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September 1, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I *Wrote* This Week--The World's Greatest Card Trick

Some veg out by a beach.  Others sight-see incessantly.  

But for me, vacation time allows me to catch up on two passions, namely reading and writing.

Over the past two weeks in Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, other than eating a ton of seafood, I ripped through three books, a dozen magazines and put the finishing touches on a short story that I've been working on for a while.

So, with one last day of summer holiday left (that is, if you are amongst the 78% who read my stuff the same day they're posted), something a little different from me--the aforementioned (kinda long) short story in its entirety.

Enjoy it as a whole, in parts, or ignore it until the usual lessons return next week.  But until then, you may want to learn the secret to:

BlackGhost_c_06

THE WORLD’S GREATEST 

CARD TRICK

 

“For my next trick, I need a volunteer.  

“Someone good looking, bright, a worthy addition to the splendor of my show.  Hmmm…let's see, how about you sir?  Yes, you there in the blue checked jacket.  That outfit is just screaming to be on a stage somewhere, so why not right here? 

“Oh, a little shy, are we?  Come on people; give him a nice round of applause to make him feel more at ease… 

“There we go!  Please follow my lovely assistant Jackie up the stairs and into the spotlight.  Thank you so much for helping me out…for helping out the show!  So, let’s get to know you a bit.  We’ll start by your name.”

“Uh…it’s Quentin.”

“Had to think, didn’t you?  Well, 'Quentin' is most definitely a unique name.  And Quentin, it’s a name that fits perfectly with this next feat of wizardry, as it is most definitely a unique magic trick.  More than merely ‘unique’ actually, for I call this...The World’s Greatest Card Trick!  There’s usually a drum roll right about now, at very least a smattering of oohs-and-ahhs from the audience, but worry not, because when this is all over, we will all be enveloped in tidal waves of sheer pandemonium.  You believe me, don’t you, Quentin?”

“I guess so.  No reason to doubt you…” 

“I appreciate the encouragement, Quentin.  I wish my agent had such a degree of blind faith.  Now Quentin, how old are you and what do you do for a living?” 

“I’m 31, and I work in branded promotional products at a large-scale corporate level.” 

“That’s quite a mouthful! Which means what, to a layman like me?” 

“Uh, let’s say for the Super Bowl, Pepsi needs 200,000 collapsible water bottles as a promotional giveaway.  Well, my company will source the product—or we’ll get it created if we have to—and then we'll print it with the client’s logo and message.  Then they give ‘em away.  To their clients.” 

“How intriguing!  I always wondered where all those collapsible water bottles came from!  In your comprehensive explanation, I noticed you said ‘my company’.  Do you own it?”

“No, unfortunately not.  It does real well. I just work there.” 

“Fair enough.  And that ravishing lady you’re sitting next to, is she your wife?”

“Aw no…” 

“Your girlfriend?  Someone serious?”

“No, she’s just a friend.”

“She can still be serious though…” 

“Well…you can say she’s a serious friend.”

“Touché, Quentin, touché.  Well handled!  I just love it when my volunteers get more laughs than I do.  Anyway, enough about you…for now.  As I mentioned before, this special trick is less-than-modestly entitled The World’s Greatest Card Trick.  And what makes it even more special is that, after years of intense practice and preparation, tonight marks the very first time I’ll be performing it live, on stage, before an audience. Quentin, you’re a part of history!  Pretty exciting, don’t you think? “

“That is pretty cool, I suppose.”

“Indeed it is, Quentin.  So, let us begin.  You may have already remarked that my assistant Jackie has emerged from a secret location backstage to bring me a deck of cards.  Thank you, my dear.  You’ll notice that this is a standard blue-backed deck of Bicycle Playing Cards, the most popular brand of playing cards on the planet.  Nothing but the best for Quentin and The World’s Greatest Card Trick!

“Now Quentin, if you would kindly stop checking out Jackie for a moment or two, I’d like you to focus your attention on these cards and assure the audience that they are as I so proclaimed—standard issue, just 52 of them, no trickery whatsoever. Take your time; complete audience buy-in is of fundamental importance to the desired effect and ultimate outcome of this magical moment.  The wait will be worth it.”

“They look okay to me.  They seem kind of heavy.”

“Good observation, Quentin.  For this trick to work its many miracles, durability of the cards used is a key factor.  That’s why I have selected Bicycle’s Prestige deck, made with crease-resistant Dura-Flex.  It’s the only 100% plastic card to offer a paper-like feel to the user. As Bicycle's corporate website boasts, it’s ‘Perfect for a neighborhood game or a professional tournament.’  Or for The World’s Greatest Card Trick, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I guess.  I can’t really tell the difference between these cards or any others, really.”

“Not yet, Quentin. But soon…soon.  Anyway, enough babbling over the mere tools of the trade.  Let’s get to the reason why we are all here…and why over 1,200 or so of your peers are staring at us with bated breath—The World's Greatest Card Trick!

“To start, I will utter the words that so many thousands of my brethren have uttered before me, and ask you to ‘pick a card, any card’.  But to assure those gathered here that there’s no forced choice of any kind—the dirty little secret behind most tricks of this ilk—I will not touch the Prestige deck at any point in time.  I will now leave it up to you to rifle through it alone, pick a card of your choice and give it to Jackie.  Easy enough?” 

“Yup!”

“Wait Quentin, wait!  Not just yet!  Let me do something that may be considered rude in some cultures, but so necessary to add credibility to The World’s Greatest Card Trick, and turn my back to both you and the audience to assure the card its undisputed anonymity.  Now go ahead...and tell me when you’ve handed the card to Jackie.” 

“Done deal.”

“Fine, Quentin.  Now I'll stay turned as Jackie shows that card to the audience, strutting deliberately from stage left to stage right, not forgetting a slight arm raise for those of you in the balcony.  As she does this—and isn't she a delight?—I want you to put the rest of the cards back in the box.  Got that?”

“Yup.  All finished.”

“Oh, I think not!  Trust me, you’re just getting started.  Jackie my dear, would you put Quentin’s card back into the box, blending it in with its 51 other Dura-Flex coated brothers, sisters and cousins, secure its closure with an elastic, and hand the box back to Quentin.  Do you have it in hand, my friend?” 

“Yes I do!”

“Okay, on the count of three, when I turn around, I want you to throw that box as far as you can into the audience.  Here I come. One, two…”

“Ooooopmh!”

“Nice toss, Quentin!  Right into what more elitist entertainers would impolitely call ‘The Cheap Seats’.  Hope you didn’t pull a muscle.  You ever play quarterback with that arm?”

“No...but I was the catcher on my college baseball team.”

“Impressive!  Now Quentin, do you know why I asked you to throw the deck into the audience?”

“No idea.”

“No real reason…just wanted to give someone a souvenir!  A little act of generosity and jocularity before we commence the wonderment.   Well Quentin, 1,200 people, Jackie and you all know your card.  The entire theater is co-opted in a secret that has excluded just one poor solitary soul, namely me.  And therein lies the purpose of The World’s Greatest Card Trick—for said soul, namely me, to reveal this card to you.  Are you ready to re-learn its identity?” 

“Yeah, sure!”

“Well then, let us begin.  Jackie, please make sure that Quentin is seated properly in the special chair you are now wheeling onto the stage.  And how about a bottle of water for our guest?  Thanks once again, my dear.  Now Quentin, get comfortable, buckle the safety belt, and listen closely to what I’m about to tell you.  Every detail is important.  You may even want to take notes.  Do you have a pen?”

“No.  I usually type things into my iPhone.”

“So very ‘Wired Magazine’ of you, Quentin.  Take it out if you want.  But follow along… So Quentin, tonight when you return to your seat to the sound of thunderous applause, your ‘serious friend’...uh, what is her name?” 

“It’s Leslie.”

“Okay, when you return to your seat, Leslie will not only have a new-found respect for you, but she will also be a touch worried about you due to the intense nature of this performance.  Instead of a direct drive home to her place in Williamsburg, she’ll suggest a quick walk and a coffee together down the block from this theater.  You will grab a table for two in the window of the Caffé Pleuristo, enjoy de-caf double cappuccinos with chocolate biscotti, and she will surprise you somewhat as your conversation takes on a more romantic direction than ever before. 

“This twist, this shift in emotions will be flattering, and will unlock some of the warm feelings for Leslie that you’ve been repressing for longer than you care to admit.  But it will also be somewhat awkward for you, since you’ve never been great at personal commitment.  Even your girlfriends throughout high school, all eight of them, harbor subtle grudges to this day.  But I digress…

“Over the next few months, you will continue to fight these feelings, but will eventually succumb and come to realize that Leslie is your soul mate…so much so that on your first real vacation together at Atlantis Paradise Island—a company trip you will win for finishing first in a quarterly sales competition—after a memorable day spent swimming with the dolphins, you will propose marriage in the Dune Restaurant during a wine-soaked dinner overlooking a very calm ocean.  By the way, you’ll be on your second bottle of Francis Ford Coppola Director's Cut Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel when you actually pop the question.” 

“Wait, how do you know…”

“By the way you hold your water, my friend.  Look at that grip!  Obvious you’re a California Zinfandel man.”

“But all the other…”

“Please! Did I not say that this is The World’s Greatest Card Trick, Quentin?  Never mind the wine…your groom’s tux will be handmade by Mr. Henry Lee, the Hong Kong tailor who travels to different cities every weekend and takes orders in three-star hotel ballrooms for bargain-priced custom-made suits and shirts.  Leslie’s ring will have an uncharacteristically large 1.25 solitaire diamond surrounded by smaller pave stones, the main gem being smuggled in from Europe by your wealthy great aunt Florence and given to you as a gift for being the only nephew who would call her every year for her birthday.  

“Your wedding will also be uncharacteristically grand, and will include almost everybody from your office since your boss, Peter Vanack, will agree to pay for one third of your nuptials due to his increasing love of and trust in you.  Your first-dance song has not yet been released, a comeback romantic power ballad by legendary Detroit rocker Bob Seger, but will be #4 on the Billboard Singles Chart that week.  Finally, Leslie’s cousin Sally, although married for over 22 years, will somehow catch the ceremonial bouquet, much to the delight of every guest except for Sally’s husband Ben and two embarrassed kids.  Ta-da!”

“Is that it?” 

“It?  Is that ‘it’?  Hold on tight sir, because we’re just getting started!  Jackie, tell Howard to intensify the stage lighting, please.  Give me a blue wash, red spots, with Quentin in a green laser cone.  Perfect!  Now Quentin, together you and Leslie will move into your first home, a two-level Jefferson on a surprisingly affordable double lot out in Putnam Valley, about a 50-minute drive from your office.  On one such drive from work, less than a year after moving into your home, late on a cold, rainy November night—sleety, actually—you will skid off Highway 122, wreck your Volkswagen Passat and fracture your fibula in three places, an accident that will cause you to walk with a slight but perceptible limp for the rest of your days.

“Given that you were coming home from yet another late night at the office, your boss Peter will feel bad for you and will offer to replace your totalled car with a spanking new Mercedes C350 Coupe, one with much needed 4-Matic anti-skid technology.  Peter will also reward your diligence and superior sales results with a generous partnership stake in the company, which will accelerate your family plans with Leslie. 

“You will go on to have two children, both girls.  Your eldest daughter Janine, while not the brightest student, will be blessed with a gallant work ethic, and will surprise everyone by being accepted to Wharton School of Business and end up being employed by the government as an economist.  She will also have a strange fixation with the color forest green and be renowned for her quirk of wearing slippers while in the office.  Your younger daughter Hazel will be more artistic, be obsessed with horses and all things equestrian, and end up working in the graphic design department of the landmark Churchill Downs racetrack.

“You will travel extensively for business, often to Las Vegas, and although you will not be much of a gambler, you will spend an inordinate amount of your late nights killing time in the casinos of your hotels, sipping free Sam Adams beer while playing the $1 slot machines.  On one hand, this gaming choice will be very beneficial, as had you been a poker or blackjack player, your card would’ve been revealed to you at that point in time, making this a very good card trick, but not the World’s Greatest as it has been advertised and promoted. 

“As I said, all this is on one hand.  And then...there is the other hand.” 

“Huh?”

“Jackie, cue music!  One night, while sipping beer at the slots, you will be served by a petite, raven-haired cocktail waitress named Brandi.  Well, 'Brandi' is what it will say on her name-tag, but her real name is Melissa Manchester, like the singer from the ‘70s who enjoyed hit songs like ‘Midnight Blue’ and ‘You Should Hear How She Talks About You.’  Now Quentin, I’m trying to think of a succinct way to put this, but there’s a line in Midnight Blue that goes: ‘I think we can make it/One more time/If we try’ and that evening, smitten by Brandi’s multiple charms—and she yours, no doubt—you will take that lyric quite literally, and despite the fact that at first you did indeed succeed, you will try, try again.  Yes, a simple one-night stand, but ultimately the tipping point for what is still to come…if you'd pardon the suggestive pun.

“A few months following this trip, you will receive a phone call from Brandi breaking the news that she is with child…guess who's?  At first, you will think this brazen extortion, but after receiving an email with a Quicktime video of her ultrasound attached, you will understand that she is most probably telling the truth.  You will be overcome with a sense of dread and fear, and do everything in your power to ensure that Brandi and the future little Quentin will be provided for, all while Leslie and the girls continue to know nothing of your little side venture. By the way, do you like the musical accompaniment I've chosen for you?”

“This is absurd!  I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Of course you don’t, Quentin!  If you did, you’d know the secret to the trick, and ruin the magic.  We don’t want that, do we?”

“I really don’t give a rat’s ass…”

“Well, that’s what you say now.  But I think you will change your tune once caught embezzling funds from poor, trusting Peter Vanack, a man who has become a second father to you.  Okay, so it will only be $112,000, but still more than enough reason for Peter—a man so dejected, so disappointed—to fire you and agree not to go to the police if you’d destroy your share certificates by slipping them one-by-one into the Powershred Office Shredder before his very eyes. 

“While a magician should be a master of misdirection Quentin, I think by now you know exactly where this trick is heading.  Leslie will be shocked and saddened by the whole sordid affair, and send you packing.  Without the support of Peter, shunned by your embarrassed parents who take Leslie’s side unequivocally, you will empty your bank account of the $3,129.87 still left in it, borrow an additional $5,000 from your best friend Marcus Hamel, and head off with your Briggs & Riley overnight bag and Samsonite rolling duffel to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Brandi, or Melissa, will have re-located to be with her parents and raise her little boy—well, yours as well, I suppose—that was born six months previous at 3:13 p.m., weighing in at a whopping nine pounds, three ounces. 

“When she opens the door at 6633 Westbury Avenue, she will be shocked, as your visit will not have been preceded by any prior warning.  While befuddled and blank-faced for 45 seconds or so, she will break into a warm smile and invite you into the '80s-styled living room to sit down and talk.  Unfortunately, this will provoke a screaming match with her parents Franklyn—a textile manufacturer—and Sharleen—a school librarian—who consider you Satan-esque for what you have done to their daughter.  Enraged, they will pull Brandi inside, threaten to call the police if you don’t vacate their property immediately and, as you are bum-rushed out of the house, swear that you will never see your illegitimate son as long as you live.

“With all hope of a reunion and a new life with Brandi shattered, you will need somewhere to spend the night, and after a 35-minute search, at 10:30 p.m. you will settle for a two-star hotel called Lodge America of Raleigh at 3215 Capital Boulevard, where you will rent a twin-bed room in the back for a mere 52 bucks.  Instead of watching the free HBO advertised in neon in the window of the hotel’s lobby, you will decide to take stock of your life and go for a long walk to ruminate.  You like ruminating walks, don’t you Quentin?” 

“Wha-what?  Walks?  Ruminate?  What are you trying to say to me?  What is all this?  You’re insane!  I’m outta here!”

“Not so fast, Quentin, we’re just about done! Anyway, your chair's seatbelt won’t open unless you have the key that Jackie is now holding high above her head in her left hand.  Just sit tight a little bit longer.  It’ll be worth it, you have my word. Cross my heart. 

“So…on this walk, you will head northeast for three blocks, turn left due west on Mayflower Drive, where you will cross Huntleigh Drive and head into a wooded area that fronts Beaman Lake.  The moon will be shining off the less-than-pristine water, and will illuminate a green plastic bench made out of recycled pop bottles.  You will sit down on that bench and light a cigarette, rekindling a bad habit for the first time since you gave it up at Middlebury College back in Vermont.  Upon tossing the match down to the pavement, you will notice a newspaper at your feet, a three-day-old sports section of the Durham Herald-Sun.  In quest of a moment or two of much needed head-clearing distraction. you will pick up the newspaper, and under it you will find one blue-backed Bicycle Playing Card, amazingly no worse for the all the wear-and-tear.  Gotta love that Dura-Flex!

“You will turn it over.  

“And that, Quentin—THAT!—will be your card.  The Six of Clubs, correct?”

“Uh, yeah…”

“'Uh yeah’ is right!  Let’s hear it for Quentin and The World’s Greatest Card Trick! You can stand up now, my friend. You have the key, Jackie?  There you go!   Take a bow, sir!  And as you leave this stage to the promised explosion of thunderous applause, please grab my assistant’s hand and follow her backstage to sign the legal release forms before you return to your seat!”

“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen!  You are very kind.  And very loud.  Thank you.  Please settle down.  Alright then…

“For my next trick…hmmm…I need a volunteer.”                   

August 25, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week (Five Years Ago): Food For Thought--A Business Education in 20 Courses

Alinea-Dessert

Here’s the second of two vacation-inspired re-posts, this one from a trip to Chicago in August of 2009.  If you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed its subject, you will love it.

-------------------------

Here's a big statement to start your day:

A dinner at Chicago's

Alinea restaurant should be

obligatory for every major

executive in America.

Here's why.

I'm no "foodie," but a 35-year business career has taken me to some of the finest food emporiums all over the globe.

Well, nothing, but nothing, has even come close to the epicurean delight I experienced at chef Grant Achatz's majestic Alinea (that's him below). It didn't merely shatter expectations for a restaurant, it was one of my great life experiences, period. (I am forever in debt to my son Aidan for being the driving force in jumping on a cancellation and getting us in front of the two-to-three month waiting list.)

The 20-some-odd (and I do mean "odd," but in the most complimentary and awe-inducing way) course "Tour" menu was the most expensive meal I have ever eaten (just one bottle of wine, at $80, hardly put a dent in a bill that masqueraded as a mansion's mortgage payment)...but it was a great bargain nonetheless.

Calling Alinea a "restaurant" is a disservice to the establishment and what it does.  It is to other eateries what Cirque du soleil is to Barnum & Bailey (a woman at the table next to me coined the phrase "Cirque du manger," or "Circus of Eating").  It markets itself brilliantly by being itself brilliantly. I could go on for terabytes about the food (which included Dr. Moreau-like hybrid delicacies like onion cotton candy, hot mustard ice cream, olive oil sorbet, powdered A-1 steak sauce, watermelon bombs and bacon-flavored challah bread), but amazingly, Alinea rises far above the palate-acrobatics it induces. (By the way, that image above?  No, not an abstract masterpiece...but table-top dessert.)

GrantThis type of attention to detail permeated the experience, and the magical, enchanting results were beyond staggering.  Tables are bare wood (albeit near-black mahogany) to optimize the visual component of each dish (water is served at a specific temperature to ensure no condensation rings on said tabletops). Walls are covered with art that, while tasteful, do little to draw the eye away from the focal point of one's food.

If the silverware and glassware are not specifically chosen to match the course being eaten (as was the case of the antique crystal and cutlery chosen to highlight an old French recipe for quail), they are created specifically for Alinea by one of its partners, Martin Kastner, and his Crucial Detail design firm.

Alinea is a team effort, but a team like the New York Yankees of the '50s or the Montreal Canadiens of the mid-'70s.  Achatz has assembled an executive partnership that shows the grand vision of his dining experience, working hand-in-hand with a business manager, architect, interior designer and sculptor. 

Even the wait staff, outfitted in Zegna, rise far above industry greatness, never mind the norm.  They complement each course put down with a story, factoid or red herring about it, and are single-minded in their corporate duty.  When I asked one of our servers, a South African young man, why he gave up his studies to work as a waiter, he said: "Because I want to help Alinea be recognized as the top restaurant in the world."  No need to guess what this place's mission statement is.

Alinea and Achatz have been much ballyhooed (Grant's personal story is a movie just waiting to happen...but not until he can direct it himself, I suspect), but after my adding to the ballyhooing, here's the reason why it should be required eating for every American exec:

RESPECT

  • Alinea respects its clientele; treats them like gods.  It listens to them, but it is no slave to public opinion. It takes chances for them. It has the guts to say "We're in the driver's seat.  Trust us...you'll enjoy the ride." 
  • Alinea respects its surroundings.  Nothing is random.  There is a reason for everything.  And there is no compromise. On anything.
  • Alinea respects its raison d'etre.  You'd figure the ingredients must be transported via private jet and pampered in a spa before being prepared in the kitchen. There is indeed a love, a passion for what is being concocted, and it shows.
  • Alinea respects the need to make a profit.  Expensive as hell.  But no cutting corners.  As I said before, despite the Zimbabwe-like state of my overall bill, I didn't just get what I paid for...I got more.  Way more.

So imagine American business being built on this backbone.  I know, I know...this is one restaurant; one tiny microbe in the behemoth that is the economy.

But if more people gave a damn, if more people treated customers as partners in a journey and not just a necessary evil, if more people dared to delight and lead instead of follow the latest onslop (a word I just made up) of surveyed public opinion, and if people did this in such a way that whatever you paid seemed worth it, well...the business world--the world itself!--would be a better place.

August 18, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week (Seven Years Ago)--Why Cycling is Like Business

Cycling
I’m off on vacation for a couple of weeks, but as I like to do at these times, I comb my archives to find a couple of reruns from many moons ago that simultaneously reference the time period (i.e. an August past) and are also relevant to today.  Here’s the first one, from a bike trip through Italy I took back in 2007 (hence the picture above!).

---------------------------------------------

After a few days pedaling through the Himalayas--oops, sorry, make that the rolling "hills" of Italy's Tuscany district--I have come to a stark corporate realization:

Cycling is just like business.

This metaphor smacked me right between the cheeks while sucking back a Gatorade after yet another three kilometer climb in the smelter-like sun.  As a guy who has helped build two prosperous enterprises from less than zero, and is just being introduced into the wonderous up-and-down world of long-distance cycling,  the similarities between the two are striking.

To explain, consider that Tuscany cycling offers you three choices of direction:

  • The strain of Uphill
  • The ease of Downhill
  • And the relative peace of the Straightaway.

Let's look at all three...plus a couple of added bonus observations.

 

UPHILL

To me, Uphill can be likened to being a start-up or being embroiled in some sort of crisis; your full focus is given to getting to the point where it's not so hard anymore.

Going Uphill, you don't even notice the gorgeous view, your surroundings, or even the passage of time. You just put your head down and concentrate almost exclusively on pumping your legs until you reach the top. Your speed is consistent, your movement a little wobbly, and if you don't keep going, you're gonna fall over.

 

DOWNHILL

Compare that to the ease of flying Downhill, which I liken to a business that's doing so well it almost runs itself.  Effortless, you almost feel like a passenger...but this is where the most dramatic and costly mistakes can be made and your best chance for a sobering crash.  The ride almost becomes too easy.  You think you're invincible, get cocky and take your eyes off the road. 

Watch out. Flying Downhill, the road can change at any second. Cars pull out of hidden driveways. People and animals pop out from nowhere. That Downhill path can be interrupted violently at any time by things you cannot see.  Enjoy the ride, but don't forget to anticipate what may be lying in wait.

 

THE STRAIGHTAWAY

Then there's the all-too-rare Straightaway.  It's not nearly as exhilarating as the Downhill rush of a booming biz, but also not as exhausting as the Uphill pull of a start-up or a crisis.

The Straightaway is where effort and reward are at their most equal. The goal here is one of efficiency. You don't want to exert one more iota of energy than you need to. Operation of the machine--in my case now, my gearing mechanism-- at its optimum level is paramount. The Straightaway gives you the most time to think, plan and prepare for one of the two extremes you just know are coming. 

 

ROAD CONDITIONS

Let’s take the analogy one step further by examining the road conditions themselves.  Doesn't matter what direction you're going--Uphill, Downhill or Straightaway--the make-up of the road is usually the primary deciding factor in the enjoyment of your journey. Out another way, road conditions are like the people you work with, and the way they work together. 

A paved road is like a true, trustworthy team; all working together to make your ride a pleasant one. Everything works better--grip, gear shifting, mood--when the road beneath you is smooth. 

On the other hand, rocky roads are just that. Yeah, they may hide behind the sexy Italian alias "Strada Bianca," but on dysfunctional, uneven, sand-and-stone terrain, you're on your own at all times.  Uphill is suddenly twice the effort, Downhill almost works against you, and even the steady flow of the Straightaway can be upended in a Tuscan second by a mere, nastily-placed pebble.  Treachery abounds in every direction.

Trouble in the office?  Forget the corporate shrink or consultant. Instead, invest in some molten blacktop...and a steamroller.

 

ONE FINAL NOTE

So there you have it. Roadside wisdom from the gates of Volterra. To close, one last comparison between business and cycling:

No matter how good you are at what you do, from time to time, you will still have to deal with a little pain in the ass.

Enjoy the ride!

August 11, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week--The Moment Seizes You

16_MOMENT20110418125007

Throughout the more than 1,000 blog posts I've written about lessons learned, most have been sparked by things I personally observed or experienced.  Despite the fact that I read voraciously and search the ‘Net incessantly to keep ideas flowing, rare is the blog post inspired by something that someone else said or wrote.

So consider this one “rare” then, as it was inspired by the last lines of the marvelous Richard Linklater film “Boyhood.”  In the scene, which caps close to three hours watching lead character Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) grow from the age of six until 18, he sits in a desert, ruminating about life with Nicole, a girl he just met. 

Me paraphrasing, Nicole brings up the fact that it’s kind of naïve to think that one can “seize the moment,” because the reality is that...

Most of the time,

the moment seizes you.”

You have no control over any moment, except in how you react to it.

Now I’m not revealing the film’s ending, nor are any of the scenes I’m about to mention story-ruining “spoilers.”  The beauty of “Boyhood” is that it succeeds despite its deviation from the traditional screenwriting formula, where every action is supposed to have a purpose, lead you to the next step and ultimately, to a neatly-wrapped conclusion.  Linklater’s oeuvre does none of that; it reflects life—well, at least Mason’s—simply as it unrolls. 

Sometimes, a life event may well be an important link to the future, and your choice at a fork in the road decides your ultimate destiny (see the film “Sliding Doors” as the antithesis of “Boyhood”).  But most of the time, it’s nothing.  And that’s the brilliance of this film:

Nothing really happens

as everything happens. 

For example, there’s a scene where Mason and a group of friends are drinking beer and trash-talking at some abandoned home construction site.  One of the kids picks up a circular saw blade and flings it into a sheet of gyprock standing against a wall.  As a dramatic device, this should be a turning point in the film.  After years of movie-going, we are conditioned for the treacherous blade to careen off the gyprock and straight into a character, thus setting off a chain reaction of events that drive the story forward.  But instead, the dangerous disc thunks into the sheet and stays there harmlessly.  Just another nothing moment. 

Same goes for Mason’s encounter with bullies in the boy’s bathroom, and a little love-letter passed in class that brightens his mood after a bad haircut.  Catalysts for nothing; just things that happen, then life moves on.

So in reflecting what I learned this week, the main lesson is that

Most everything leads to nothing. 

And more importantly,

there’s nothing wrong with nothing!

Notwithstanding the beliefs of the more spiritual among us, not everything is connected (sorry, Butterfly Effect).  And even when there is a connection, it does not necessarily imply causation.  Life is WAY MORE random than we think, and WAY LESS predetermined and profound in the way it rolls out. 

Maybe this is reflective of a general August “chill out” mood swing, but thanks to Richard Linklater and “Boyhood,” I’m learning to see and accept things as they are, and not put too much weight or thought into the “why.”

I recognize how little I actually control in life, and how much fun there is in watching it go by, reacting when I need to.  That said, I’m gonna strap myself in tight, and enjoy the ride.

So come on, moments!  I’m waiting. 

Seize me!

August 4, 2014, 09:15:00 AM

What I Learned This Week: What Works (For Me, At Least)

Books

One thing I’ve learned over the course of close to eight years on consistent blogging is that you never, ever, EVER know which post will resonate.

Sometimes, you feel like you are floating on a cloud of greatness as words of sheer genius effortlessly pour out of you, only to find the ensuing “masterpiece” to be unanimously ignored.  Other times, you toss off a few lines of throwaway afterthought just to keep your consecutive post streak alive and they resound with an ever-growing public like a rogue sine wave.

Such was the case a few weeks ago, when I responded to a collective challenge to write about “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 22.”  At the time, I was busy finalizing a few other projects, got to the idea late, and was thoroughly convinced that the other people asked would be way more profound than yours truly.  I was almost embarrassed to click the “publish” button when done, but a promise was a promise, so I did…and ended up with one of my most popular posts in two years.  Go figure…

Prevalent in the gush of reaction to said post was a question about my own guiding principles, most notably:

“If that’s what you wish 

you knew then,

what do you know now?”

Can’t say I actually “know” much, but I most definitely have a series of somewhat interconnected values I try to live by.  They change a bit from year-to-year, but they are consistent in that they are listed at the back of my annual personal journal, to be referenced at a moment’s notice, or showed to others to prove I actually have some values.

So, to that end, and in response to those who responded to my surprise hit blog post, in no particular order except the last one, here are my ways to be/things to remember (and a little explanation/commentary with each one):

Do Rewarding WorkIt doesn’t have to be ground-breaking or exciting, but what you do should reward you with a sense of personal gratification, satisfaction and happiness. Very subjective!

Create DemandPerhaps my favorite, most quoted, and most difficult value to live by.  Do things that make people want you!

Be Spectacular and DifferentWill help with the demand thing, that’s for sure!  Sameness sucks.

Find Your CallingNo matter who you are, there’s something out there that’s not just meant for you, but you.  Be it work, or a hobby, or a raison d’etre, listen for and follow the voice that guides you to it.

Show GutsDare others, dare yourself, challenge the norm…and be sure to follow through on your big boasts.

Find HappinessConsidering the alternative, this is an important, very personal quest.

Laugh MoreA corollary and catalyst to the one above.  Happiness is a persistent internal glow; laughter is a short-term external explosion, but such a necessity.

Be WiseLearn and grow (which is one of the reasons I write this every week).

Cherish TimeLike land, they ain’t making any more of it.  No waste!

Eyes OpenBe curious, wonder about things, take joy in seeing something new…or something old in a new way.

Mind OpenThink about and then explore different opinions, ways and whys.

Find PeaceAt the end of the day…learn to enjoy the end of the day.

Okay, after all that, here’s the last one.  And for it, some pre-, rather than post-, explanation. 

Over the past 30 years or so, in one way or another, for better and for worse, I’ve been involved in the humor business.  During that period, in addition to all the fun, surprise and glory, I’ve been witness to some of the most outrageous behavior (including, sadly, my own at times!) handling the stress of producing shows, of negotiating contracts, of dealing with others and of getting through the day-to-day of trying to deliver something exceptional to a vast, wide-reaching audience.

This is why, for as long as I’ve kept them, every one of my journals puts things in perspective and ends the exact same way, namely with this line at the bottom of the book’s final page (that's what's pictured atop this post) as my carved-in-stone, go-to ultimate guiding principle:

…And Remember, It’s Only Comedy!