Friday, 11:01 a.m.
It's your Friday Happy Hour Video. Feeling a disturbance in the Force this week—a lot of people I love seem to be hitting a wall, which means I'm hitting it, too—and so I'm bringing out the big guns.
Friday, 7:42 a.m.
Awoke this morning from the first coronavirus dream. Why wasn't the EMT in the dream wearing a mask? Why was he hugging my sister-in-law? Why was his partner offering to shake my hand?
Thursday, 10:29 p.m.
Today I spoke with a friend who was embarrassed to tell me she's having a hard time this week, because I "seem to be doing so well" during coronavirus.
I told her I'm doing exactly as well as all my close relationships are doing, from hour to hour.
For me to feel any sense of well-being at all, my close relationships must be perfectly clean, perfectly straight and with hospital corners so you can bounce a quarter on them.
Which, as hard as we all try for each other, isn't possible, as upset and erratic as we all are these days. (It's also not possible ever.)
In normal life, I can go to bed no problem mad at my wife, or with her mad at me, or not being exactly sure what that look was all about. Fuck it, we've been married a long time, we'll get over it.
But during life under this siege—please cut my typing fingers off before I ever write, "the new normal"—everything's gotta be right, by the end of the night. Otherwise, as my new favorite singer would say … it feels like "the night will attack."
Today one of the fights I had with The People I Need to Be Clean With was with my 16-year-old daughter, who was pissed that our evening motorcycle ride didn't take us all the way to Lake Shore Drive.
"So lame!" she yelled over the engine as I turned for home on the west side of the Loop.
When we got home, I told her that I was saving a sunset ride on Lake Shore Drive for a better day—or many dozens of better summer days—when we'll have better weather and more time to enjoy it.
She replied with a carefully composed and seemingly rehearsed and absolutely adamant tirade about how silly it is to defer fun to the future. It came too fast to remember word for word, so I'll use italics to show I'm paraphrasing:
You should have fun now, instead of waiting to have fun later. You should enjoy your soccer now instead of waiting for the season to start, because you never know what's going to happen. That's what I've learned from this!
That's a pretty good thing to learn from this.
(And now, goddamnit, my sisters are going to be mad at me for taking their precious niece around on my motorcycle.)
Thursday, 6:55 p.m.
When last we met my Thai step-mother-in-law, the Facebook-translation-tortured Jutatip Bosch, she was holding forth on drinking.
"I have been drinking alcohol since before new year," she said in late February. "Let's try one pek ' oh it's so funny. I see the big pump. Haha. Try again. I want to see a big ant. Haha!!! Bamboo. If you want to have good wind, come on!!!! good night!!"
Last week she posted on eating (and medicine, and loss): "The doctor has lost many things. Oh, life is allergic to clams. There are mussels, scallop, oysters, (but bitter clams, I can eat the countryside. Haha!!!! Many more things that I lost."
You and me both, Sister.
Thursday, 9:02 a.m.
Where "civility" meets the road.
From The Dallas Morning News:
Airlines are telling their crews not to enforce face mask rules once customers are on board and planes leave airport gates.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines is instructing crews that “once on board and off the gate, the face covering policy will become more lenient.”
“The flight attendant’s role is informational, not enforcement, with respect to the face covering policy,” American said in the note to crew members.
Communication consultant Jerry Stevenson responds, on Facebook:
Insane. Even if, for whatever inexplicable reason, you don't think masks work, don't be a jerk. Most flight attendants and others lucky enough to be employed right now do believe in them. And the message you send them is, "I don't give a crap about you, your family or anyone else but me." This isn't political. It's about sending a message that you are a kind, decent human being who appreciates the people who don't have the option to work from home. If nothing else, you'll get better service. And fewer sad or angry looks from those of us who do believe in them.
If there's anything I hate worse than than an "ethics column" in a newspaper, it's an "ethics post" on a blog.
Once, as a very young man, fighting with my very young girlfriend about not wanting to clean our starter apartment, I appealed to my father-in-law for guidance. She wants to clean. I don't want to clean. How to resolve this?
"Maybe," my future father-in-law-to, said reluctantly, haltingly, not wanting to appear biased against me, "You err on the side of the higher standard?"
I might have argued that I was erring on a higher standard: The higher standard of human experience, concerned with larger things than a little ring around the toilet bowl.
But even at 23—and I was a callow 23!—I didn't have the temerity to say some shit like that. I accepted Father-in-Law's Ruling, and went looking for the toilet brush.
Airlines, it seems to me, ought to have at least as much courage as he.
No shirt, no shoes, no service.
No mask, don't let the cabin door hit you on the ass.
Wednesday, 4:22 p.m.
Today in our daily Executive Communication Report: Coronavirus (to which you may now subscribe for free) we reported on how Twitter's HR VP Jennifer Christie told employees they can work from home even after the coronavirus lockdowns lift. From our report:
In a company blog post yesterday, Christie wrote, “Twitter was one of the first companies to go to a work from home model in the face of COVID-19, but we don't anticipate being one of the first to return to offices. … The past few months have proven we can make that work. So if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen. If not, our offices will be their warm and welcoming selves, with some additional precautions, when we feel it's safe to return.”
What is she thinking?
My experience with remote working teaches me that Christie's blithe vision of all-virtual all-the-time for-whoever-feels-like-it is not going to work. It's only working as well as it is now because everyone is still in crisis mode, everyone is terrified of losing their job—and most importantly than either of those—because people are drawing on collegial relationships established back in the scuzzy old days when people ate lunch together, when the water cooler was real and happy hour meant clinking drinks, not clicking links.
Even in those days, I thought a lot about this issue, because of how my own tiny company is structured; here's an excerpt from my forthcoming book, An Effort to Understand:
I have worked fulltime with someone who lives 1,750 miles away in Phoenix, Arizona, and with whom most of my communications are electronic. It is the single most meaningful professional relationship I have ever had.
Benjamine Knight is the chief operating officer of the company I run; she oversees all the administration of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine, the Professional Speechwriters Association and all of the events we put on and our events program, the Cicero Speechwriting Awards. You wouldn’t actually believe how much she does for this little company.
When she and I began working together, I assumed the physical distance between us would necessarily limit the nature of our partnership to functional, collegial professionalism. That beats the hell out of its opposite, but it does not build an organization the way that Benjamine and I, to both of our delight, have gone on to build ours.
Isn’t it a bit sterile and quiet and emotionally flat, to IM our way through every day? It would be, if we didn’t do a few simple things also:
We talk every week on the phone—on a two-hour, two-person “staff meeting,” where we always spend the first 15 or 20 minutes catching each other up on our personal lives. We want to do this—and I think we instinctively knew we hadto do this, to make each other real to one another, and to remind each other of our homely humanity. I have a weird rash on my arm that I’m going to get checked out if it doesn’t clear up by tomorrow. Her new couch is coming today—finally! I’m not a big fan of my teenage daughter’s boyfriend. She’s worried about her mother’s health.
We see each other six times a year in person, at our own conferences and seminars, and also at an annual planning session, in Chicago or Phoenix. Mixing with one another—and meeting our customers and partners together in person—deepens our bond, and we begin to develop shared colleagues, traditions, jokes and references and institutional lore, which are the building blocks of culture. There was the time in Montreal when our conference was about to start but the two of us were locked in a stairwell. And the seminar in Chicago, where I cleared the food off the table into the trashcan to make room for the afternoon snack—only to realize that was the afternoon snack. And the time I publicly thanked her at the end of the World Conference for being such a mensch, and I cried in front of the whole assembly. Oh right, that’s every time. And you can’t do it on IM.
What you can do on IM is be accountable to one another day to day and hour to hour. When Benjamine starts work in the morning—a couple of hours after I start, thanks to the time change—she says good morning before any business communication begins. If I’m going to go for a midday run, I tell her I’m taking a break and ask her if there’s anything she needs from me first. And always—always—we check in before we close down for the day, asking one another if there’s anything more we need, and sharing our plans for the evening, even if they only amount to reading a book or watching TV. By the day, over many weeks and several years, we have become such experts in the rhythms of one another’s lives and tones of voice even on IM that it’s hard for either of us to conceal anything—a hangover, a day of feeling overwhelmed or a day of just not giving a shit—from the other. So we rarely even bother to try.
Benjamine and I are very different people—in some important ways opposites, and not natural soulmates by any means. But we complement each other uncannily, and we know a couple things in common—one of which is how to work like hell and another is what it takes to keep in real touch with another person.
The head of HR for Twitter ought to understand that, too. She'll start to see it soon, when turnover begins, the crisis wears on, teams begin to unravel and people start to say, "Corporate culture? What corporate culture?"
An employee communication consultant I know is sweating this now. "I know two people who are starting jobs and onboarding remotely. They’re frustrated; they’re bosses are frustrated. Business has to go on. So there has to be an answer to this … I just haven’t found it yet."
There's probably a different answer for every organization, for every division, for every department and for every interpersonal relationship with in it.
And on the thoughtfulness of those millions of answers, the economic recovery itself will largely depend.
Tuesday, 9:53 p.m.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a speech, published in today's Guardian, that he thinks President Trump's speechwriters should give him to say to America right now.
I had a couple of speechwriting folks recommend that I share it with other speechwriters. I don't feel like it.
The question is, How could an ex-pro-basketball player write a decent speech for President Trump to give?
The answer is, Because any normal, literate human being could write a decent speech for President Trump to give.
Here's what the speech does, paragraph by paragraph.
• It compares Covid-19 to remorseless enemies America has faced in the past.
• It calls on Americans to show courage in the face of this attack.
• It takes responsibility for mistakes the government has made so far, and it refuses to make excuses.
• It discusses how the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting long downtrodden communities, and how it threatens to undermine the democratic process.
• It calls out and threatens racists and bullies who make the situation worse.
• It commits the government to carefully balancing public health and economic stability.
• It promises to study the source of the virus through scientific inquiry and not political inquisition.
• It pledges that the president won't campaign for office; he'll do the best job he can and let his actions be his argument for another term.
• And it makes a case that the president will be devoted to national unity against a common enemy.
Not exactly revolutionary thinking. As my old man might call it, "A magnificent grasp of the obvious."
Also? Jabbar might as well have written it for Mister Ed to give.
No matter how eloquent—and I'd rate Jabbar's speech medium on that scale—a speech is just a script until it is spoken by a leader who means it.
Until then, as a Chicago precinct captain I knew once said of our alderman, it's not worth two tits on a bull.
Professional speechwriters would be the very first to acknowledge that a huge proportion of the impact of an important speech has to do with the person who says it and the moment it's said—and a far smaller proportion has to do with the composition and language of that speech.
So a decently composed speech that its speaker could never form his lips to say?
That's the opposite of inspiring.
It's demoralizing, if that's possible at this point.
Tuesday, 5:31 p.m.
You know you're in over your education when Facebook shows you things like this. (Bakshian wrote speeches for Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.)
Tuesday, 3:32 p.m.
Trying to refresh soul for 3:30 staff call, but keep procrastinating taking a nap because lying down sober in the middle of the workday is sending roaring, free-floating anxiety an engraved fucking invitation.
Tuesday, 2:17 p.m.
I'm nobody's deejay, but this song has been haunting me after since my pal Ron Shewchuk posted it yesterday morning.
Monday, 6:55 p.m.
Last week's post about how coronavirus is making me feel young again went over like a lead balloon. First off, because it's obnoxious to say anything good about coronavirus. Secondly, because everyone is just so fucking sick and tired of everyone else's reflections. In fact, it might be time for another national or global Shut the Fuck Up Week, as I've proposed in the past.
When your writing doesn't resonate, that teaches you something, too—or it ought to.
In this case it tells me that this piece of writing won't resonate either. But it's an attempt to explain the peculiar (and limited [and privileged]) sense of well-being and spiritual cleanliness I feel during this.
This, usually, is the list of things I think I ought to be doing, in addition to running my company, which every week results in a list like this …
… here's what else I should do every week in normal times. (I've crossed out the items that coronavirus restrictions formal and informal absolve me of.)
Start a soup kitchen.
Become famous, or something.
Afflict the comfortable.
Ease off the hooch.
Make sure you get a good sleep or at least a nap.
Ease off the pasta.
Schedule a catch-up dinner with this old acquaintance or that potentially useful literary man-about-town.
Worry about the future. (Well, I woke up this mornin an' I got myself a beer. The future's uncertain and the end is always near. Let it roll, Baby, roll [see "hooch," above].)
Read that fucking book on my coffee table that explains the whole history of the Middle East.
Read Cicero and Aristotle and the speeches of Henry Wallace that some jagoff college student brought up the other night during an online class just to stump me.
Check to see if my wife is happy, and if there's anything I can do about that.
Check to see if my daughter is happy, and if there's anything I can do about that.
Respond to any friends or family in distress.
Make sure I'm doing everything I know how to do for my colleagues and the one tiny, weird, esoteric community that looks to us for leadership and connection. (See Vonnegut, below.)
I mean, I still have plenty to do, and I'm tired at the end of every day. But it's a good tired, because most of the items on my usually infinite to-do list are crossed off. So I actually feel, at the end of most days, that I've done what I set out to do, done what I was supposed to do, done what I could do.
And that's not a feeling that an adult with any imagination often has.
Does that resonate any better?
Fuck, I didn't think so.
Monday, 3:51 p.m.
Over the weekend I saw a commercial for a beauty product called "Beyond Flawless."
Which reminded me perversely of a columnist who once sent a fax thanking me and some editorial colleagues for a copyediting job that he called "subfecal."
What does this have to do with "coronavirus and us"?
Oh, I bet all your conversations are totally tracking.
Monday, 11:45 a.m.
I can’t even keep track of all the online commencement speech festivals taking place this week for college grads and next month for high schoolers.
But I do know that dozens of Important People are working with dozens of Invisible People right now—professional speechwriters—to say something that might mean something to young people, who could use to hear something meaningful right about now.
The good news is, writing and delivering a commencement speech is very simple, just a three-step process.
- Say something funny.
- Explain what you think we are doing on the planet.
- Tell the young graduates how to live accordingly.
Kurt Vonnegut did that pretty much every year for more than three decades. After reading the new third edition of his commencement speech collection, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? I’m convinced you can, too.
Let’s take these steps in order.
You have to say something funny, because one old person standing in front of hundreds or thousands of young people telling them how to live their lives is a funny situation. Saying something whimsical is only polite.
“Have we met before?” Vonnegut asked the class of 2001 at Rice University. “No. But I have thought a lot about people like you. You men here are Adam. You women are Eve. Who hasn’t thought a lot about Adam and Eve? This is Eden, and you’re about to be kicked out. You ate the knowledge apple. It’s in your tummies now. And who am I? I used to be Adam. Now I am Methuselah.”
In the same speech as in many of these speeches, Vonnegut declared what he believed is the homely purpose of human life: building stable communities.
“Some of you will become leaders, although that is now thought to be a somewhat grungy destiny. Nobody wants to be Papa anymore,” Vonnegut told graduates of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1974:
If you do have to lead, you may imagine that your mission is to help us find an amazing future. You should consider the possibility that you could serve the people better if you were to lead them intelligently and imaginatively back to some of the more humane and comforting institutions of the past. It seems certain that you will face plenty of social unrest in the future, and demands will continue to be made for economic justice. You will be very shrewd leaders indeed if you recognize that people are in fact crying out not so much for money as for relief from loneliness.
And most people will not be prominent leaders, he told the Rice grads in 2001:
Most graduates, any place you care to name, have been of use locally, rather than nationally, and have commonly been rewarded with modest amounts of money or fame—sometimes, more’s the pity, with utterly undeserved ingratitude. In time, this will prove to have been the destiny of most of you. You will find yourselves building or strengthening local communities. Please love that destiny, if it turns out to be yours—for communities are all that’s substantial about the world. The rest is hoop-la.
Step three: Tell them how to live. “Notice when you’re happy, and know when you’ve got enough,” Vonnegut told graduates of Butler University in 1996. Passing on advice he received from his own elders—this is another good thing to do in a commencement address, as it makes the affair less hubristic and more humble—Vonnegut credits his Uncle Alex for teaching him to enjoy himself:
Maybe drinking lemonade under a shade tree, or smelling the aroma of a bakery, or fishing, or listening to music coming from a concert hall while standing in the dark outside, or, dare I say, after a kiss. He told me that it was important at such times to say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
And he concluded:
As I read the Book of Genesis, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet.
He gave them a manageable piece of property, for the sake of discussion let’s say two hundred acres. I suggest to you Adams and Eves that you set as your goals the putting of some small part of the planet into something like safe and sane and decent order.
There’s a lot of cleaning up to do.
There’s a lot of rebuilding to do, both spiritual and physical.
And again, there’s going to be a lot of happiness. Don’t forget to notice!
Important People and Invisible People—and variably visible people in between!—it’s not too late to order this wonderful book, and remember that you don’t have to say anything new.
Better to say something old, and true.
Monday, 7:18 a.m.
My 16-year-old's Mother's Day poster, every 16-year-old's Mother's Day poster.