Friday, October 23, 2009

Tomorrow Our CFO Turns 40

This is how I knew he would be a great CFO:

Shortly after the hire, we had lunch at one of those Chinese restaurants that offers its food by the number.  So, a "#23" is egg foo young, fried rice and spare ribs.  Each meal is more food than three people could eat, and the kind of food many people would not eat at all.

Anyway, one of the cardinal rules at this place is "NO SUBSTITUTIONS."  The menu says "NO SUBSTITUTIONS" in about six places, all in red.  Bright red.  Big letters.  It might as well read "NUCLEAR WASTE."

Here comes the nice waitress.  I order a #15.  Our new CFO orders a #23 and then says to the waitress, "But I want to substitute chicken wings for ribs."

Just like that.  I thought the earth would open up and swallow us.

The waitress pauses, looks, pauses, looks.  Frowns.  Pauses.  And then says: "OK."

That's when I knew he would be a great CFO.  Through a half-dozen acquisitions, 40 quarters of growth, the design of compensation plans, and in battles with vendors and partners, he kept asking for substitutions when nobody else dared.

Today, that CFO is our COO.  Just another thing that comes from not being afraid to ask for substitutions.

Happy Birthday, Mike!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Running with Haruki Murakami on Columbus Day Weekend

Saturday morning, 6:30 a.m.—the single best moment of a long, holiday weekend.  There’s a light rain that looks like it’s moving off.  I throw on my sweats, drop my iPhone in a Glad plastic bag (a better exercise case than I can find in the Apple store), turn on a podcast of This American Life, and begin a long, hopefully intensive walk through the fall scenery of our little town. 

I’m walking (and riding) a lot more these days because, after years of running, I’ve been having trouble breathing.  It all started last winter when I caught a cold and flu that turned into walking pneumonia.  It’s much better now, but vestiges just seem to hang on.  I’ve chocked it up to getting old and tried to work around it.

Besides, walking is so much more pleasant than grinding out a run.

As for exercise entertainment--next to Bob Edwards’ Weekend--Ira Glass’s This American Life is my favorite companion.  I find good talk wards off pain and boredom better than music, even good music.  This particular edition of TAL is called “The Book That Changed Your Life,” and it is just hilarious.  The first segment, from playwright and screenwriter Alexa Junge (Sex in the City, West Wing, Big Love), tells about falling in love with playwright Moss Hart (husband of Kitty Carlisle, author of You Can’t Take It with You & My Fair Lady, and dead before Alexa was born) through his autobiography, and fashioning her early life after his.  It’s a hoot, especially when Alexa meets poor Kitty.

The second segment has 13-year-old David Sedaris finding a pornographic novel in the woods.  It would change his life, briefly and not for the better, and had me laughing out loud.

I mention this because last week my youngest brother sent me a book by Haruki MurakamiWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  I am embarrassed to say that, not only had I never read Murakami, I have never even heard of him.  (If you are as parochial as I, Wikipedia tell us Murakami “is the sixth recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize, is considered an important figure in postmodern literature, and The Guardian praised him as one of the "world's greatest living novelists.")

What I Talk About. . . can be read in an evening but is, in the vein of This American Life, a book that could very well change your life.  Essentially an essay about running—which Murakami has done lots of for more than a generation—and writing, effort and loss and success and coping, it is the kind of book that, as my brother wrote, you will finish reading and then want to re-read to discover all the things you missed.

So, there I was, walking along a quiet country road, listing to Ira Glass, thinking about Murakami.
One runner told of a mantra his older brother, also a runner, had taught him which he’s pondered ever since he began running. Here it is: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running.
And there I was, walking.  Walking fast, but walking.  Thinking about Murakami.
Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.
Now I’m walking even faster.  Don’t want to be a baby, after all.  (One of the guys at work saw me out walking the other week and advised me, “Don’t hurt yourself.”  Ouch.)
It doesn’t matter what field you’re talking about—beating somebody else just doesn’t do it for me. I’m much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself. . .In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.
It is now 40 minutes into my walk.  I’m laughing at David Sedaris, thinking about Haruki Marakami.  Thinking about what would happen if I run home.
When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger.
Now I’ve stopped.  It’s a cul-de-sac of quiet homes, and it’s still too early on a long weekend for sensible people to be awake.  What the heck.  Maybe I will run home.  Breathing is overrated.
I think this viewpoint applies as well to the job of the novelist. Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source, they’re in trouble.
20 minutes later—home.  Some of the old running kicked in.  Not so fast, but not so bad.  Maybe I’m still healing.
No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel kind of lethargic and don’t want to run. Actually, it happens a lot. On days like that, I try to think of all kinds of plausible excuses to slough it off. Once, I interviewed the Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko, just after he retired from running and became manager of the S&B company team. I asked him, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?” He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!” Now that I look back on it I can see what a dumb question that was. I guess even back then I knew how dumb it was, but I suppose I wanted to hear the answer directly from someone of Seko’s caliber.
The truth is, I don’t know if this book by Haruki Marakumi will change my life.  I only know that it changed my Saturday morning.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Men are From Mars, Women are From Hallmark

I went card shopping today to find an anniversary card for a couple we've known for years.  It’s fair to say that there’s some pretty wretched stuff out there in the form of maudlin, raggedy, iambic pentameters stuffed into $5.00 cards.

It takes two special people,
To make a loving pair.
There’s a joy just being around you,
A feeling we love to share.


Because we can't call people without wings angels, we call them friends instead.

Does anyone you know really talk to their friends this way?

Consequently, I found myself in the Shoebox section of the Hallmark aisle.  Shoebox cards are clever, like the excellent anniversary card I almost bought that started “Your butt cheeks are sagging. . . ."

I do believe a Shoebox cocktail party would be a memorable one, with lampshades used in all kinds of unspeakable ways.

Of course, Hallmark and other card companies go through the same marketing discipline we all do, segmenting their customers into buying groups and then creating, in the case of Hallmark, “commoditized sentiment” that appeals to that group.  In David Ellis Dickerson’s new book, House of Cards, he details his years working for Hallmark—a kind of Dilbertesque box-canyon for a guy with a masters degree in fine arts.

Dickerson tells us that women represent nearly 90% of the card market, causing Hallmark to segment along themes such as “How Much You Mean,” and “Thinking of You.”

Care to guess the most popular theme for men? 

That's right.  It’s known as SELD, or “Seldom Say,” and is described by Dickerson as “I know I don’t say it very often, but for what it’s worth I love you and here’s a card.”

Ever bought one of those, gents?  Ever bought anything BUT one of those?

The anniversary card I finally purchased has the guy on the front singing MC Hammer’s song, “Da da da da, Can’t touch this.”  You open it up and the gal is replying, “For the last time, I don’t WANT to touch it.”

Made me laugh out loud. 

By the way, for you Marketing types: I can’t explain the numbers either.  There are roughly as many women as men in America.  That means there are roughly as many birthdays for women as for men, and an identical number of anniversaries.  So, how do men manage to purchase just 10% of all greeting cards? 

There is one plausible explanation: Women must be buying cards for themselves. 

All of which means men really are from Mars.  But women, we now know, must often just be coming back from the Hallmark store.