Look ahead — “old sayings” vs. clichés

“Don’t look back. (You’re not going that way.)” Or, to translate into the preferred language of the SEO gods: “look ahead.”

look ahead

Do you read that as wise counsel? As a New Age-y cliché? Or as the worst driving advice ever?

It’s undoubtedly the last. My father the insurance man always instructed us to check the rear view mirrors before turning on the ignition. To be fair, he’d be perfectly fine with “Look ahead” too. He spent his days looking at wrecked cars and deciding how little—er, how much his company ought to pay for them. He knew everything that could happen to you in a car. So look back, look forward, look to your left, to your right—he insisted on all of it.

But in a metaphorical sense, “Don’t look back”—is it wise or trite?

I think the answer is

Yes.

If all you do is toss it into your writing, then it has all the weight of a fortune cookie saying.

But if you use it to make a larger point, if you can connect it to emotion and story—then you’ve got the making of something powerful.

It’s like anything, right? You don’t just drop a quotation into the middle of your work and then never mention it again.

“No man is an island entire of itself.”—John Donne

Well, yes. And…? As your reader, why should I care about that? How does it relate to me?

Look ahead

“Don’t look back” resonates for me now because I’m packing. (Argh.) And looking back is pretty much 90% of the packing game, right?

Do I really need to keep my 1980s edition of Trivial Pursuit? What was trivial then is now, like, super-obscure and useless information now. But I remember buying it, carrying it home, being one of my first friends to own it. Nope, Goodwill that sucker.

The handmade ceramic tile with my two-week-old footprints on it—even more trivial than the Trivial Pursuit. Completely useless to every conceivable Goodwill shopper. But my baby footprints! Jury’s still out on that. Oh, I would drive Marie Kondo crazy.

“Don’t Look Back” could make a fine Story Safari for a company in the throes of change. (And when is a company not in the throes of change?) When do you honor the legacy processes? How do you implement new ones without alienating half your workforce? Well, don’t look back; you’re not going that way. So what’s next.

In that context, “Don’t look back”—or, pace, gods of SEO—”look ahead” isn’t a cliché at all. It’s a great hook for a story.

Now, excuse me. I’ve got more packing to do.


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Elaine St. George: Happy birthday, Arlo

Our first guest blog post comes from…me, the singing side of me. I don’t blog often as Elaine St. George—come to think of it, I don’t sing often as her these days, either. But I’ll take any opportunity to remind the world about the underappreciated singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. So enjoy this post from July 10th, 2015:

Happy birthday, Arlo

by Elaine St. George

Arlo Guthrie
Arlo in 1979, publicity photo from Warner Bros.

It’s Arlo Guthrie’s birthday today. Obviously Arlo holds a special place in the hearts of Steve Goodman fans. His cover of “City of New Orleans” gave Steve his first visibility. Well, as much visibility as a songwriter ever gets when he’s not singing his own song. Even if it’s a hit.

When I bought my first Steve Goodman album in the late ’70s and found “City of New Orleans” on it, I’ll admit I checked the credits twice. Like most of the rest of America, I assumed Steve was covering Arlo’s song. A few years later, of course, that perception changed. When Willie Nelson sang “City of New Orleans” in the mid-’80s, presumed authorship of the song transferred to him. Steve got his first Grammy when Willie’s cover won “Best Country Song.” But by then Steve was no longer around to receive it. He’d died a few months earlier.

And that brings me back to Arlo Guthrie, because in a way it was through him that I rediscovered Steve. Well, not “rediscovered”—I’d never forgotten about him. But that was when I decided to put together a whole show of Steve’s songs. And that show has now turned into an album. But I digress…

(Cue the harp and the wavy focus to signify a flashback…)

Five or six years ago, I did a show in Boston. The venue wanted a longer set than I’d planned so I had to add some material and I thought, “Why not do some songs written by people who live in Massachusetts?” First person who came to mind was James Taylor, but I had trouble finding a second. Then I remembered Arlo Guthrie had written “Alice’s Restaurant” about a place in the Berkshires so I decided he’d be perfect. I couldn’t cover “Alice’s Restaurant”—I didn’t have that much time to fill! But I thought I’d sing “City of New Orleans” and tell a story about how Arlo hadn’t written it, Steve Goodman had.

Being a thorough kind of gal, I researched the backstory and I discovered two things:

  1. Arlo first heard “City of New Orleans” when Steve had the guts to walk up to him out of the blue in a crowded bar, introduce himself, and ask Arlo to listen to the song. The rest, as they say, is history.
  2. Steve had the guts to do that because he knew he didn’t have any time to waste. He was dying of leukemia. In fact, he had died in 1984 at the age of 36. And I’d had no idea.

A little more research confirmed that #1 wasn’t exactly the truth. But #2 absolutely was. This guy whose work I loved—whose songs were so full of life and heart—was gone. And I’d missed it completely.

How had I remained so clueless? I’d moved on, listening more to showtunes, the Great American Songbook, and jazz than to the folk music that had sustained me in my teen years. But now that I knew the real story—or something closer to the real story—of Steve’s big break as a songwriter, I thought more people deserved to hear it. And I decided I needed to tell it.

For the record, the real story—as recounted in Clay Eals’s incredibly thorough book Steve Goodman: Facing the Music—is that the meeting was no accident. It was set up by a Chicago club owner who knew Steve had a great song on his hands and wanted to get him a break. The other part of the real story is that Steve only became a songwriter after doctors told him he had leukemia, and maybe only a year more to live. With typical Steve guts, he managed to stretch that one year out to 16.

That resonated with me. No one would have blamed Steve if he’d spent the rest of his life on a beach somewhere. But he insisted on living. And creating. That’s when he turned himself into a songwriter. And that’s how he had the guts to sing his song for Arlo Guthrie. Yes, the meeting was prearranged. But Steve showed up for it. And he kept showing up, until the leukemia finally claimed him.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything creative—art, singing, whatever—but it takes courage to stand up there on stage or hang your picture on a wall and say, “This is who I am. This is what I care about.” Steve did that. He seized every opportunity he could to share his work with people. He inspires me as an artist every day. And I hope that by telling his story and singing his songs, I can inspire other people to do whatever seems hardest for them.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying: Thank you, Arlo Guthrie. You have no idea who I am, but you’ve had an impact on my life. Happy birthday.


 

Bravery and thanks

I got complimented for my “bravery” yesterday. I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you.”

Of course, that was the last thing I wanted to say. That “thank you” had to bubble up from under a thick layer of denial and deflection. Do you go through the same process when you get a compliment?

I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation between the compliment I got yesterday and the action I took today but I did in fact do something brave today. I asked for a favor. Several favors. Well, one favor from several people. And not just any people; I reached out to some rockstars.

The first rockstar I asked—a very busy person—hit Reply almost immediately, and didn’t just say yes to my request, she actually thanked me. For asking her for a favor:

bravery and thanks

Go figure. Rockstar #2 wrote:

bravery and thanks

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two rockstars and four exclamation points. Ordinarily I’d say that’s much too high a concentration of exclamation points, but—hey—they were excited. That I had asked them a favor.

The bravery in asking for help

Writers have to be brave. But our bravery often consists of just ignoring the negative voices in our heads long enough to put words to paper or bytes on disk and send them out into the world. Again, despite the negative voices—some of which will show up outside our heads once we ship. As the old saying goes, “Everyone’s a critic.”

So I may be brave in some respects, but I still feel like the Cowardly Lion in many others. Not that that’s a bad thing—he’s got some of my favorite lyrics in The Wizard of Oz. But when I step outside my comfort zone, I am rarely disappointed. One of these days maybe I’ll remember that.

Okay, dammit. I’m contacting Rockstar #3.


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Meaningless words — politics today

I try to confine my political posts to Fridays, but due to user error, my Friday blog posted yesterday. I was just going to link to it again today but then I came across a Vox article about how the current political climate has become a collection of meaningless words.

“Republicans’ Obamacare repeal drive has revealed a political system where words have no meaning”

That’s a helluva headline. And the subhed isn’t any sunnier:

This is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Writer Ezra Klein doesn’t pull any punches

“This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.”

Lying is immoral, of course. Think about that the next time these lawmakers piously try to restrict women’s access to abortion and defund programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. But a bigger challenge than the havoc their policies are wreaking is the havoc created by their policy-making.

meaningless wordsAs Klein notes, the political system

“…is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery.”

Politicians may spin but we can generally count on them to do something approximating what they say they will do. Klein again:

“That is not the case here.”

McConnell’s meaningless words

Klein offers some choice selections from “Restoring the Senate,” a speech Mitch McConnell gave in 2014. It includes gems like:

“…if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife.”

He also bemoaned the demise of the Senate’s “vigorous committee process,” and promised he would restore it, if given the chance:

“There’s a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. Well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become. Bills should go through committee. And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”

If the Democrats got the opportunity to filibuster this healthcare bill, forged “in the Majority Leader’s conference room” (a practice McConnell decried just three years ago)—if we had the opportunity to filibuster, I think they should take the floor, one after the other, and read McConnell’s words into the record. Because the things he spoke out against are a blueprint for everything he is now doing.

Meaningless words, empty gestures

John McCain, former American hero, returned early from his taxpayer-funded brain surgery and spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about returning to the “normal order” of things—the committee process, bipartisan cooperation—the kind of utopia McConnell laid out in his 2014 speech.

Opponents of the bill needed just one vote to stop McConnell’s Motion to Proceed. McCain’s vote. In an alternate reality, we might expect him to vote against the motion. Sadly, we’re living in the reality where words have no meaning. Of course he voted Aye.
UPDATE: Except to John McCain, whose 11th hour No vote struck the final blow. Had he signaled his intention to vote No earlier, his Republican colleagues might have had time to retrench and try again. “Wait for the show,” he told a Democratic colleague as they headed to the Senate floor.

Klein concludes:

“Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.”


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Lessons on Tyrrany — The Art of Charm podcast

I sampled a new podcast this week, The Art of Charm. The episode I listened to fascinated me, and although the guest was certainly charming, his subject matter was anything but. What’s a discussion of tyrrany doing on a podcast about charm? I don’t know, but I’m glad I heard it.

Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale, specializes in 20th Century Russian and Eastern European history. So he knows a lot about how societies descend into totalitarianism. He said,

“Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

To help that learning process along, he’s written a book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s priced to sell—under $4 as an e-book, under $7 in print—and if the book is half as informative as his conversation on the podcast, we need to get it into the hands of as many people as possible. In fact, just stop reading right this minute and listen to the podcast. It’ll take less than an hour of your time, and it might save your life. Or our country. Or both.

Snyder not only believes the slide toward authoritarianism has already begun in this country, he’s actually surprised democracy didn’t devolve sooner. He says the Founders expected the Republic would be challenged much sooner. While we’ve been lucky to escape authoritarianism in the past, our luck seems to have run out.

“We have people in the executive branch now who are indifferent and hostile, in fact, to democracy and the rule of law.” — Timothy Snyder

Snyder argues that we are on a steady path away from political life as we knew it. If you doubt that, see Vice.com’s “Trump Tracker” offers a running list of events and behaviors that defy the norms of political and social discourse. It’s a sobering, and head-scratching, read. The president’s bewildering behavior is one thing, but how can a third of the country—and nearly 100% of the Republicans in Congress—not care that Normal is shrinking to a speck in the country’s rearview mirror?

Can we do anything to stop the slide into tyrrany?

Yes, Snyder says. But we must act quickly. Get engaged politically—turn off your Netflix binge-watch and learn about the issues. Don’t just accept what the authorities say. Make up your own minds. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

And learn about the smaller acts you can take to stave off an authoritarian mindset. Talk to someone who’s not like you. Snyder says Jews in Germany in the 1930s wrote about their neighbors who stopped talking to them, people who used to be friendly and now crossed the street. Don’t let the authorities sow mistrust of any group—as they have started to do with people from Muslim-majority countries.

When you see a swastika—and I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase, but swastika graffiti is becoming more prevalent every day—wash it off, or paint over it. Don’t let signs of hatred become normal.

And don’t “obey in advance.” Don’t make decisions based on what you believe the authorities want, or might want in the future. Hold fast to your values.

The window for positive change is closing fast. Resistance has to hit in the early months, before an authoritarian regime has had time to consolidate its power. After that window closes…I don’t even want to think about it.

Listen to the podcast. Read the book. And do something before it’s too late.


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Multitasking can change the world

Multitasking has a bad reputation these days. As well it should; it’s probably the least efficient way to work. Or to do anything, for that matter. But the right kind of multitasking can change the world.

Take my friend Jan Abernathy. I wrote about her last week. So far we’ve only met in the comments thread of a mutual friend’s Facebook post and in a lively exchange of texts that followed. But I already like her.

I know Jan Abernathy’s multitasking can change the world; indeed, it already has.

You see, Jan works for a small independent school. And like most administrative folks at small independent schools, she wears two hats. In this case, she’s a co-chair of her school’s equity and justice task force. And she also does marketing and communications, which includes editing and publishing the school’s magazine.

It turns out, Jan and I had already met. By email, a few years ago. She remembered my name when our friend introduced us—”But I thought, what are the odds?”

When I sent in my class news for the magazine, it must have stood out. While most graduates write about their children or their career milestones, I wrote about my wedding. To a woman.

I didn’t even think twice about sending the wedding announcement to my high school and college alumnae magazines. But my grammar school….Whenever I see photos of their events it always looks like the Republican convention. (Not the most recent one—the ones before the party lost its collective mind.) You know what I mean: happy, affluent, straight, suburban people sipping Chardonnay.

If they thought the school turned out lesbians, they might spill their wine.

“Got married—finally!”

But I sent in the news anyway:

Got married—finally!—in Dec. 2013. My wife, Dane, works at [Fancy University] so I moved to [Fancy University Town] and am enjoying the perq of auditing classes for free. Still writing speeches for the corporate world (see BennettInk.com) and singing (see ElaineStGeorge.com). Just won a Bistro Award for Outstanding Vocalist.

I expected if they ran it at all, they’d try to slip it in as unobtrusively as possible.

When I saw the return email, I figured they were going to ask me to edit it—”for space,” naturally. Instead they said: Tell us more! Where did you get married? And can you send a photo?

I sent in the the details about the church and the priest and the reception. But a photo? The last thing I ever expected.

The photographer was still a couple of months away from giving us his work, so we didn’t have one of those everyone-lines-up-and-smiles-at-the-wedding pictures. I wrote back that I wouldn’t have anything appropriate in time for their deadline.

The response: We’ll wait.

multitasking can change the worldStill, I understand deadlines. So I sent back the only photo we had at that moment: Just the two of us. Very intimate. Very not suburban heterosexual. I was sure they’d never run it.

They not only ran it, they ran it in a call-out box. My lesbian wedding photo could hardly have been more prominent if they’d put it on the cover.

Eventually my amazement faded and I thought nothing more about it until last week, when Jan Abernathy told me she worked for a small independent school in the town where I had attended a small independent school.

And then she said she remembered my wedding.

I told Jan how much I had appreciated her asking for more details, for a photo. She said she was sure some people were shocked to read about the wedding, but those comments never reached her. And the photo: “I was prepared to fight for that picture,” she texted me. I almost cried. No, I’m lying; I did cry.

Intersectionality and multitasking can change the world

There’s a lot of talk these days about “intersectionality”—that no one is ever just one thing. For instance, I am simultaneously white, lesbian, Christian, an entrepreneur. I can’t really tease out the strands of my personality to present only one at a time. You are many things too, in addition to being one of my readers (for which I am grateful).

Jan Abernathy’s work-intersectionality—what I’ve been calling her “multitasking”—is what got my wedding photo published in that grammar school magazine. The school could have put many people in charge of the publication—at one point long ago, my beloved 4th grade teacher edited it—but they gave the job to the person who also works hard on inclusion issues, someone who gives marginalized people a voice within the school community. And when she opened my email, she saw an opportunity to lift up one kind of voice that doesn’t often get heard in that context. Honestly, I’m still amazed that it happened.

I told Jan that when she asked me for my photo, she made me feel normal. I mean, I don’t go around consciously feeling abnormal, but on two or three occasions I’ve had something happen that showed me what “regular” feels like. And it’s always odd to recognize that “regular” is not my usual state.

As it happened, Jan and I had our text conversation while she was en route to a conference for new heads of independent schools and she told my story, our story, to illustrate the impact that inclusion can have. On a person, on a school. On a community.

I loved that school. When I attended, way back in the late 20th century, it was about as diverse as you’d expect a school in an affluent New Jersey suburb to be. Which is to say not very. I’m glad they had the foresight—and the guts—to hire Jan. And to support her efforts to create visibility for the diverse members of the community, even if it does make some Chardonnay glasses tremble.

But this isn’t just a story about Jan Abernathy. It’s about all of us. Because we can’t be bystanders. If we want a diverse, inclusive culture, we can’t just sit back and let the “inclusion officers” handle it.

So I have some questions for you: Whose voice can you lift up today? Whose story can you tell?

“The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.” — John F. Kennedy


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Valuable stuff — permission to write

“Take the attitude that what you are thinking and feeling is valuable stuff, and then be naive enough to get it all down on paper.”

valuable stuffThat’s what Anne Lamott says in her great book on writing Bird by Bird. And I wouldn’t dream of arguing with her.

I’m in the “naive enough” stage with a personal project I’m working on. Every time my fingers hit the keyboard I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter whether anyone will want to read it. It matters even less whether anyone will want to buy it. What matters is that I give myself permission to write.

That doesn’t quite rise to the level of believing that what I’m “thinking and feeling is valuable”—but it’s good enough to make words appear on my screen. And that’s my goal right now.

Don’t let the noise mask the valuable stuff

Lamott again:

“The discouraging voices will hound you—”This is all piffle,” they will say, and they may be right. What you are doing may just be practice. But this is how you are going to get better, and there is no point in practicing if you don’t finish.”

And so I write. Every damn day. Because some of what falls out of my fingers onto the screen may turn out to be valuable stuff.

Which is the valuable stuff and which is the crap?

That’s for sorting out another day—when the discouraging voices take their coffee break. Try to revise when the discouraging voices are on duty and you’ll end up throwing it all into the trash. Which I know writers don’t really do anymore—all we have to do is drag an icon into the trash bin icon. But that’s hardly satisfying.

No, when the discouraging voices shout their loudest you’ll be ready to print out the whole draft for the sheer joy of chucking it into the real-life trash bin just to hear the satisfying CLUNK.

But it’s not, you know. It’s not all crap. There’s some valuable stuff in there, and you’ll see it once you’ve given yourself some distance. So step away from the computer. And breathe.


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How to make an impact — great advice from Avery Blank

Avery Blank
Avery Blank, LinkedIn profile picture

Avery Blank’s Forbes article on how to make an impact is the little black dress of business advice: It works just about everywhere.

The article’s title points it to a specific audience:

How To Make An Impact At A Conference, Even If You Aren’t The Speaker

But the advice she offers can apply to just about anyone: People new to the business world. Writers new to blogging and other forms of content creation. Professionals unsure about how to get their colleagues to listen them in meetings. In fact, Avery Blank’s advice sounds a lot like the advice I give my clients when they speak. So onstage or off, these tips will serve you well.

The first one that caught my eye was

“4. Ask one question, not two.

If you want to make an impact, less is more. The more you say, the less people will remember what you said.”

Identify the core idea you want to address. And articulate it concisely.

“5. Share a brief, personal story.

…Personal stories make an impact on people. They elicit feelings that connect and bind people together. Stories hold the power of creating common ground.”

Create common ground and people are much more likely to connect with you. And you must find a way of connecting emotionally—authentically—with your audience if you want them to a) remember what you say and b) act on it.

Avery Blank says step up and own your ideas

Okay, she doesn’t say that it so many words, but that’s how I translate her first three bits of advice:

1. Raise your hand.

2. Stand on your two feet.

3. Say your name.

Blank means literally raise your hand, stand up, and identify yourself. But these things also work very well as metaphors. Pitch yourself for opportunities as they arise. Make yourself visible and make sure everyone knows who’s coming up with all those great ideas.

Avery Blank’s final point is also about connecting:

“7. Look at others in the room, not just the speaker.

…Take the opportunity to connect with the audience….The remarks or questions that add the most value are those that others can learn from or connect with. If you want to make an impact, speak to benefit others, not just you.”

“Speak to benefit others”—I added the emphasis above because that’s the key to everything. Whenever you communicate, whatever you communicate, always keep the audience in mind. Address their needs, stir their feelings, inspire their action.

If you can do that, it won’t matter whether you’re the headliner onstage or the person sitting in alone in the very back row: People will remember you.


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Start on common ground

How do we find common ground?
Is it even worth trying?

These days, the most prevalent answers to these questions seem to be:

Who the hell knows?
Probably not.

The political scene in the United States in 2017 looks more like the battlefields of World War I circa 1917: Two sides dug in firmly. Neither of them willing to give an inch; neither of them gaining any ground.

Yeah, that last sentence concludes with a bit of wishful thinking. I don’t count Mitch McConnell out as of any fight, but I certainly hope the GOP doesn’t gain any ground with their deadly “healthcare” bill.

And that—right there—that’s the problem. It seems like the best I can hope for is stasis, paralysis. Is this any way to run a country?

So how do we find common ground?

The answer—well, one answer—came from an unexpected place this morning, as I was preparing to lead my advanced writing class. I re-read a passage from Seth Godin’s book All Marketers (Are Liars) Tell Stories in which he outlines the qualities great stories have in common. The final quality in the list:

Great stories “agree with our worldview. The best stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place.”

That explains the entrenchment, right? The Republican side listens to Fox News and that awful, racist website whose name I can’t bear to repeat and parrots their talking points (see last week’s post about Ana Marie Cox interviewing people at a Trump campaign rally in Iowa). The Democratic side listens to Rachel Maddow and reads The New York Times. The same New York Times that our president has branded as “failing.”

Having a self-appointed media critic as president only heightens the divisions. As he succeeds in sowing distrust of media outlets (“fake news CNN”), his supporters become even less likely to accept any objective reporting they may stumble across. How can we reach them with the truth?

Maybe we need to start with their worldview. Instead of fighting it, slip into it for a moment. Not all of it—of course, some of the president’s supporters have reprehensible views—but the worldview of the average person on the street. Or, in my case, behind the counter at the dry cleaner.

The Dry Cleaner & the Humpback Whales

A couple of weeks ago, I went to retrieve a jacket from the dry cleaner’s. The lady working the counter was listening to a talk radio show host rant about womyn’s studies—”spelled with a Y”—and dying humpback whales. The bit about the whales featured mournful background music, like one of those movies where the teenager finds true love just as the deadly disease claims her life. It was way over the top.

And I got offended. I felt disrespected. I mean, listen to whatever you want on your own time, but when you’re working in a public-facing role in a business, don’t make your customers listen to it too. After all, some of those customers might care about endangered species. Or be “womyn.” Okay, back in the late ’70s I too mocked “womyn”—but that’s not my point. Or maybe it is.

Common ground—there’s common ground, if we just care to look for it. Now, I wouldn’t have engaged the dry cleaner’s salesclerk in a discussion of male privilege and language. But I could have said something more constructive than what I did say—basically, that I thought they did great work but I wouldn’t be coming back because of “that crap you’re listening to.” Nope, no common ground there.

Opportunity Lost

As soon as I got back to the car I realized I’d missed an opportunity. I could have found something we’d both agree on. After all, the Congressional Budget Office had just published its score of the Senate’s healthcare bill. Millions of people would become uninsured, and those of us with insurance would face drastically rising premiums and drastically reduced coverage.

I wish I’d talked to her about healthcare. Maybe said something like, “Why are they talking about humpback whales on your radio show when the Senate is ready to vote on a healthcare bill that will affect everyone in the country?”

Or that’s probably even too partisan-sounding. Common ground: “Man, there sure is a lot that needs fixing in this country. Do you think whales are really the most important thing to talk about? I’m worried about my healthcare. How about you?”

Maybe I’d open her mind a little, get her to think for herself. Maybe the next time I saw her, we could find a little more common ground. That’s how cultural change happens. In one-on-one interactions, millions of them. Every single day.

common ground, literally
Literal common ground. An artist’s reconstruction of the Christmas Truce by A. C. Michael – The Guardian [2] / [3]Originally published in The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915., PD-US

Time for a “Christmas Truce”

One Christmas Day in the middle of World War I, opposing soldiers stepped out of their trenches and rediscovered their common humanity. No fighting, just eating. Some drinking. Singing. An improvised game of soccer. Small gifts.

One British soldier, Murdoch M. Wood, speaking in 1930, said: “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

Can we take it upon ourselves to stop the verbal assaults? Stop the mudslinging? The politicians won’t stop on their own. The media won’t stop either; even the more objective outlets cover politics like it’s a blood sport.

But we can stop, individually.

Let’s fight the politicians with every argument we can muster. But when we talk to each other, let’s choose to look for common ground. It’s pretty much literally the least we can do.


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Tailwinds, tutus, and a marathon commitment

They say “never say never,” but I feel confident you will never see me run a marathon. It’s not that I lack stamina; my writing streak stands at 426 days as I write this on Sunday afternoon—surely that counts as a marathon commitment. And while some days it feels like a walk in the park, others it feels like the Ironman with a couple of extra sports thrown in for good measure.

massive commitments
One of the rest stop volunteers during this year’s AIDS/LifeCycle ride

My friend Marcia has taken on several endurance rides and races. Last week wrote about the most recent—a week-long, 550-mile bike ride down the California coast, raising money for AIDS/LifeCycle.

During that long, hot bike ride, Marcia discovered many natural wonders: tailwinds that pushed the riders up steep hills; curves that revealed sudden, breathtaking views of the Pacific; volunteers at the rest stops wearing sparkly rainbow tutus.

She also discovered something wonderful about herself:

“…eventually, you don’t even feel it as your capability is massively enhanced. Tailwinds combined with graham cracker crunch bars and electrolyte drinks roughly every 20 miles made the whole 550 miles to Los Angeles about as effortless as a long ride could be.”

The 90-Day Writing Challenge, another marathon commitment

Marcia’s story arrived in my email as the writers in my 90-Day Writing Challenge are rounding a curve that reveals a breathtaking view of their finish line: the Challenge wraps up this Friday. A remarkable number of the writers who started it are on track to complete this marathon commitment, either writing for the full 90 days or just on the weekdays. I feel certain the writers would want me to add quotations marks around that “just.” Nothing feels simple when you’re struggling to make words come out of your fingers to meet a midnight deadline. But they’ve done it. And that’s an amazing accomplishment.

So what’s gotten them through it? Many of the same things that sustained Marcia, though with less sweating and (I’m guessing) less latex, or whatever space-age stuff they use in those bicycle suits.

Marcia had a team. It included her sister and several friends actually doing the ride, plus dozens of others who took on the very strenuous task of pushing a button to donate online. (Hey—I’ve put in a lot of hours of training to use that credit card at my peak performance level.) Plus the hundreds of volunteers supporting the riders in the field.

My writers also had a team: each other. When someone posted that she (no male writers in the challenge this time) felt she’d written poorly, the others provided strong tailwinds by reminding her that the challenge was not to write well; it was merely to write at all.

The writers shared their work in our private Facebook group and in person (well, via Zoom video calls) in a writers’ group. They loved the writers’ group so much that they insisted on meeting every week. And they plan to continue meeting even after the Challenge ends.

We had sparkly tutus, tu—er, too. I sent the group two writing prompts every week and made sure to include fanciful assignments like this:

marathon commitment

Even though most of my writers are business-oriented—writing blogs and website copy—it’s good to get out of your lane for a bit. Especially when you’re in the midst of a writing marathon.

Marcia and her teammates raised something like $30,000 for AIDS/LifeCycle. The 5-day writing challenges I’ve run to date have raised nearly $2,000 for Room to Read—with, as I’ve noted, much less sweat. The writers who complete this first-ever 90-Day Challenge will earn up to $150 apiece for their favorite charity. Those who put together shorter streaks during the challenge period will earn smaller donations.

How have you challenged yourself lately? My next 90-day challenge begins on Saturday. Stock up on graham cracker bars and electrolyte drink and join us. Sparkly tutus optional.