite brand of this or that unless it’s among the most popular.

This is also one of the reasons they put certain small, high-margin movers on the counter by the cash register. For those, they get paid twice. As impulse purchases at POS (point of sale), these items give great returns. Moreover, manufacturers want that space and turn level as well. For that, they pay an RDA (retail display allowance), which to many not in the biz would seem like a bribe to have the best position.

By the bye, when I was covering grocery, the best seller and highest turn per inch per month in convenience stores was rolling papers. When you gotta have ‘em…

As so many posts here, this circles back to bicycles.

In my article decades ago, I waxed richly on my grandfather’s straight razor, as well as his long marriage. He was not into disposable anything if he could help it. Years later, I had a huge shock in the early days of PCs when my $1,300 24-pin dot-matrix printer malfunctioned. A Toshiba repair shop guy said sure he could fix it, but he noted that it was the chip welded into the motherboard. That would cost $900 to $1,000 to replace. A newer, much quieter, more capable and reliable model sold for about $500. It was the old almost-working-paperweight cliché. With regret at being wasteful and trapped, I handed it to a tech training school to fix or cannibalize for parts.

So this week, I found myself locked into the more fragile, higher tech replacement routine, this time for bike pedals and cleats.

I’ve used Shimano SPD cleats and pedals for eight or nine years on my road bike. The cleats were small, ugly, steel and damned tough.

A week and a half ago, one of my pedals came apart, irreparably, on a ride. The spindle and pedal separated. I managed to keep squeezing my shoe toward the crank to keep putting the pedal in play for the 10 miles home. Going up the steep hills was, shall I write, exciting.

Those pedals are so 20th Century. Shimano, among the others, has moved on. The bike shop didn’t have the old style, but I was able to order the newer version from the cycling cyclops Nashbar/Performance/Bikes Direct. (Pic note: I claim fair use from a cropped image from the box to show non-cyclists what a pedal looks like today.)

Modernity brings:

  • Easier clip into the pedal
  • Quick kick out as needed
  • Slightly lighter pedals and cleats
  • More comfortable, less noisy walking on the cleats (I tend to bring light mocs and swap out for beer bars)
  • Plastic pedal body covers
  • Plastic cleats

The instructions make it plain that I’ll be replacing the cleats and covers. It may only be once a year or two for the cleats, but like any good disposable product, new, improved, better means also costlier.

I bought spare cleats when I got a new pair of road-bike shoes that did not come with SPD ones. Those cost me $11. The list on the SL style models is around $30. A discount is about to $25, plus shipping or full price at a bike shop.  At every two years, replacement amortizes at about 4¢ a day, ride or not. In contrast, the much longer lasting old metal style might be in the range of 0.3¢ a day.

Those are still small beer in the world where people routinely buy a coffee for $2 or $3. On top of that, I estimate that I’ve put between 50,000 and 60,000 miles on that bike and that original set of Ultegra pedals. I don’t think anyone should say Shimano made a poor-quality product. I sure got my money out of the pedal that finally broke.

There is no metal equivalent of the new cleats. Were there to be one, it would surely damage the pedals with use — much more expensive replace than plastic cleats.

Here I am, again an alter kaker in a new world. Life in fact insists on going on, bringing me with it.

Love Through the Ears

October 15th, 2011

Unlike many bar stool warmers, even into a second drink or beyond, I don’t have a lot of brilliant advice.  There is one love-related tidbit from my early 20s that still seems relevant.

Last week, speaking with a female neighbor outside, that arose again. She was lamenting that she couldn’t click long-term with a great guy. She just breached 40 and knows there are fewer gems free in the muck of the mine. She discussed a recent effort to connect to a match from e-Harmony, allegedly compatible interests, bright enough, and nice looking. She said she sent him off to think again with the candid appraisal that his ego and vanity were too well developed.

Hence that personal historical moment.

In my early 20s, I was a single Manhattanite working at a huge trade-magazine publisher across 42nd Street from the Daily News building. We were in what passed for bar and party central in NYC. After the married commuted largely by rail to NJ or CT, we were left to patrols of the heart.

For many of my co-workers, those patrols were frustrating and sad. They’d chat objects of desire up and still return home solo.

Quite a few guys asked me, usually one on one, what was up. They’d note that I always had several women I, as we of Southern backgrounds are wont to say, kept company with. The implication was that I wasn’t rich or 7 feet tall or any of those clichés of evening  love. How was it that I connected and they didn’t, and moreover, how was it that I kept my women instead  of having a one to three-night relationship?

That one was easy…at least for me. My flash was wisdom was simply that I listened to a woman.

Invariably the guy would interrupt to state strongly that he too listened to women and that couldn’t be it. Yet, I’d seen him in attempted action and knew he didn’t. As with my neighbor, women found that he talked about himself and heard only responses that related to himself talking about himself. There’s a huge difference between acknowledging affirmative conversational reactions and listening.

I could ask the guy what he knew about this woman or that. He might know where she went to college or high school, but little else. Pow! He hadn’t asked. He hadn’t left openings for her to swap revelations. He did not value what she had experienced, what she felt, what was important to her, what pleased her, what made her angry. He didn’t know squat about her.

I suppose if I had been savvy or driven by greed instead of the joy of earning a living writing and photographing, I would have started a matchmaking business. I knew something they didn’t.

Of Ink and Options

July 2nd, 2011

penrackWithout a doubt, the meanest teacher I ever had I associate with cursive writing. This came to mind today with yet another tale of a school system dropping penmanship. This time it is Indiana’s…and statewide.

Instead, they want kids to learn keyboard skills. It’s not that any one of them has the digital strength to operate a manual or even an electric typewriter. They almost certainly won’t have to. Squishy brains with vague knowledge shards can push low-resistance computer keys though.

For the gaggle who think “I wasn’t even born then” is any excuse for ignorance and incompetence, not  being able  to write cursive, connected characters easily must certainly seem trivial. Both because of poor manners as well as inability, many may well have never written a thank-you note, even to Granny. If they have to add to a grocery list or put their names on a pop quiz, they can use puerile block letters.

Now instead of feeling like the replacement to my mother’s generation, I could move it farther back. My wife’s grandmother spoke of growing up before electricity, before hardly anyone owned an automobile, before radio and on and on.

While I don’t go back to quill and inkwell, I do span an impressive writing-technology history.

  • I started with fat pencils and crayons suited for holding in fists.
  • Stick pens, like BIC ones, had not been created. Instead, we used fountain pens with tubes of ink.
  • Mechanical pencils were new and fairly expensive, treats to those of us who loved school.
  • As all college-bound students, I had to take a year split between typing and shorthand. The former was on a manual typewriter, as electric models were also rare and very expensive, new technology. There were no computers, much less PCs.

In second grade, I started on the Palmer Method of cursive writing — cruelly boring stretches of sitting bolt upright, while the wicked Mrs. Carnes patrolled the room, hair in a tight bun, mouth in a tight purse, and ruler ever overlaying a forearm ready to strike. A moment’s inattention to the rows of circles on paper and WHACK!

She got me once. We sat alphabetically then and as a B, I was in the left row next to the windows. On a spring morning, a songbird sat on the maple next to our room. Distracted and pleased by its warble, I looked up, only to first hear and then feel the sudden and rough wooden slap on my hand. What an ass Mrs. Carnes was.

I don’t know whether it was some form of reaction to in inanity of drill or the nastiness of the teacher or just my bent and motor skills. I have never had a beautiful hand.

My mother and my paternal grandmother did. I have letters from each and admire the flowing, artistic words and individual characters. My grandmother even developed a non-Palmer lower-case f that doubled back on itself like some plump legume.

Now as an old guy, I’ve gone from time-sharing on mainframes to noisy, slow PCs to graphic workstations to time on minicomputers and on to laptops, fast desktops, and delightful toys like iPads. I’ve been through a variety of programming languages, punch cards, paper tape, ATEX type setting, a numbing range of pre-GUI operating systems, the internet before there was a web (and thus command-line gibberish to connect to distant servers), and both Windows and Mac-based PCs, both of which constantly crashed.

I’ve had all the old experiences and used the old skills. By necessity, I’ve had to learn how thing work, how to fix them, and how to be the alpha-geek both at work and for friends.

I Don’t Do My Phones’ Bidding

Yet, I have my set of fountain pens that I still use (five shown at top). I enjoy both the fluidity of writing with them and the beautiful output. Of my range of writing options, I tend to think  of it like more modes. I certainly did not stop walking when I learned to ride a bike or drive a car. I just have more options.

That vestigial range of experience may be why I have such disdain for those controlled by their electronics. So many do as bidden. The smartphone buzzes and they look at the screen and answer the call, regardless of who is there, what they are doing, seeing or hearing, or whether they should be watching the road. Pathetic.

In my house, when phones ring during dinner, they ring. My phone work for me, not the other way around. I carry my cellphone with me when I leave the house and have taught people to call the nominal land line (part of a bundle) first. That was hard for my cell-only sister.

I like having communication options, not requirements and limitations. I have no doubt many Americans and others will live and die without knowing how to write in cursive. They’ll feel comfortable and likely never consider writing connected letters as any sort of useful or necessary skill.

I think how they have limited themselves, lessened themselves, turned themselves old long before necessary. We become old when we stop learning and do not add to our skills.