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Walt Whitman

When I was a teenager, I worked one summer at my Grandfather’s can factory on the Southside of Chicago. Dominic was not my biological grand parent but I grew up knowing only him on my mother’s side. Dom was fierce, funny and a very loyal man. He treated me like blood.

His can company, called (for a reason I forget) Wisconsin Can was a line factory. Each person occupied a spot along a conveyor and did one menial but critical job. The end product was an aluminum can, usually for cookies or candy.

A log-haired, pot smoking dreamer, this was not my fantasy gig. I wouldn’t have lasted a week if not for Dom’s patience – if that were the right word. He would call me in to his office constantly to reprimand me for doing a half-ass job. During those sessions he’d also throw in various criticisms toward my liberal upbringing, castigating my parents for divorcing and other bon mots.

Yet, I actually preferred his berating me to working on the line. Partly because it took me off the line but also because it made me feel good –somehow- to be in his presence. In his own way, the man loved me.

Once, when I dared question him on the sanctity of factory work he told me something I’ll never forget, even if I don’t agree with it. He said, “Steffan, work isn’t supposed to be fun. Why do you think they call it work?”

Much later, I got into the advertising business. And I had fun. But I also knew I possessed a skill and that I was getting better at it. Unlike sticking a wrapper on a can, writing was (and still is) something I can sink my teeth into.

Yet, as we all know, this business is not always fun. Pressures mount and fears take hold. Work can become a trying experience, like a factory. Or worse. A factory that doesn’t make anything. I think of my grandfather during those times.

I know he had a point. One must earn a living. So, maybe “fun” isn’t the right word. Let’s try some others. If one feels “useful” and “purpose-driven” then that is better than fun. Wouldn’t you agree? Suffice to say, I wasn’t feeling either on the can line.

Give me this. Working in our business should at least aspire to be fun. Data be damned, creativity will always be more art than science. And art is about passion and, yes, having fun! When a creative is feeling it there is no better feeling. It’s like your Walt Whitman singing the Song of (Your)self. It’s glorious.

So, here’s to feeling it and being of maximum usefulness to your company, your clients and, most of all, yourself. May all of you find that happiness. It does exist.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

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Most people require a lifetime to decide…

I’ve been thinking about something my father once told me and I’d like to share that with you here. But first some history…

Newly married, I had just bought my first house – a brick cottage in a sketchy but up and coming neighborhood in Chicago. The place was a dump and I’d hired a number of people to help with the rehab. We found a young architect with no track record but a lot of big ideas. He’d drawn up plans, which, in retrospect, were ridiculous… and way over our modest budget. He wanted to blow up our warren-filled bungalow into this huge open space, with soaring ceilings and a catwalk! Like a fool, I green-lit the whole thing.

My solution for underwriting the high costs of his grand designs would come from hiring a cheap contractor: a guy named Wayne who said “no problemo” a lot. Guess what? We had problems. Turns out not pulling permits in Chicago is a bad idea – the first of many implemented by a man who proved to be nothing more than a drunk and a con. A month after demolition I had a huge mess on my hands –our hands. After all, I’d dragged my new bride into this shit show. Irate inspectors, a growing pile of bills, and a new mortgage on top of rent. We were in deep.

In my adult life I can count the times I’ve cried on one hand. The first such time came then. Sue and I were in a theater parking lot, a few blocks from our demolished house. I broke down. I was a new husband and so-called young urban professional. And I was failing. Miserably.

Exasperated, I called my old man and basically asked for help. If memory serves, that was the first time I ever had to do such a thing. God, it was difficult but I was bereft of ideas. Long story short, my father saved us. He “loaned” me 30 grand and I was able to clear my debts and finish the work with more reputable help. In addition to the scratch, my father also gave me a piece of advice. “Son,” he told me, “possessions possess you.” Obviously, he didn’t coin the phrase but I heard it from him first.

Decades later, I think about those words, especially when I open our credit card statement. Stuff. And more stuff. A cornucopia of swoon! Yes, we are blessed. But after I say my prayers at night, counting those blessings (literally counting them) I often recall my father’s words and shudder. For the genie is out of the bottle. And while he may grant wishes they are never given freely.

Yet, I also know:

Some day not too far from now my house will belong to another family, as all houses will. Our girls will be women. Our many things will have been rid of – perhaps at an estate sale. How classy is that? Flocks of young couples will pick through our belongings like carrion birds, eyes full of hunger at such prized possessions. They will gorge themselves. And I will smile and say to my wife: “honey, it’s their turn now.”

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Choose wisely…

Has anyone read The Paradox of Choice (Why More is Less) by Barry Schwartz? I started it the other day. His premise that our “culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction” captivated me. Deep down I’ve always felt –in spite of being a capitalist and an ad man- that having too many choices makes life chaotic. Mine anyway. Here was a book espousing the same idea!

The pressure to keep up is real. In high school and college we are given a syllabus: a defined and finite list of books we had to read. For most of us that was all we could handle.

Upon graduation, we create our own reading list –presuming we still read. I certainly do. However, I also love movies. I make it a point to see every best picture nominee in the Academy Awards. Recently, Oscar expanded that list to what, nine? How am I supposed to see all these films (not to mention the genre pictures I adore) and finish that book I just started?

It would help if I got off the damn computer…

Ah, the computer. Like many of us, I’m hopelessly addicted to the Internet. The trade blogs, the film blogs, the book blogs, and all those I-can’t-believe they’ve-got-a-site sites. Nothing says choice like the Information Superhighway. Damn you Al Gore for enriching my life! Damn you, Apple computers, for creating such glorious shiny, silver hardware.

On my devices I sail down the Amazon. There I can get anything I want -fast, cheap, easy. Do you like Ebay or are you a Craigslist guy? Perhaps there’s another etailer you prefer more – one that really knows you and what you like.

Am I missing anything? That’s the big question, isn’t it? Am I missing anything? The answer is yes. And that makes me nervous. Irritable. Discontent. It’s sort of like New Year’s Eve. No matter which party I chose I was missing another far better one.

But we prefer having choices, right? Sometimes I wonder. I’m relieved when a restaurant has only three dishes on its menu. The chef has chosen for me. Picking one of his specials is a no-lose situation. It’s even relaxing and enjoyable, which, come to think of it, is the whole point to going out for dinner.

Schwartz opens his book by recounting a visit to the Gap to buy blue jeans. Instead of merely having to find his size, which is daunting enough, he is faced with myriad styles to choose from: boot cut, relaxed fit, skinny, distressed, button fly or zipper. Black, brown, white or blue. And so on.

He wanted jeans. Not choices. What should have been a simple task became complicated, even fraught with peril. Yes, freedom of choice is the American Dream. But is it turning into a nightmare?

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Like anyone, creative people get angry. The competition for ideas and constant criticism of them gets to us. As can a power mad account executive or yet another contrarian for a client. We see it all the time in TV shows but anger at work is seldom a topic discussed in a serious way. We may experience anger as online vitriol or behind closed doors. Occasionally it takes the form of a blow-up during a meeting. I’ve been on both sides of all of the above scenarios.

Anger, as we know, is almost always directed at a person or group of people. We may lose our temper and go off on that person. Or we stew in resentment, grumbling and sulking, remaining silent as a stone. If we are mature, we ask for a meeting with the subject of our anger to clear the air.

Alas, many of us are not reasonable when we’re angry. After all, anger is a volatile emotion and it often interferes with sound thinking. It does to me. I have trouble thinking straight. It’s almost like a bad trip. A strange, primitive rush overtakes me and I become flush. I may say and do regrettable things. I am outside myself looking down upon a beast. Mr. Hyde. The Hulk. God help those in the path of my wrath. Fortunately, for most of us this kind of anger is quite rare. Resentment is far more common. Passive aggressive behavior can spread like weeds in an ad agency –or any company. The petulant child is less overt (obviously) than tantrum maker but just as hurtful in the long run.

We always hear about the negative effects anger has for those on the receiving end of it. But it is also hurts the deliverers. Being in anger might be useful in therapy or righting certain wrongs but by and large it is a negative emotion and a defect/disease for those who are in it.

The angry outburst is ugly. But I feel the aftershocks are even uglier. An emotional hangover is debilitating and often leads to more bad behavior (lying, backstabbing, gossip, etc.), which, in turn, hurts our nestlings and us worse than the initial tantrum. Unless one is a Teflon tyrant these disorders degrade us professionally. But they kill us on a personal level, too.

We will be shunned but deeper down we rot from anger. Enough rot and we become garbage. Even a little rot is intolerable. To be reasonably healthy, as much rot as possible must be excised. All of it to be happy. That is why I would rather have the flu than carry around an emotional hangover. Dr. Bruce Banner aka The Hulk famously said “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” What the comic book does not tell us is how much you are despised a day later.

Have a nice day. It’s better for all of us.

Last week, ESPN reporter Britt McHenry was caught being very rude to someone working the counter at a car towing facility, where presumably she had gone to retrieve her vehicle and pay the fine. Her diatribe was not pretty. And neither was she in that moment.

This widely seen video prompted another reporter, Rex Huppke (Chicago Tribune) to write that ESPN should immediately fire the reporter. his story is here:  http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/huppke/chi-britt-mchenry-espn-20150417-story.html

I don’t think so. Britt committed no crime and was not at work, let alone on the air, at the time. Last I checked going off on a rant was not against the law. It’s not nice. But then neither is releasing a video depicting it. In my opinion both acts are forms of shaming, wouldn’t you agree?

Therefore, again my opinion, they cancel each other out. This story should be over. But Mr. Huppke vehemently argues that there is “too much meanness in the world” to tolerate such behavior.

Are you without sin, Mr. Huppke, to cast such a heavy stone? Have you never gone off at the DMV or flipped someone the bird for cutting you off on the highway? In your years on this planet you’ve never had a tantrum at someone’s expense? Called someone a dipshit? I sure as hell have. But unlike Britt McHenry you and I were not caught. Yet.

I’m no Christian but I do believe that Christ’s judgment over those who were stoning a woman for bad behavior to be one of the best lessons from the scripture.

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He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Yes, the world is a mean place. It has been since the time of Christ. However, punishing what you deem meanness is also meanness and a very bad road to go down. If saying something stupid were a crime we would all be fired or worse. How often have we seen finger pointing lead to gun pointing? I look at radical Islam and see teachers being harmed for educating young women. I see Putin jailing countless people in Russia for disagreeing with his dogmatic rule. This sort of tyranny often starts with allowing certain people to punish certain other people for merely opening their mouths. Power and the fear of power is deeper rot than rudeness.

From his pulpit Rex Huppke wants to take down a woman for berating another woman. But you are not God, Mr. Huppke. And I dare say you are not without sin. You cross a line when you call for this lady’s exile.

If this argument is too lofty for a newspaperman in Chicago, here’s one you and every journalist can and must relate to: the right to free speech.

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