I start my vacation tomorrow. Back when I was working for Other People, vacation would have started at 5:01pm Eastern, or as soon thereafter as I could slip past my boss’s door. But I’m my own boss now. I finished the last piece I needed to ship to a client about an hour ago, but I’m still here at the computer: I can’t find the Off switch.
This vacation is one of four I’ve scheduled for myself this year—one week every quarter, as I try to learn how to unwind. Last quarter, I took a day or two off and then attended a workshop in Southern California. Doesn’t sound like a vacation to you? Listen, to someone escaping a New England winter, just feeling that sweet, sweet California sun is vacation enough.
This quarter, I’m treating myself to a Staycation. (I actually wrote “challenging myself to” first—and then I realized vacations aren’t supposed to be challenging.) And I compromised on my vacation before it even began, ceding Monday and Tuesday to client work. But with next Monday being a holiday, I actually have six whole days of vacating ahead of me. Which is just about as close to a week as you can get.
But what do you do when you’re not tromping around a theme park or pulling a shawl around your body in some too-cold hotel conference room? All the ideas I come up with sound a lot like work:
I could make a to-do list for the projects I want to pursue this summer
I could read that book written by the person I’m going to interview in a couple of weeks
I could clean my house
I could clean my house? Yeah, you know things are desperate when I put cleaning my house on the to-do list. It’s not even tax time.
What will I do? I’m starting with a massage in about an hour, and we’ll see where things go from there.
But first I have to hit the Off switch. I gotta say, I’m nervous about that. What if I can’t do it? Or—maybe worse—what if I can…and I like it?
NOTE: I wrote this a few weeks ago, but I held off posting it. As a result, I held off posting anything—not good. Read on to find the headdesk worthy update that caused me to finally press Publish.
You know how that word sounds when people sincerely want the answer to that question. They ask “why?” with no guile, no defenses.
I got one of those Whys in response to an assertion I made today. And the sheer lack of comprehension in that “why?” short-circuited my brain. Seriously left me speechless. And if you know me, you know how rarely I find myself speechless.
What did I say to provoke such puzzlement?
The man I was talking to had just given a speech, a fairly good one too. He started by talking about a long-ago sketch on SNL. As an homage to the recently deceased Dr. Seuss, they had someone read Green Eggs and Ham as a serious piece of oratory.
What made the sketch indelible was the guest they asked to do the reading: the Reverend Jesse Jackson. So far so good. But instead of showing the sketch, the speaker acted out parts of it. Yes, complete with a Jesse Jackson impersonation.
Do I need to add that the speaker is white?
I told him that in 2019 it is not appropriate for a white person to impersonate a person of another race. I was prepared for a lot of responses—I’d already collared the conference organizer to express my displeasure. The organizer also seemed flummoxed by my passion, but he reacted more defensively—wondered if perhaps I just didn’t see much comedy, didn’t understand comic impressions.
But the sincere, utter cluelessness of the speaker just floored me.
As we continued our conversation, it seemed that he did have some understanding that what he did was inappropriate. He had always read Green Eggs & Ham to his daughters in his Jackson voice, and they thought he was the best storyteller on the planet. So when the Dr. Seuss centennial came around, they volunteered him to read it at the school.
“All the kids were sitting on the floor,” he said, “and I was about to start when I noticed this little African American girl sitting in front of me. And I thought, ‘Should I do this?’ And I decided not to.”
I told him he’d made the right decision that time. And that perhaps if there were more people of color at this conference he would have thought twice about it. (For the record, I raised the lack of diversity with the conference organizer too.) I also suggested that he didn’t need to impersonate the Reverend to make his point. He said he’d looked for a clip to play but couldn’t find one. Perhaps he’s forgotten how to Google. I found one—admittedly grainy—in about 30 seconds.
I’m not sure my conversations with the organizer and speaker accomplished much, though the speaker promised he’d watch the replay and see what he thought. I hope I opened up at least a tiny crack in their worldviews.
As for me…it showed me I don’t get out in the world nearly enough. I live in my little bubble, working with people who understand that diversity means more than having 50% of the speakers be women. I write about diversity and inclusion for clients who have a sophisticated understanding of the issues, so I guess I’ve assumed that people across the business world understand internalized racism and seek to eradicate it.
Oops, the business world tries not to use the R-word. They call it “unconscious bias.” The bias I encountered today was so unconscious it was practically comatose. Whoo boy. We have a lot of work to do.
And then I was watching TV one night and saw an ad for an actual movie that will be released into theatres shortly. “Shortly” as in soon and also, I hope, as in it will disappear almost as soon as it arrives. (I refuse to link to it; you can find it on your own if you wish.)
It appears to be a comedy…about a white man who becomes famous by imitating a black woman on the radio. Think Tootsie as a voice actor—which at least relieves him of the need to don blackface, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that plot twist before the credits roll.
What about this mess seems like a good idea?
So much for the impassioned conversations I had with the clueless conference organizer and speaker. Thanks for nothing, Hollywoodland.
I shouldn’t even have to say it, really. I mean it’s like Speech-Giving 101: Don’t alienate your audience.
Today’s story stems from a comedy show I saw this weekend, one star comedian doing his thing at 10:15 on a Saturday night in the middle of the Connecticut woods. Now, granted, it ain’t Broadway. But nobody forced him to book the show. He chose to be there.
And we, the audience, also chose to be there. We knew it was a 10:15 show on a Saturday night in the middle of the woods. We bought the tickets; we wanted to be there, to hear him.
Well, apparently not enough of us wanted that—the gig was far from sold out. But the people he was complaining to—we had bought the damn tickets. All he had to do was
bring us the funny.
Yet he started his set by complaining about being there. I don’t think I was the only person in the audience who felt put off by that. I’ve seen him three times now, so I know how good he can be. But this set—not so funny.
Don’t bring your bad mood to the mic
Now, you may be thinking this advice will never apply to you, since you have no desire to do an hour-long stand-up comedy set. Heck, you even wince when people ask you do deliver a 10-minute speech. But I’ve seen plenty of business speakers alienate their audience.
Stomp onstage, papers flying in your wake, and start reading your speech for the first time. That’s another pro tip: Don’t read your speech out loud for the first time during the event. Have a little more respect for the audience than that.
Don’t begin your speech by ad libbing—as I swear one of my speakers once did—”I’d rather be talking to you about a business topic, but this is what they gave me to say.” (P.S. it was a business topic—and one that would bite him in the butt less than two years later.)
Even if you’re speaking about something you have less than zero passion for (I once wrote a speech about the chemical composition of makeup), your audience is excited to hear your thoughts. Reflect some of that excitement back; be happy to be there. And—as one speaker I know added silently—happy to leave. And in between those two points? You guessed it: happy.
Grumble all you want on your own time. But while you’re at an event, give the people what they want: You and your wisdom.
I arrived early for the first session of the conference. I didn’t want to miss a word of the fascinating and potentially provocative panel discussion they’d scheduled to kick things off. But before the panel began, the organizers introduced and thanked the conference sponsors. Fabulous! The sponsors’ contributions made the conference possible, so I was happy to give them my attention and my applause.
Until they started speaking. And they all gave the same speech.
Three of them—back to back to back.
Not fascinating. And certainly not provocative. Boring for the audience and—how could it not be?—embarrassing for the speakers.
How not to give the same speech as everyone else
When you’re asked to speak at an event, find out how you fit into the program. If you’re in a lineup of sponsors like that, recognize that you’re all there for the same basic reason—to support the organization and its goals. But you don’t have to give the same speech. In fact, please please please don’t. Please?
I mean, mention your company’s support if you feel you must. But we get it: they made a big donation. So did the other companies whose reps are speaking before and after you.
So how can you make your speech different?
Tell a story. A story about how your company supports the kinds of people in the audience. Show is always more powerful than tell.
Talk about how the conference’s goals intersect with your own life. You can bet the guy from Universal Widgets & Pizza won’t be saying the same thing right after you.
To be fair, the last of the three sponsors did tell a story. In fact, his story woke me from my torpor and reminded me that this was the first unique thing I’d heard all morning. I started taking notes.
While the previous two speakers had started by blathering on about how their companies love the conference organizers and issues, Guy #3 started out by talking to us—his audience. No, it’s not a mind-blowing revolution in speechifying, but the previous speakers didn’t manage to do it.
He focused on what we could get out of the experience of being at the conference. He told stories about his personal journey with some of the issues we address. He connected with us on a human level. And then he launched into the usual blather, which—except for his company’s name—was practically indistinguishable from what the other sponsors had said.
Moral of the story
Even when you’re speaking as a representative from your organization, be more than a body holding a larger-than-life-size check. Be a person. Share your story with the audience and we will remember you. Yes, and your company’s sponsorship, too.
On the final day of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce convention, I ran into a woman spoken to quite a bit during the previous few days—a straight woman there on behalf of her company, founded and run by two gay men.
“So how was your night last night?” she asked. “Did you go out after the reception?”
“Last night?” I said, “I went to bed with Rachel [pause] Maddow.”
It’s a pretty reliable joke. But on this occasion, it went somewhere completely unexpected.
“Oh,” she said, sort of laughing. “But she’s married to a man, isn’t she?”
[GIANT PAUSE] And then I set her, you’ll pardon the expression, straight.
I know what happened. At least I’m pretty sure—I was too stunned at the time to ask. But I did the important thing: I corrected the record.
I think at some point she heard that Maddow is married and then unconscious bias kicked in. Married woman = woman with husband, right?
Marriage has been legal for same-sex couples everywhere in the country for several years now. It’s past time to drop the assumption that a married person must have an opposite-sex partner.
And this from a woman who works for gay men, who chose to attend an NGLCC conference, who self-identifies as an ally.
Unconscious bias can happen to everyone
Do you have unconscious bias? If you’re a human being, the answer is yes. I mean, maybe the Dalai Lama has escaped it, but the rest of us all form opinions about things. And sometimes we base those opinions not on facts but on stories we tell ourselves.
Regular readers know I’m a great advocate of story-telling, but only the conscious kind. When we tell ourselves stories about people without having any facts to back them up, that’s called stereotyping. Or, if it’s done by law enforcement-types, profiling.
Now this particular instance of unconscious bias didn’t cost anyone their job—although if the woman’s gay bosses found out she thought Rachel Maddow was straight…well, who knows what would have happened?
But her unconscious bias gave me the perfect opening story for the panel I participated in less than an hour later. I used it to illustrate the idea that we LGBT people must continue to be visible, because some people will unconsciously “straighten us out,” as the woman did to Rachel Maddow.
LGBT people can have unconscious bias, too—like when we hear someone’s a Christian and automatically assume that means they think we’re going to hell. Hey—I’ve been an Episcopalian for nearly 30 years; I know not all Christians hate us. And I still get wary when I meet someone who identifies as a Christian.
We’ve got our work cut out for us—all of us. But we can’t eliminate the evils of racism, homophobia, and all the other -phobias and -isms out in the world until we tackle the -isms and -phobias that live in our own heads.
One of my friends is writing a book, but it’s taking longer than she expected. Why? “I write best when I’m inspired,” she says. So even though she’s blocked off time to write on her calendar, she often doesn’t fill it.
I pulled out the Somerset Maugham quotation:
“I write only when I’m inspired. Fortunately, inspiration arrives at 9:30 every morning.”
We all write best when we’re inspired; no surprise there. But inspiration is a lot like Godot—you never know when (or if) it will arrive.
Real writers—by which I mean the kind of writers who finish projects and ship them out into the world—write even when inspiration gets grounded by a tornado at O’Hare. Will it be our best work? Not bloody likely. But it will be something. And “something,” we can always edit that to make it better.
Write best when you edit later
My friend took my advice to sit down and write, whether or not she felt like it. The next day, she confessed how hard it was to write without editing. She didn’t like leaving her work “imperfect.”
I guess she didn’t get the memo: Nothing is ever perfect. And, anyway, how can you know what “perfect” looks like if you’ve only written a few paragraphs. You can’t possibly know how those paragraphs will fit in the jigsaw puzzle of words you’re assembling. Besides, you need to let the writing sit before you edit it. Otherwise you’re like a car stuck in a muddy rut: you can spin your wheels but you won’t make any forward progress.
So give yourself free rein to write when you write. And let the critic wait until you’re done—yes, with the entire piece—before you edit. In fact, finish writing the entire project and then put it away for a day, a week, a month—the longer it took you to write, the longer you should wait. And then revise. It’ll be worth it in the end, I promise.
Do you struggle with revision? I’m putting together a program for you. Sign up here and I’ll let you know the moment it launches.
For probably my last blog about the cemetery (for this year), I’d like to take you on a brief tour.
Meet the Putnam family headstone:
I love that font. Very elegant. And don’t worry—individual Putnams are either listed on the reverse or accorded their own tiny stones around the family one. That’s not the point of this post.
Meet the Mischitellis:
I don’t know what to call that font but it reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelites for some reason. And the stone is nowhere near Pre-Raphaelite-era.
And the Lipperas.
Black granite would not be my first choice but this works very well. That’s not the point of this post, either.
Now, meet these folks:
And there’s the point of this post. A grave marker (pink granite obelisk atop concrete) with a punctuation mark.
As in “Period. End of sentence.”
Punctuation on a gravestone. Well, it is The End—for those Barrells, at any rate.
As I was driving out of the area, I passed a building with punctuation. I thought it was the same family, but no. Those were Bartletts. As in
(That’s from their website; it’s the same font that’s painted on the 1870 building, only a different color.)
With the grave marker, I’m thinking maybe the guy realized too late that he had extra room and threw in a period for balance. But I don’t think that excuse holds for whoever painted the “Bartlett House.” sign.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame held its 2018 Induction ceremony this past weekend—that’s one of the reasons I took Thursday off to visit Cooperstown; I wanted to avoid the Induction Weekend crowds.
Cooperstown remains a lovely New England-y village. A friend of mine, a former sportswriter, compares it to Brigadoon because “it comes alive only in the summer.” Brigadoon on the fast track, you might say.
On this lovely summer day as I walked down the main street, I passed an elderly man sitting nonchalantly on a bench opposite a memorabilia shop, periodically announcing that a ’70s-era baseball star was inside, signing autographs.
The deal was, you’d go in the shop and buy a ticket to see the player. But then you had to exit the shop and find your way to the back of the building, whereupon you could re-enter and make your way into His Presence.
Now, this arrangement probably makes sense for many perfectly non-metaphorical reasons. If the shop let the autograph-seekers line up in the front door, it might prevent other customers from coming in. Or they may have been taking a cue from Disneyland, creating the longest possible line in the smallest possible space.
Shame & the back door
But the afternoon I was there, I saw no line. Didn’t seem to be much of a rush to buy tickets, either. Maybe things would change once the crowds appeared over the weekend, but on Thursday the old baseball player could have been sitting next to guy touting his presence on the sidewalk and he wouldn’t have stopped any traffic.
Still, I found it appropriate that fans wanting to see him had to sneak in the back door. Because the player sitting somewhere in the recesses of that musty memorabilia shop, earning a living by wielding a Sharpie, was Pete Rose.
The greatest baseball commissioner of the modern age, A. Bartlett Giamatti, banned Rose from baseball for life. Rose had developed a gambling addiction and bet on baseball games—a major no-no. He’d even bet on some games he managed, though he swore he never bet against his own team. Later, when he had a book to sell, I think he abandoned even that excuse.
I know, I know, betting on baseball hardly merits an “oopsie” in the current age—when ethical violations at the highest levels seem to occur about as often as Starbucks sells lattes. While our government holds tiny children in cages after ripping them from their families, outrage about betting on a baseball game seems almost quaint.
But for those of us who love the game—and ethics—nothing short of Giamatti’s lifetime ban would do. Today’s commissioners, drawn from the ranks of baseball team owners, seem to care less about ethics than about cash and star-power. The “lifetime ban” on one steroid-using pitcher will last about three years. And not because the guy has died.
Maybe the shop owners hid Rose inside because if he’d been out on the sidewalk, people would have told him what they thought of him. And it wouldn’t have all been polite, believe me.
Rose is tip-toeing back toward baseball now, hoping a commissioner with less spine than Bart Giamatti will let him back in the front door. So far, no; I hope that holds.
He’s a color commentator for one of the networks that broadcasts games nationally (maybe Fox?). But notwithstanding his prowess as a baseball player, the back of a memorabilia shop should be as close as Pete Rose will ever get to a Hall of Fame induction.
Funny thing about writing: it’s one creative skill you can actually learn—and improve—by doing it every day. Get the skills and support you need to get your writing out in the world. A new Writing Unbound class begins this fall.
Last time I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, NY—nearly 30 years ago—I loved it so much I spent two straight days there. This time: about four hours. As I toured its three floors, I realized that the exhibits mostly consisted of about five things: bats, balls, gloves, caps, and jerseys. It’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Arts’s Costume Institute, minus the sequins.
But even though so many of the artifacts on exhibit may belong to the same genus—baseballs, for instance—they tell remarkably nuanced stories if you care to look. There’s the baseball (could it really have been black? I think it was) that one young man hit for a home run in his very first at-bat as a major leaguer. Astonishing. What’s even more astonishing, he’s only the most recent player to achieve that feat; three others did it ahead of him.
And jerseys. Most come from players’ high points. There’s Daniel Murphy’s Mets jersey from the 2015 post-season, when he briefly lifted himself from mediocrity. Two jerseys side by side commemorate Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s race to break the single-season home run record. Sadly, those jerseys hang in an exhibit about performance-enhancing drugs, which both athletes were later found to have taken. A stain on the game.
Baseball brings people together
Then there’s the Hall itself, a light, airy space lined with bronze plaques featuring bas-relief likenesses of some of the heroes of the game. Upstairs, in the Museum wing, you’ll find a fairly thorough and honest exhibit about the old Negro Leagues and another one on the impact Latino players have had on the game. But down in the Hall of Fame, everyone is the same color: bronze.
I don’t wish for a color-blind society; we need to appreciate, not erase, our differences. But in the Hall of Fame, everyone is equal. You can’t see who speaks English and who doesn’t (something a few baseball fans I know care about, though I wish they didn’t). All you can see is greatness. Hundreds of men—and at least one woman!—who all love this game.
My Mets have been playing poorly this year. Many fans wonder if the owners care about winning anymore. But my day in Cooperstown reminded me why I love the game so much.
And it reminded me how many stories you can find, even if you’re only looking at hundreds of balls, bats, gloves, caps, and jerseys.
If I could find so many stories in a museum devoted to one thing, how many stories can we find in the marvelously diverse setting of the Getty Center? Architecture, gardens, art, people-watching. Join us for the Story Safari™ Field Trip.
No, my friend wasn’t talking about an unexpectedly starch-free dinner. She was talking about a metaphor. Or, I suppose since they were literal potatoes rather than descriptions of potatoes, we should properly call them a symbol.
We had gone, separately, to see the production of Leonard Bernstein’s rarely seen musicalization of the Peter Pan story. At the opening of said production, a group of young people in yellow hazard suits wheeled a metal shopping cart full of potatoes onstage. They then spent several minutes scurrying back and forth, lining the potatoes up at the front edge of the stage. I think this action took place instead of a traditional overture. And if you’re wondering what potatoes have to do with Peter Pan, you are clearly not alone.
One of the primary rules of good directing is if you put something onstage, you have to use it. If the set has a balcony, you can expect someone will appear on it before the final curtain. If there’s a door, it will get slammed. If there’s a row of potatoes…well, Wendy affixed one around her neck (she told Peter it was a kiss) and it later saved her from being killed by an arrow. And Captain Hook’s crew speared them and cooked them like marshmallows over their campfire. That was enough to justify their existence for me.
Oh, and the shopping cart in which the potatoes made their original entrance! We saw that again, put to delightful use when it ferried a mermaid with a lovely voice across the stage at key moments. Well, you wouldn’t expect a mermaid to walk. She sat on top of the cart, waving her fin seductively.
Perhaps you can tell, this Peter Pan was a very fanciful production. Quirky and weird, and for the most part charming.
Use your potatoes—er, metaphors—wisely
But the potatoes.
My friend who didn’t “get” them is no rube. She’s a longtime theater reviewer around these parts; she’s seen it all. But I have to agree with her. The potatoes did seem rather random. Although the director made an effort to incorporate them in the stage business, there’s no real reason the items in question had to be tubers. They could as easily have been stuffed animals, or marshmallows, or pool noodles, or…
You might easily run into the same problem with your writing. Tell stories, use metaphors — by all means! But whatever you use must tie in with the theme of your work.
That’s not to say you need to address it in every paragraph. No faster way to bore a reader.
But if you start the piece with it, find a way to bring it back at the end. That will deliver a very satisfying experience for your reader. Bonus points if you can mention it lightly somewhere in the middle, but circling back to it at the end will tie up your writing in a neat little bow.
Oh, and this may go without saying, but don’t use potatoes. I mean, you can if they tie into your subject clearly. But don’t leave your audience scratching their heads—they might spend so much time trying to figure out your metaphor that they completely forget the important ideas you’re delivering.
Or they’ll find themselves craving French fries by the end of your speech.
Discover how to find unique metaphors and use them to make your work unforgettable. Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Details here.