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Boy Scouts Earn “Mensch” Merit Badge

mileswimI was happy to ready today the Boy Scout will welcome girls.  It’s about time. When I was a kid in the 60’s, joining the Cub Scouts then graduating to the Boy Scouts was cool. We proudly wore our uniforms to school assemblies and flashed our merit badges like gun notches. Oh no, they didn’t help you get girls, but it also told them you were probably not a bad risk…in a pinch.  In later years, the scouts became supremely uncool to the point where strolling down the street in your khakis and neckerchief could get you beat up.

But here’s the thing. There isn’t a day when I don’t use some skill I learned in the scouts. Maybe it’s tying a knot, using a jackknife safely, performing some sort of first aid or cooking a meal or kayaking. However, the most important thing I learned in the scouts was how to push myself beyond self-imposed limits. Here’s how it went down. I was 11 years old and not a good swimmer. I could flail around and remain afloat but that was it. During a two-week summer stint at Ten Mile River Boy Scout camp in the Catskill Mountains, they offered a chance to earn the much-coveted Mile Swim badge that you could have sewn onto a bathing suit. Was an effin’ big deal. My older brother already had one but just didn’t see it happening for me. Our wonderful scoutmaster, Don Schneider had been a tailgunner in WWII. A tough guy who had a soft, but firm, touch.  “Eddie!” he called out to me. “You’re down for the Mile Swim tomorrow! Show up at the lake at 9am.” Uh, what was he smoking? I could barely survive a puddle, let alone swimming for a mile in a 50-foot deep lake.  So I nervously questioned his judgement asking, “You know I can’t swim. Do you wanna see brown coming out of my bathing suit?”

“Shit!” he retorted. “Just jump the fuck in the water and keep going! You can do it! You don’t jump, I’m tossing you in!”

Right.

Well, a good scout obeys his scout master and I showed up at the lake at 9am the next day, shivering not from the cold water but sheer fright.  I was joined by 10 or so other guys with the obnoxiously confident looks of someone who was just about to paddle around the wading pool. The lifeguard stood on the dock and gave us our instructions.  “When I blow the whistle, jump in! You have to do 26 laps around the course. Time limit, 90 minutes. You touch anything like a dock or buoy or boat, and you’re done! Ready!” BLOOOWWWWW!

Right behind me Scoutmaster/holder of Torture merit badge, Schneider gave me a push. Uh oh. Feet couldn’t feel the bottom..keep moving! I kept moving and flailing and quickly learned you could save a lot of energy by flipping over to your back every once in awhile.  I got dangerously close to the dock a few times but never touched. After awhile I realized I had done 7 laps, then 10 then 18, then finally I heard Don scream to me “one more and you’re done!” And then I was. Somehow I had swum the mile when only the day before it seemed way over my head. My brother was there to greet and congratulate me. I had so much adrenalin flowing through me I immediately jumped into a canoe and paddled across the lake and back, then jumped back in the water for a victory lap. In the next few days my new aquatic confidence powered me to earn swimming  and canoeing merit badges.

The experience had a lifelong effect on me. My wife always jokes how I’ll say “I can do that” when faced with a challenging or unfamiliar task. That attitude got me through many professional challenges including reinventing myself from a broadcast to print journalist when I was unexpectedly laid off from CNN when it offloaded hundreds of employees as part of the disastrous Time-Warner/AOL merger in 2001. It happened again when I was offered the chance to move to the corporate world as Fiat Chrysler’s first head of corporate communications social media.  It also helped me take up skiing at age 30 and ice hockey at 46. I still do both.

The short answer is my experience in the Boy Scouts made me a person who more often than not says “yes” to new experiences that may test my mental and physical abilities. Because I hate to think of what my life would have been had I stood my ground with Scoutmaster Schneider and said “no.”   That’s no way for a boy…or girl to live.

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Some Petty Thoughts


drummerboy2Tell me you’re a guy who doesn’t admit to playing the drums on his steering wheel when a really great song comes on the radio and I’ll quickly call “bullshit!.” Ever since I was a kid growing up in a 400-square foot garden apartment in Queens I’ve banged on things to great songs.  Banged on my workbook in class while those new Beatle songs filled my head in 1964. So much so my twitchy 6th grade teacher Mrs. Newman screamed at me to stop.  I’d fill coffee cans with coins and create a poor-kid’s kit, keeping time to Tony Bennett and Charlie Spivak and the Stones and the Doors and even to my parents’ extensive collection of Broadway show tunes. You can’t help it. When an irresistible beat gets hold of you there are a few choices of what to do next:  snap your fingers, sing along, dance, tap your feat…or bang something.

In the 1990’s I finally had enough dough and room in my house for a real set of drums. Without a band to play with, I set up between two Pioneer speaker towers and blasted tunes to play to. Rock, jazz, the blues and always, always Tom Petty.

The reasons are simple. For a basement banger like me, the beats are easy and take hold of you like stew spiked with sriracha. The guitars are clear and to the point using three or four basic chords. The lyrics make sense and hit home. And, well, you can’t help just wanting to find a way to play with Petty.  That old early 1990-s Pioneer rack unit has a six-disc changer and Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Greatest Hits always occupies one slot. pettysgreatest

My neighbors may quickly tire of it, but I can play along to “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That”  and “I Won’t Back Down” over and over again at full volume so it rocks my house..and their’s too…and maybe the guy’s around the block I haven’t yet met but expect to see at my door any day now. One time while I was chatting over the fence to my next door neighbor a car backfired. “Sounds like your basement,” he cracked.

I don’t wanna play those songs with a band. I wanna play with Petty and the boys…some of whom have been with him for 40 years.  In 1978 when my wife and I quit our jobs and took off from Central New York to Tucson, Arizona for our next adventure Petty was blasting on the radio and then again when we quickly moved to Atlanta in 1981 for a job opportunity and once more in 1989 as we fought traffic all 700 or so miles when work took us to our final stop, in Detroit. He was just always there with straightahead rock…no BS..no flowery, overwrought, self-conscious, egotistical declarations. Just stories. Wonderful stories. Simply told.

petty1As a journalist, that’s what I always seek to do. Just tell a story. Try to tell it well with lean language that paints a picture, makes a point, is hopefully memorable. That’s what Petty did.  Using lean language Tom Petty was as much a mentor to me as anyone.  I call your attention to something he said in Dave Grohl’s wonderful film “Sound City.”  Referring to the film’s namesake recording studio, he said when he made a record it couldn’t just be good, it had to be great. When I sit down to create something, that simple but clear statement steps forward in my head. Not just good, but great. Who’s to say if something is great. I use my own criteria and let’s be honest, I would be hard pressed to count on one hand or a toe or two anything I’ve done that I would label as such. But having greatness as a goal, prevents you from settling for just OK or good, or mediocre. It counters complacency. There’s that one tweak, reconsideration of a phrase, clearer explanation or technical refinement that can make the difference.

Mr. Petty’s body of work is testament to a man who practiced what he believed, but never preached. I thank him for that lesson, because it’s helped me be a better person. I also thank him for his music, because I love banging those drums till the walls shake, and I maybe meet a new neighbor. I’ll tell them it’s Tom’s fault…and my name’s not Tom.  It’s just my attempt to be better than good. RIP Mr. Petty. It’s time to play.

Abdicating The Palace

palaceThis week a rousing Bob Seger concert was the last event to be held at The Palace of Auburn Hills, north of Detroit. That’s because its primary tenant, the Detroit Pistons, have moved down I-75 into the new Little Caesar’s Arena..also the new home of the Detroit Red Wings, who fled the aging and obsolete Joe Louis Arena.lca

Unlike “The Joe,” The Palace is a state-of-the-art facility, opened in 1988 and constantly improved and updated. Its main fault is being located off a freeway exit deep in the Detroit suburbs, and far from the team’s fanbase. Even so, The Palace has been one of the premier event venues in the country.  Fans loved it, musical acts appreciated the sound and staging and athletes had few, if any complaints.

But about 18 months from now, the Palace will come tumbling down to make way for, perhaps, the headquarters of an automotive supplier or tech firm. I totally understand the business reasons for its demise. Tom Gores, who heads the company that owns The Palace, the Pistons and its entertainment business, made a Faustian deal with arch competitor, Olympia Entertainment, owned by the Illitch family, which owns the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers, Little Caesars Pizza and, oh yes, the brand spanking new Little Caesar’s Arena, where the Pistons will now play their home games.  Two competing entertainment and sports titans, jumping in bed together, so they can both make more money.

I have no issue with replacing horribly obsolete buildings but The Palace isn’t one of them. It breaks my heart, and my head, a little, to think of the utter waste of a perfectly usable facility, the work put into it and all that money spent to maintain it as a top tier venue.  It’s just indicative of our disposable society that reeks of minute attention spans and the constant need for something new and shiny.

coliseumextCan you imagine if, in ancient times, the Romans decided The Coliseum had to go because gladiators just couldn’t face lions anymore without being able to relax first in a cushy lounge with 38 selections of wine and grog, and spectators required complimentary thumb coozies to keep their digits warm while deciding whether to point them up or down, but not before grabbing a bite from the exclusive “Nero Club.”thumbs

I can hear the conversation now between developer Leonidis Slumlordis and Coliseum owner Julius Sleazer.

LS: “Julius! Look at this dump! It’s all stone and mud, every third space on one of those rock-hard benches has an obstructed view because of those damned columns, and, by the way, have you sat for more than X minutes on one of those seats? They’re so hard they flattened my poor gluteus circus maximus!

coliseumseatsJS: “Look Leonidis. I get what you’re saying but ever since free agency entered the gladiatior game I have to cough up at least MMM lire to each two-legged lion bait just to put his sandals on the dirt. That, plus new demands from the lion’s union that each gets its mane moussed before each battle so they look good on Instagram, and we stick to gladiators with enough meat on their bones to at least make them a decent meal.

LS: “That’s not the point, Julius. Thumbs up, thumbs down is old technology. Spectators want something more modern, like what’s going on in the Mesopotamia Carnage Conference. All their venues have moved on from thumbs to providing each spectator with red and green plumages. They stick a red one in their hats for “let the bastard die!” and a green one for “he’ll be lion lunch anyway, but good luck!”   That’s high-tech stuff! Season ducat spectators are also demanding more creature comforts such as valet chariot parking and luxury dungeons where their slaves can chill while they enjoy the bloodshed. They’re also demanding unlimited grog and a special section for having their way with high quality wenches, like they do at Alexandria Arena. They don’t call him “The Great” because of his battle skills. The guy is a genius at marketing debauchery and torture. ”

gladiatorvslionJS: “So what are you proposing. A renovation?

LS: “Not at all, Julius. Think bigger! Let’s knock the place down and build a brand new, ultra-modern den of iniquity. It will be state-of-the -archaic. A wonderful place for gladiators to die horrible deaths and an even better place for spectators to enjoy watching it.

JS: “Hmm..I get what you’re saying, but I’m not buying it. The place looks like it could stand for another, I dunno, couple of thousand years.”

LS: Ok, Julius, but you’re an idiot. You’ll lose all your customers and your business will just be in ruins.

JS: No problem, Leonidis. I understand “ruins” is the next hot ticket in the just-developing travel industry!” tourist1

 

The case for working at home

In my semi-retirement I’ve moved to the next step towards removing myself from society by extending the time I work from home. My boss at Automotive News is either extremely flexible, brilliant, or simply tired of seeing a senior citizen drag his sorry ass into the office every day. Whatever the case, this senior citizen is grateful for the opportunity to replace a 60-mile round trip to/from downtown Detroit with a jaunty trot down 15 steps to my basement office where I can hide Snickers bars…from my wife.

office2I’ve often heard that working from home can be harmful to one’s career since you’re not visible to the bosses and it’s difficult to form alliances. Luckily, I’m not a contestant on “Survivor” so I’m not looking to form an alliance. I’m also not interested in climbing the corporate ladder, since, at my age, the only thing I’m capable of climbing is the walls every time I hear the Arby’s guy yell “we’ve got the meats!!!” I’m always tempted to respond, “you’ve got the crabs!” At least that’s how I imagine someone with that condition would act out.  office1

Someone pointed out to me that it’s more difficult to collaborate with co-workers when you work from home. I do not have that problem. That’s because I’m not really interested in someone else’s ideas. I’d prefer to screw up on my own, or hog all the credit when things go right. Actually, I’m not that obnoxious. I’m happy to share some of the blame when things go wrong.

My home office is a room tucked away in a remote corner of my basement. I have everything I need to conduct business:  desk, computer, Walter White bobblehead, walterwhiteadjacent bathroom and microwave oven for nuking popcorn and experimenting with exploding a number of polymers. I also have photos of my family in case I forget who those people are plodding on the hardwood floor one level above me.

I have a phone, but never use it. If I need to communicate with someone from the office I can email or text them. Not only is it expedient,  it’s an efficient method for avoiding co-workers with speech impediments.

Most importantly, I can do at least twice the work, twice as fast, with higher quality results by working at home. That’s because at work there’s free coffee and vending machines, which I am constantly drawn to as a means of filling my stomach and filling my hours, thus avoiding work. At home I’m much more focused since to grab more coffee or a snack I would have to walk up those 15 steps.

Oh sure, it’s nice to see my co-workers in person from time to time. They’re very pleasant and often bring in snacks to share. Working from home, you do miss out on the shared snacks, which is one of the few downsides.

Indeed, my days as a full-time desk jockey are over. At some point my semi-retirement will morph into total retirement, at which time I’ll simply sit at my home office desk, crank up my laptop, make Walter White’s head bobble, bounce some ideas for kazoo-based operas around in my head…and order a pizza.

The hurricane battle to beat Dan Rather

Being based in Detroit for CNN I didn’t have much of an opportunity to cover many hurricanes, but when Hurricane Andrew was done with Florida and crossed into the Gulf of Mexico, my crew and I were assigned to intercept it.

We had been covering a big flower show in Columbus, Ohio when the call came. After apologizing to our PR handlers, they nicely provided us with big golf umbrellas emblazoned with the flower show logo in its purple and white color scheme, which we stashed deep into our Anvil cases.  We promised to come back and finish the story when we returned from our hurricane coverage.

After rushing back to Detroit to load up additional gear, we flew to Houston and made our way to Galveston, awaiting Andrew’s arrival. By the next morning we learned the hurricane was tracking further east and told to keep driving till “you and Andrew meet.” In Lake Charles, La, we picked up field producer Kelly Rickenbacker who had covered more than 20 hurricanes for CBS, so we were in good hands. Kelly turned out to be the difference between winning and losing a deathmatch competition with none other than Dan Rather.

Heading east on I-10, we could feel ourselves getting closer to the storm. In Lafayette, we got out to shoot some video and were forced to take cover under our Ford Econoline van when a metal building was blown apart by winds, sending its razor-sharp section of aluminum through the air. Some cut right through trees. We were avoiding them slicing through our bones.

Further on, our national assignment desk in Atlanta instructed us to reach a town called Abbeville where a satellite truck was parked. “Just get out, get in front of the camera, and be ready to tell when you’ve seen for the last hundred miles or so.” Having done that we were back in the van when Kelly learned of major destruction in the town of Jeanerette. He also learned Dan Rather and a crew from the program “48 Hours” was aiming for that town too. The issue? Police had cut off access roads to the Jeanerette but it was clear we needed to get in and tell the story, with the added incentive to get there before Rather and Co. and get our story on the air.

Upon reaching the first roadblock, Kelly suddenly affected an accent that was a little bit of honey, a smidgen of sweetened ice tea, bolstered by the taste of a perfectly fried biscuit. That seemed to be the dialect that spoke to the heart of sheriff’s deputies who were otherwise unimpressed with our plight. They smiled at Kelly, shook his hand, and moved aside the sawhorses blocking the road to Jeanerette. Kelly kept up his act at least two more times and we suddenly found ourselves in the Jeanerette city limits where the affects of Andrew were all too obvious.

We grabbed some shots on our way into town, stopped at a shelter, all the while asking lots of pertinent questions, along with “you see Dan Rather here?” None had. We blasted away shooting as much as we could in the short time we had before hightailing it to Morgan City where the CNN satellite truck was parked, from which we’d feed in our story for the 6 p.m. show.

Knowing there would be no time to look at our video, I kept an informal log of what our videographer Chester Belecki had shot in Jeanerette and while tucked in the back seat of a very crowded minivan..Kelly had taken the big van separately..I scratched out a script and recorded the track into the camera.

Boom..we edited the piece in the satellite truck and fed it in time to make our deadline…beating Dan Rather by at least two hours..and most everyone else. Victory in hand, the desk instructed us to go on to New Orleans, get some sleep, and go home.

Postscript. The poor flower show umbrellas died a quick death after five minutes in the  hurricane winds. We did go back to finish the story…about why the much-publicized show was a financial failure.

Another side of covering Princess Diana’s death

Tdianacarhe phone rang at 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 31, 1997. I was fast asleep. On the other end of the line was Tom Watkins, an assignment editor on CNN’s national. “I’m sure you’ve heard by now Princess Diana is dead,” he intoned.” I actually hadn’t because I had gone to bed early. Then Watkins laid my assignment on me. It came directly from CNN’s hardnosed president, Rick Kaplan.  He ordered a piece on the braking system in the Mercedes Benz Diana was riding in.  Deadline, 7 a.m.  Sure. I pulled on some clothes and dragged myself the 7 miles down to the CNN Detroit Bureau, which was actually located in suburban Southfield. Fat chance getting an interview in the middle of the night but maybe I could find a way to pull something together for a first run at 7.

When I got to the bureau I combed our tape (1997, remember) library and it was then any belief I had in a higher power was confirmed. Sitting  on the shelf was a handout video from Mercedes Benz: “Safety systems for S-280.” Are you kidding? Like a parched pilgrim in the desert I devoured the shot list stuck inside the box and and feasted on the entry that read “Animation of S-280 braking system.” Now I had something to work with. Using the animation as the centerpiece for the package I was able to find all sorts of information about its workings on the Mercedes media website and assorted press kits we kept around the bureau. It wasn’t much, but it was something. I cobbled together a script and submitted it by about 3 a.m. Once approved, I used my sparse editing skills to produce the piece, then fed it by satellite to Atlanta for air.

The fusty Kaplan was pleased but wanted more since the network was in full wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy. “Keep adding elements to it,” were my orders. What I needed was an interview as to how lousy the braking system actually was and whether or not it could have contributed to the crash.

I had worked with plaintiff safety advocate Ralph Hoar in the D.C. area on several stories and decided to give him a try.  Ralph’s company provided information for plaintiffs involved in various lawsuits involving vehicle safety and I was sure he would have something I could use. Normally, we’d get him to go into CNN’s Washington D.C. bureau for the interview then it would be fed to Atlanta where an editor would insert whatever soundbite I chose into my piece.

Curveball.  I did reach Ralph. He said he could definitely offer some thoughts but explained he was on his way to Richmond, Virginia to see his father. Oh no, not just a weekend jaunt to see the folks. He said his father was dying and he expected this would be his farewell.  Of  course I apologized for disturbing him as he undertook this very sad task, offered my deep sympathies, hung up then pondered my next step.

Unbelievably, a few minutes later Ralph Hoar called me back. “I know what a spot you’re in, Ed. I would be willing to go to a Richmond TV station to do the interview.” I replied that while I appreciated the gesture very much I couldn’t possibly cause him to lose even a second with his dad, but he insisted…and did the interview.

cnnhoarWith Ralph’s comments I now had a substantial package that played for the next 36 hours on all the CNN networks and was fed out to the affiliates. Kaplan and the producers were happy and I must say, I was relieved to have pulled this off..but not without the extraordinary help from Ralph Hoar. I ended up sending him a large gift basket from Harry and David and that seemed to make him very happy. “You’re a classy guy,” he said when he called me. “You have me forever.”

The epilogue to this is by September of 2001 I had left CNN and was the national auto writer for the Associated Press. I kept in touch with Ralph Hoar and knew he had been ill. I had no idea how ill. He died that month of prostate cancer. Even though I was based in Detroit, I asked for, and was granted permission to write Ralph’s obit for the wire.

And now, whenever Aug. 31st comes around and the world is thinking about the death of Princess Diana, I think of my late friend Ralph Hoar, who sacrificed precious time with his fading father to help a reporter who was in a “spot.”

 

 

Workspace-d out

cubeI don’t need much space to do my work. I’m good with enough surface space for my computer, phone, and a flat area close to me where I can place my coffee cup and maybe a pad of paper. Yeah..I like pads…with paper. I call them MYpads as I semi-conduct myself in today’s tech-obsessed world.  I’m also good with one drawer where I can keep a couple of pens and extra MYpads and my lunch bag.

Truthfully, that’s all the space most anyone needs, but they always want more. I bring this up because we recently were notified that our workspaces will be upgraded. To what? You can’t make my desk any flatter, I’ve got plenty of surface space and I already have THREE desk drawers, two of which are empty.

Everyone is entitled to a clean, comfortable, functional workspace… one suitable for the job..but the fact is, however, corporate culture can sometimes fool you into thinking the size and amenities of your workspace translates into power, self-worth and respect, resulting in misguided and honestly, idiotic aspirations.

For example, at the very large company from which I retired last year one can walk up and down an office suite and immediately discern the pay level of an employee.  The spaces ranged from deep, narrow cubes that looked like the chutes holding a rodeo calf before it’s released, then hogtied by a cowboy. The similarity is not unintentional. The occupant of such a demeaning space is being sent the message that you are just meat on the hoof, performing some simple task with little hope of advancement.

As your pay level, or “band” increases, your cube becomes less shallow, but wider with a little more surface space, more desk drawers, even overhead bins and a little counter with enough room to entertain one lucky visitor.

But the Holy Grail is the GLASS ENCLOSED OFFICE. It takes years to land one of those and every single employee aspires to occupy one. It says, “I’m hot shit! I have power! I’m important! I know more than you!” Indeed, many of those pining to spend their days in a corporate isolation booth have no desire to attain this dubious achievement..they just want the damn office.

Indeed, when I was promoted to such a level that included the granting of a glass office I asked to remain in my current, more open workspace. I was denied this request by HR, firmly scolding me that doing so would “send the wrong message.”  I explained that I would perform to the standards that landed me the promotion and, at the same time, stay in better touch with my team by working in an open space, but again, it was explained that I would not receive the proper respect of co-workers unless I worked in a space too big, too hot and stuffy and isolated. So I moved into the cell that made me feel like a convicted felon. Suddenly, people who had sniffed at me previously came by and wanted to give me high-fives for reaching bureaucratic nirvana. At the same time, latent jealousies were exposed and one whiny co-worker who had hoped to occupy that office went crying to her supervisor that she was cheated.

When I explained this moronic culture to my Italian boss his face turned grey as he said to me, “you are lying to me. Who could come up with such a foolish system?” Heh. Tell the CEO to end it. He didn’t.

Now, in semi-retirement, I’m often able to work from home in a small office of my making. I get a lot done in that little room. The door is always open. So is the window. But when I’m asked to come to my assigned workspace at my part-time job, I’m fine with my little cube, space for my laptop, drawer with my coffee cup, two pens and some MYpads..and I feel pretty freakin’ good about myself…and get the job done.   You see, the physical space you work in isn’t nearly as important as your mental space..it’s where your talent and motivation live.