Translate this posting

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Until You Die

"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."
Albert Camus

On Labor Day, September 1, Executive Media will mark nineteen years of helping senior executives increase the impact of their communication with their constituencies.

For almost two decades, blue-chip organizations – like Avaya, Cisco, Fujitsu, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, Humana, IBM, Motorola, Siemens, Symantec, US Airways -- have relied on us for speeches, video programs and large-scale multimedia events for audiences as large as 10,000.

In addition, for the past four years, I’ve indulged in the popular fantasy of operating a bed-and-breakfast and have two -- on Cape Cod and Vieques, Puerto Rico.

In the meantime I’ve been busy writing for myself for a change, and right now I have three books being vetted by professional editors:
  • Down the Edges, a novel that reveals what happens when evil comes alive in a sleepy Cape Cod town
  • Silently in the Dark, a novella that traces a homeless boy’s grim engagement with innocence and iniquity
  • A Light from Within, essays centered on the odd and the ordinary
Works in progress are The Fat Guy in the Fat Boat, Clean Jokes, and a novel with the working title of Ex-.

It was a book called Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow that spurred me to leave a secure job in corporate management and start my own company in 1995. I soon discovered that work is not about the money, but the love. This was substantiated by a 2010 Princeton University study of 450,000 Americans, which found that when annual income is sufficient to meet basic needs, increased income doesn’t make people any happier.

In my two paradise spots of Vieques and Cape Cod – where everybody seems to be either vacationing or retired –-- all are taking their rest.

But I know a good number of people who are productive well into what are considered retirement years. Architect John Hix, for example, is designing and building houses into his mid-seventies. Trappist monk Gabriel Berton is providing spiritual counsel as he approaches 80 years of age. And Impressionist painter Ilona Royce Smithkin is painting, teaching, modeling and performing cabaret into her mid-nineties.

Work is more than a way to make a living. It is our participation in the ongoing creation of the universe. We are heirs to the work of past generations and at the same time we share in building the future for those who will come after.

Catholic social thought suggests that work is a good thing – for the individual and for humanity -- because through work we not only transform nature and adapt it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as humans, in a sense becoming "more a human being.”

This view is at odds with the way I observed corporate culture evolve its perception of employees during my own career -- from “personnel” to “human resources” to “human capital.“ In other words, employees were viewed as owned entities, like buildings and desks and telephones.

The result, many times, is an employee population that identifies with Sisyphus, the mythical Greek who so infuriated the gods that they condemned him to an eternity of endlessly pushing a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down.

Nobel laureate Albert Camus, however, found joy in this. He wrote: "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart." 

As philosopher Rick Garlikov explained it, the task is not to keep the rock at the pinnacle, but merely to get it there. So every time Sisyphus repeated the task he achieved success. 
Making the attempt, in other words, is never futile, because it determines and simultaneously rewards our character. 

It depends on who owns you and who owns your work, I guess. If you make what you do your own, why wouldn’t you want to work until you die?

In my next blog, “Adam's Curse”

Friday, August 22, 2014

Fashionable or foolish?

Summer must be over. Autumn fashions are being shown.

As a guy who avidly watched the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” cable TV series several years back, I’ve always needed help distinguishing between looking fashionable and looking foolish.

So I turned to my friend, John Girouard, a style guru based in Toronto and an annual visitor to Vieques. With his partner, Bruce, John publishes the exceptional Bobo Feed website – architecture and design, fashion and styling, food and drink, travel and urban living -- at

“You could dress in Dior, Lanvin or Armani and look foolish,” John says. “Yet you could put on a simple white shirt and a great pair of jeans and be stunning.”

Sharon Stone's white Oscars shirt.

“You need to keep in mind that what may appear foolish on the runways of the fashion capitals in any given season is often directional. You might see something totally outrageous that you’d swear no one would wear. What happens is that by the time the garment arrives on the street you will still see some of the ‘direction’ -- but toned down by the buyers to fit their customers,” he continues.

“What shocks us now becomes standard fare in a few years. This has happened with exaggerated shoulders, platform shoes, skinny jeans -- and will continue.”

Nor is being fashionable an economic issue. “One could dress in couture and look foolish, yet the man or woman on the street who is proud and confident can look fabulous in thrift shop finds.”

And let’s kiss off the idea that fashion is the realm of the young. Proof point? Some of these getups at this year’s Teen Choice Awards.

The Misses Steinfeld, Moretz, Sparks and Stevens.

Here’s what E Magazine had to say: “Chloe Moretz and Jordin Sparks' printed outfits were a little too busy for our tastes. And then there was the mismatched gold-on-gold look from Katie Stevens. Hailee Steinfeld's slightly frumpy dress made us wish she'd went [sic] with something a bit more youthful.”

Says John: “Fashion isn't so much about youth and clothes as it is about style and attitude and self-assurance.”

He’s right. Is there anybody more elegant than an African-American lady of a certain age off to Sunday morning services in a queenly hat?

Here’s one such church lady quoted in The Washington Post:

“You have a certain air when you put on a hat. If you put on the whole shebang and you’re satisfied, you walk different. You act different. And people treat you different.”  

Dressed to visit with the Lord.

And this assurance from John: “One can never look foolish if one has the stature and confidence of wearing any garment … and most of all, the self assurance and confidence that come with, dare we say it, age!”

No one embodies this thought more than Illona Royce Smithkin. At 94, she is a renowned Impressionist painter and teacher, a fashion model and a cabaret singer.

Illona Royce Smithkin.

I give the last words to Ilona:

When you feel comfortable in your clothes, you look good. When your shoes fit right and your dress isn’t too tight, you can forget about your looks and show off yourself. There’s so much concentration on exterior beauty, you can wind up saying, ‘I can’t go to this party, I have nothing to wear.’ Who the hell cares? If you’re bringing yourself and you’re a nice person, you’re the life of the party.” 

For more of John's design and fashion passions:

In my next blog, “Until You Die”

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Magic to do

What does this dandy-looking dude have to do with the buttoned-up world of blue-chip corporations?

Plenty, and that’s just an estimate.

He’s Kenrick "ICE" McDonald, and last month he became the first black president of the Society of American Magicians.

He’s been practicing magic for more than 30 years. ICE, he says, stands for Illusions, Captivation, Enchantment.

McDonald spends half the year touring. Sometimes he's performing magic. At other times, he's speaking at corporate events, teaching executives how to hold the attention of an audience.

Teaching executives?

Applying magic to invigorate a corporate meeting isn’t that new an idea.

Forty years ago, IBM was creating the playbook on how to produce recognition events that would keep its marketers selling their socks off so their quota performance would qualify them to attend the next year’s event.  

We hired David Copperfield -- when he was starting out in the business -- as an introduction to speakers. For example, doing an illusion that, say, involved putting a woman into a box -- and having the next speaker come out of it.

I got David’s autograph for my seven-year-old daughter and told her to hang on to it because, I said, this young guy is going to be big someday. She didn’t. He did.

In the years since then, I’ve integrated magic acts frequently. Mac King, for example, a long-running Las Vegas act, worked magic as a way to introduce winners at a corporate awards banquet. And David Williamson was on-camera narrator for a new product introduction, making cats, rabbits – and new Siemens phones – appear out of thin air.

But it was Bill Herz – a marvelous magician in his own right – who first taught corporate speakers how to integrate illusions into their speeches as a way to deliver key business messages. Working with Bill, I wrote talks for a number of executives in which they “did magic.”

In a way, it’s a lamentable commentary that corporate chieftains – as highly compensated as most are – have to turn to card tricks in order to keep the attention of their audience (very often the audience is their own employees).

Public speaking is a skill – a craft -- speechwriters will tell you. It can be learned.

If an executive rolling up his or her sleeves and doing a trick or two makes for a better speech, good for them. The “magic” becomes the equivalent of a Power Point slide.

For the professionals, though – the Copperfields and Herz’s, the Kings and Williamsons -- magic is a state of mind, their self-expression.

And when magic is your state of mind, the unbelievable can truly happen.

No one epitomizes this thought more than Henry Brown. He toiled as a slave in Virginia for more than three decades. When his pregnant wife and three children were sold to a distant plantation, Henry had enough.

He mailed himself in a box to Philadelphia – out of slavery and into a career of performing magic on tour, under his new, freeman’s name of Henry “Box” Brown.

Henry “Box” Brown, from the 90th Parallel production.

You and I are accustomed to being the magician’s audience. But in this age of interactive everything -- from voting for the next “American Idol” to voting for the next “Food Network Star" -- maybe it’s time we become the magic.

Because if magic is our state of mind, miraculous things can happen. 

Just ask Box Brown.

In my next blog, "Fashionable, or foolish?"

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Rotten Apple

Jo Anne sat at a table beneath this iconic poster of the late visionary iconoclast, Steve Jobs, for nearly an hour last week, arguing with a series of Apple customer service reps over warranty coverage of a failed $20 iPhone power cable. Five people: the gal at the Apple franchise dealer and her closeted manager, then two agents at the Apple call center and, finally, their supervisor.

Writer Gerald F. Lieberman said it best:

“If the first person who answers the phone cannot answer your question, it’s a bureaucracy. If the first person can answer the question, it’s a miracle.”

At issue was whether the power cable on my wife’s five-month-old, $649.99 iPhone was simply frayed … or was its wiring exposed.

When my wife handed the failed cable to the gal at the store’s customer care counter, Jo Anne anticipated a simple exchange. The cable had failed, it was under warranty, please exchange it for a new one.

And so it began.

The gal took the cable into a back room through a door marked Employees Only and returned a minute later to explain what her manager had ruled. The wiring was showing, so the warranty was invalid. If the cable had been only frayed, the warranty would apply. If the store exchanged the cable, Apple would not reimburse them -- because the store hadn’t honored Apple’s warranty requirements concerning power cables.

Jo Anne's position was based on cause and effect – the way everything else in the universe works: the cable had frayed, therefore the wiring was exposed.

Who knew the iPhone’s $20 power cable was so dear to Apple?

If my wife talked to Apple directly and won an exception, the exchange could happen, the gal said, whose name we had by now learned was Casey and who had come over to our side because she felt sorry for Jo Anne.

Right there and then, Jo Anne got on her iPhone and called Apple.

The first agent talked to her for a while and passed her to another.

The second agent talked to her for a while and then asked to speak to Casey.

Casey talked for a while and then carried the phone to her manager – still taking cover in the back room – for further consultation.

Then the phone was handed back to my wife. The second agent talked to her for a while and then transferred her to his supervisor, Carlos.

Carlos relented. He would deliver a new cable to my wife -- via Fedex Priority Overnight. She, in turn, would send the failed cable back to Apple for examination -- via Fedex Priority Overnight.

She had to provide a credit card number, however, and a hold was put on the card for $20.

The next morning the new cable arrived at our home and the failed cable was returned. So far, the $20 hold has not been charged.

Winners and losers here?

My wife has a new power cable – winner.

Fedex collected revenue on two Priority Overnight deliveries – winner.

Casey was paid for spending an hour with us, but she earned no revenue for the store – loser.

The store manager in the back room, whom we never saw – loser. (Think of the Wizard of Oz’s famous line, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”) 

Biggest loser of all – Apple. Salary and benefits for three agents for 44 minutes.

It isn’t funny. It’s sad.

Because when The Apple Computer Company was launched in 1977, Steve Jobs established three core principles.

·      First, Apple would empathize with customers

·      Second, Apple would focus on doing only a few things, but doing them really well

·      Third, Apple would apply its values (simplicity, high quality) across everything it did

It wasn’t only a dinky little power cable that failed last week. It was Apple Inc., that failed. 

And they didn’t fail only us. They failed Steve.

In my next blog, "Magic to do."

Saturday, August 2, 2014

This paradise is the bomb

Wellfleet’s ocean beaches are part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Military projectile found on Cape Cod beach

A military projectile possibly dating to the World War II era has been destroyed after it was found on a Wellfleet beach.

A fisherman found the device in the sand at Marconi Beach Wednesday and alerted authorities.

The State Police bomb squad responded, and the device was blown up on the beach at about 7 p.m.

Officials kept curious spectators about 1,000 feet away from the explosion to protect them from shrapnel.

Sergeant Jerry Galizio of the bomb squad told the Cape Cod Times that the color of the smoke indicated that the projectile was live when it was detonated.

According to Galizio, the military used area beaches as practice ranges during World War II, and it is not uncommon for ordnance to be found even to this day.

Associated Press, July 25, 2014

Excuse me?

Cape Cod was once a military practice range?

Wellfleet is the town next to my own – Truro – and is famous for its world-class oysters.

I’ve lived here almost 20 years and never knew that while oyster beds were thriving on the Cape Cod Bay side of town, over on the Atlantic Ocean side there were live bombs asleep beneath the sand.

Oh, by the way … where does my other “paradise” house happen to be? Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Vieques is most famous for its role as a military practice range from World War II until 2003. That year, the U. S. Navy pulled out after continuing civil protests against the near non-stop shelling that eventually took the life of one resident.

Vieques’ most popular beaches still are identified by the old Navy designations – Red, Blue, Green. Numerous other paradisal beaches are not open to the public because of ongoing, federally funded clean-up of unexploded ordnance.

Lonely La Chiva was #1 on Trip Advisor among Vieques attractions.

One of my favorite snorkeling spots, gorgeous La Chiva (“Blue”) beach, was thought for years to be bomb-free. But it’s been closed for a second look.  

Then again, I always thought Cape Cod’s beaches were bomb-free.

Marconi Beach – where the bombshell was found last week -- gets its name from the Italian inventor who in 1903 transmitted one of the first transatlantic wireless transmissions from here -- between the president of the United States and the king of England. Marconi chose the Wellfleet site because of the barrenness of the high dunes overlooking the ocean.

The government chose the area for similar reasons during World War II -- and established Camp Wellfleet as an artillery training facility. The military camp outlived its need, and in 1961 the property became part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

As in Vieques, weaponry has a history on Cape Cod.

Paleoindian projectile points have been found at numerous locations, indicating that people have been here for at least 10,000 years.

5,000 years ago, habitation of the Cape was extensive. Artifacts dating from this period are found throughout the Cape -- projectile points in particular.

In his book, Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau observed that Native American arrow heads could be found all over the place.

Last week, as the military projectile was detonated on Marconi Beach, spectators cheered.

But the incident serves as a somber reminder that although World War II ended seven decades ago, it is not fully behind us.

On January 3, 2014, World War II took another life.

A heavy-machinery operator was killed when his excavator hit an unexploded World War II bomb that lay hidden beneath the soil of Euskirchen, in western Germany. Thirteen others were injured, two critically.

The wrecked excavator and resulting crater from the explosion in Euskirchen.

There are still thousands of tons of munitions that lie unexploded and undiscovered. Estimates put the total load of unexploded ordnance between 95,000 and 285,000 tons. In Germany alone.

As journalist Rebecca Rosen wrote in her Atlantic magazine story about the explosion:

“One day there will be a final casualty of World War II, but chances are that we are not there yet. This war will claim the lives of those born years after it ended, its physical remnants surviving far longer than its combatants, another reminder that the present is forever an accretion of the past.”

In my next blog, “Rotten Apple.”