Tuesday, April 28, 2009

You Have to Keep the Fights Clean and the Sex Dirty

-- Kevin Bacon’s advice on how to have a long and successful marriage.

I admit it. I like a good argument.

For as long as I can remember, people have told me not to argue. When I was a little kid, I was sitting on a sidewalk, yelling at the top of my lungs that Mantle was better than Mays and my friend, Billy was yelling at the top of his lungs that I was wrong. He then fell over onto his back and started laughing. It wasn’t fun-laughing; it was put down laughing -- the kind that said that I had no idea what I was talking about. That made me mad and I called him a jerk. He called me a stupid jerk. An adult walked up to us and told us we could have a nice discussion, without having to argue. So we stopped, which worked out for me because, at that time, I could not have come up with anything harsher than stupid jerk without sounding silly.

Had I been older than my years, I would have explained to Mrs. Busybody that Billy and I were learning the fine art of argumentation and were having a hell of a good time in the process. I remember a lot of childhood playground arguing, where a good time was not had by all. Feelings often got hurt. That’s how you get the thick skin needed to survive. And, when facing possible ridicule, arguments got better. The next time the Mantle vs. Mays discussion came up, I was armed with statistics. Once I had compiled and memorized enough statistics, I definitely moved up a weight class.

It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon. There were eight or nine of us, sitting around the baseball diamond after a little league game. We got into Mantle vs. Mays vs. Aaron vs. Williams vs. Ruth, etc., etc., etc. For me, it was an eye opener. Statistics got trumped by other statistics (some of which seemed made up). Shouting, snickering, and exaggerated, falling-on-your-back laughter won some kids over and silenced others. Two of my friends got up and stomped off. It was a verbal brawl.

I remember walking home, trying to sort out what had happened.

Some really good arguments took place in my college dorm room in 1967 and 1968. They were unplanned and they usually happened late at night. They would suddenly erupt, with five, six or seven of us, rotating in and out, some carrying the book they were trying to cram into their brain for tomorrow’s exam, with topics shifting and energy fluctuating. It was always about politics and life: Vietnam, unfair teachers, frustrating girlfriends, the meaning of life, parents who were stuck in their ruts and just didn’t get it, Mantle vs. Mays, how we would change society. There was often music playing in the background. Jefferson Airplane was one of the steady choices. Don’t you want somebody to love…Don’t you need somebody to love…until the energy ran out, at maybe 2 or 3 in the morning.

I confess. I miss those dorm room-late night-late 60’s freewheeling bull sessions.

Arguing makes us sharper. We get to actually hear our ideas once they leave our mouth, and we get to see how others react to them. We know when we hit a bull’s-eye and when we missed the target completely. If the argument is important to us, we take it and hone it. Maybe we search for statistical back up or expert testimony. Argument, (unlike its benign cousin, discussion), is a contact sport. It establishes our intellectual and verbal superiority (temporary though it may be) over others or shows us where we need improve in order to hold our own. It burns brain fat and replaces it with muscle.

Shannon O’Brien ran for governor of Massachusetts. There were several debates where she faced her Republican rival, Mitt Romney. I knew right away that I would never vote for her, because I didn’t like the way she argued. She was extremely condescending toward Mitt. I couldn’t get passed that. I wasn’t crazy about Mitt, but he argued in an intelligent, respectful manner. He went on to become a disappointing Governor, who used the office as a stepping-stone to run for president, which occasionally made me wonder about the wisdom of my vote, but thinking back to her irritating, cheap trick, winking at the audience, I knew I was incapable of voting the other way.

I grew up with the television show, Firing Line, where William F. Buckley Jr. took on all comers. I never saw anyone lay a glove on him. I often hear people being called eloquent, when they are really just articulate. Buckley was eloquent.

In my last year of college, I sat in a packed auditorium listening to him speak. He spoke at length and then took questions. One after another, students and faculty rose, went to an aisle microphone and asked their questions. I don’t think most of them were really interested in Buckley's answer. Lots of the questions were not really questions, but thinly disguised arguments. Each questioner wanted to go one round with the champ. Each wanted to show he belonged in the ring with him. It was very hot in the room that night. The champ took off his jacket, loosened his tie, unbuttoned the top button of his white shirt and continued doing his thing. When the time was up, he invited those who did not get their turn at the mic, and those spectators who hadn't gotten their fill, to join him in a smaller room for more verbal jousting. I couldn’t go, so I don’t know when it ended. My guess: 2 or 3 in the morning.

My favorite television arguers, whether on the left or the right, are highly intelligent, considerate types who don’t interrupt even the rudest diatribes. In my book, Pat Buchanan, George Will, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, E.J. Dionne, Arianna Huffington, and Frank Rich are among the best of the best. I especially enjoy watching George Will as the blood vessels in his forehead seem about to explode while waiting politely for Katrina vanden Heuvel to complete her argument.

But as enjoyable as it is to be a spectator to world class arguing, it doesn’t provide the joy and exhilaration of being a participant. I wish my 60’s dorm room was a movable feast. Maybe it is. Maybe I just haven’t figured out how to move it.

I think if more of us argued openly, often, and well, we’d have fewer problems. When you think about it, the anti-war movement in the 60’s conducted one big boiling argument, taking place around family dinner tables, in the streets, around the world, and showing up on the 6 o'clock news. And, in the end, it was that argument that ended the war. Too simplistic? Not to me.

And by the way, Mantle was better – arguably.

P.S. Sorry if you were mislead by the title. This was all about clean fighting and had nothing to do with dirty sex. Maybe later.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Wisdom of Don Corleone

If you happen to be around my age – that would be 60, at the moment – it’s entirely possible that you’ve seen too many movies, and that some of them have clouded your perception of real life. Movies often simplify what life usually complicates. For me, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is one of those movies.

Here’s the set-up.

The Corleone “family” is at war. The Godfather, Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) has been gunned down by members of a rival family. He survives. His son, Michael (Al Pacino), avenges the assassination attempt and is sent to Sicily to hide out. Santino (James Caan), the oldest son, is ambushed and killed.

Seeking peace, the recovering, but ailing Don Corleone calls a meeting of the bosses of the five major families where he announces that Michael will be returning to the U.S. and if anything should happen to him, he will “blame people in this room.”

(I’ve left out some details, but you’ve seen the movie, so you’re with me so far. If you haven’t seen it, you’re probably in the wrong blog.)

The Corleones believed that it was Don Tattaglia (Victor Rendina), who initiated the war. He is present at the meeting, and so is Don Barzini (Richard Conte), who calls for mutual trust. Compromises are made and an understanding is reached. Or so it seems.

As a result of the meeting, Don Corleone now knows that it was not Don Tattaglia who led the strike against him.

“Tattaglia’s a pimp. He never’a could’ve outfought Santino. But I didn’t know until this day…it was Barzini, all along.”

I’ve seen the movie several times, and I’ve studied that scene for clues. What was it that Barzini said that gave him away? Damned if I can tell. It must have been something in Barzini’s voice or demeanor. But as subtle as it was, the old Don read it like a message on a billboard. Can we call that wisdom?

I do.

Imagine that decades ago, when the game was still winnable, that a semi-retired corporate Don stays behind at the end of a board meeting, walks up to the CEO of GM and, with his hand on the executive’s shoulder, says: “Roger, it’s not Ford; they can’t beat us at this game. It’s the Japanese.”

In a later scene, Vito Corleone is advising Michael, the new Don Corleone, when he says this:

“So…Barzini will move against you first. He’ll set up a meeting with someone you absolutely trust…guaranteeing your safety and at the meeting, you’ll be assassinated.”

That’s what I would call valuable information. And, just to be a little more specific:

“Now listen…whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting…he’s the traitor. Don’t forget that.”

Michael had damn well better not forget that, because the old Don will die soon – in fact, in the very next scene. They didn’t have executive coaches back then, so Michael will be totally on his own, and one mistake away from not making it out of his rookie season.

Later in the film, we are not surprised when a trusted soldier (a captain, actually), Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda) approaches Michael, and says:

“Mike could I have a minute? Barzini wants to arrange a meeting. He says we can straighten any of our problems out…”

Too bad for Tessio. Michael has been waiting. Tessio, not Michael, will soon sleep with the fishes.

Imagine that a year or eighteen months ago, wise old Dons at AIG, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, the U.S.Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and the country of Iceland (to name a few) had stepped from the shadows and said, "We’ll be in BIG TROUBLE unless we make THESE CHANGES right now.”

And that’s what movies have done to me. There clearly are not enough Don Corleones to go around. There were individuals wise enough to see trouble ahead and individuals powerful enough to effect change, but were there none with both the wisdom and the power?

How exactly did the real smart guys at the real big companies and the real important government agencies manage to screw up every economy in the civilized world? There are real brilliant analysts who are right now figuring all of this out. No, they haven’t quite done it yet. It’s all tangled up. There are all those nasty little knots that have to be pulled undone with fingernails and teeth, before all the strings can be neatly laid out on the table.

As I see it, too many of those too-big-to-fail companies were intelligence-heavy and wisdom-lite. They needed fewer smart guys and more wise guys. You don’t get wisdom with your MBA.

Yes, I know. Murder and extortion are bad. Real bad.

It’s just a movie. Movie makers can serve up a character that is more bad than good, flesh it out with the likes of a Brando, and make us like him. Real life mobsters kill for convenience and will take your business, if they want it. Movies, like The Godfather, attempt to take us for a ride. Not everyone will go for the ride. They will refuse to be manipulated.

Not me. I enjoy being taken for a ride. Providing… I get back in one piece.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Would You Have Fired Rick Wagoner? Not Me. I Would Have Sent Him On a Roadtrip.

It was a Mercury. Year, model, and color: unknown.

It was 1957 and I was in fifth grade, when I really became aware of our family car. My father dropped me off at school, and a kid on the front steps remarked, “Hey, you have a Mercury. That’s a fast car.” I had a Mercury? I thought about it during the day. I had a Mercury. That’s a neat name for a car, I thought. My Mercury. A fast car, with a neat name.

A couple of years later, Dad pulled into our driveway in a new car. It was a Chevy Impala. I liked its look, and I liked the name, Impala. It wasn’t the one with the big fins. It was the newer model. A friend later asked me how I liked my new car. I told him it was a great car. “No,” he said, “Don’t you know anything? Chevys aren’t great. They’re average.” But, it’s an Impala,” I protested. “Doesn’t matter. Chevys are average.”

Well, so what? I liked it anyway.

I’m thinking this car was female.

The next car that meant anything to me was also a Chevy, but this was not your average Chevy. Lord no. My favorite TV show was Route 66. The two main characters, Buz (with one z) and Tod (with one d), drove around the country doing good things for complete strangers and getting into fistfights. They got from place to place in Tod’s 1960 (or ’61 or ’62, the car changed each season) Corvette. I was not a car nut, and I never became one, but that car was absolutely gorgeous. No, gorgeous is not too strong. Click on this link (Corvette) and check out the curves. Then, picture yourself behind the wheel, top down (of course), headed for America.

One day, my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Sullivan confided in our class that his idol was Buz Murdoch. If he were younger, that’s who he wanted to be. My first-ever male teacher, a strict disciplinarian and a manly role model, fantasized about being a younger fictional character. I was pretty certain that the car had something to do with it. In fact, I know she did.

I looked really good behind the wheel.

At sixteen, I took my drivers test in our Olds 98. It was a long, sleek convertible, and on the highway, my father kept the top down as much as possible, requiring backseat passengers (like me) to drop down onto the floor to avoid letting the 75 mph wind blow our heads off. One day, a guy who worked for my father said, “Your dad will probably be buying a new car pretty soon. He’ll probably be giving the Olds to you.” I had never considered that possibility. This was exciting. I prepared myself for the announcement. Probably at the dinner table, sometime soon. I envisioned friends saying, “Here comes Coltin (meaning me) in his ’98”. One day Dad pulled into the driveway in a new Lincoln Continental. “How do you like it?” he asked, with a proud smile. “It’s nice. What happened to the Olds?” “I traded it in.” Oh.

As a college student, George Bush did worse things. As president, well, never mind.

But, I got a lot of use out of that Lincoln. In the summer of 1969, I drove it to the Newport Jazz Festival. I pulled into Newport and met up with two groups of college friends. We had tickets to some of the concerts, and for other concerts, we staked out a spot at the top of a hill, overlooking the concert area. It was pretty far from the stage, but we could hear perfectly. Unfortunately, the festival ended in a riot. “Too many rock fans,” was the prevailing theory. Jazz fans don’t riot.

It was nighttime. Dionne Warwick was singing What the world needs now is love sweet love... (Ironic, don’t you think?) I was up in the woods, lying on my back, enjoying the night. Then, the music stopped. There were loud noises and a lot of confusion. I jumped into the Lincoln, locked the doors and fell asleep on the front seat, which was like a small sofa. Then, I felt the car shake. I jumped up. My friend, Al, was rubbing his eyes and pounding frantically on the window. I unlocked the doors. “Tear gas,” he said. He climbed in and fell asleep on the back seat.

The next day, we all went looking for food. We stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The place was packed. The chicken was barely cooked. We ate it anyway. In the parking lot, there was a large cardboard cutout of Colonel Sanders. One of the guys picked it up and put it on my back seat. Later I drove home. As I pulled into the driveway, I was surprised to see my mother and father, dressed up, standing on our back steps, like they were going to a party. Actually, they were going to a funeral and were waiting for me to arrive with their car. After hastily removing the empty beer cans, chicken bones, and of course, the Colonel, I handed Dad the keys. I will never forget the look he gave me.

My father lived his entire life without ever owning a foreign car. My wife and I have been together almost 30 years, and we’ve never owned an American car. I used to suggest that we take a look at the new Ford Something or Chevy Whatever. “No,” she would say, “American cars haven’t caught up yet.” Over the years, I’ve heard that same line dozens of times from different people. Their interiors haven’t caught up yet. Their performance hasn’t caught up yet. Their designs haven’t caught up yet.

In Detroit, Elvis has left the building. And, he won’t be coming back.

Do you remember what came to be known as Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Concert? With his career on the floor, and having not performed live in seven years, he did an NBC Christmas Special that turned out to be really special, but with little connection to Christmas. It was vintage Elvis. Lean and handsome. Dressed in black leather. The British Invasion was sweeping America and bands owned almost every bit of the stage, until that night in June when Elvis came back.

(Those who missed it got to see part of it -- the best part -- again, nineteen years later, when one of his now legendary “sit-down sessions” aired uncut. It was like getting a second comeback.)

The newer rock and roll, of course, continued to thrive, but now, in 1968, after seven years without performing live, Elvis’ stage was about to grow bigger than ever. There he was (Did I mention the black leather?), sweat dripping from his forehead, bantering with his musicians, owning his audience.

There was no deafening volume; no gymnastics; he did not end by smashing his guitar into smithereens. He combined power and elegance, Ali-like. Yes, the bands owned the era. But it was clear that he was not there to simply catch up. He was there to gently put them in their place – a very large and growing place, to be sure – with a reminder that what they were doing, they did not invent. He said, with that cocksure smile of his: “Rock and Roll is basically gospel, or rhythm and blues. It sprang from that and people have been adding to it.” And so the King set the record straight.

And he was not going to be museumized. Not yet.

It was one of the greatest comebacks in the history of comebacks. In later years, he would make some small comebacks, but that could not and did not go on indefinitely. Elvis, as we know, ended badly. For all the great ones, the comebacks finally run out -- Sinatra, Elvis, Ali, and others – and finally, the stars are eclipsed by their own legacies.

We really wanted Detroit to have its day, again. We wanted Detroit to take the stage confidently, powerfully, elegantly, and gently remind Japan of where it all started, acknowledge their contributions, and announce the design and technology breakthroughs that would put the foreign upstarts in their place.

The King’s comeback, which may have seemed so unlikely, was actually a sure thing. Elvis climbed his comeback stage, devoid of bitterness, arrogance, or condescension. If you were in his audience, he was having a special conversation with you, or with the person next to you, or with someone you knew. Are you lonesome tonight? One night with you is all I long for... Love me tender, love me true…

Look kid, what do you expect us to do with this piece of junk?

About that Lincoln. A couple of years after Newport, my father asked me to take the car to the dealership, where he bought it, for a service estimate, and while there, see what they would give him on a trade-in. After looking at the car, the sales manager brought me into his office, and with a kind of snotty grin, said: “To be honest with you, the car is worthless. If we were to buy it, we would break it up and use it for parts. I suggest you give it away.” When I reported this conversation to my father, I had expected him to be pissed, or at least very annoyed. After all, this wasn’t just a car, it was a Lincoln. Dad’s response: “Don’t worry about it. It has fifty thousand miles on it. When a car gets there, it’s pretty much used up.”

My 2001 Suburu: 165,308 miles.
My wife’s 1998 Audi: 80,816 miles.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Wondering How It Happened That Your Future Is Suddenly Going Up In Smoke? In The Words of The Poet, "The Answer Is Blowin' In The Wind."

After all was said and done, weren’t the Beatles just a band?

It was the late seventies. I was in my late twenties. I was interviewing for a job and the boss said: “How about starting on Monday?” It was a straight commission sales job – no reason to jump too quickly. “I would like to think about it and get back to you on Monday,” I said. “But, it’s a perfect fit,” he said. “Maybe, but I’d really like to sleep on it.” Then, in a tone of exaggerated frustration, he said, “Look, we really shouldn’t be having this kind of communication problem. I mean, we both grew up with the Beatles.”

I had never been much of a Beatles fan (I liked them, but I didn’t love them. You know how it goes.), and until that moment, I had never thought of myself as having grown up with them. Now, I hear that, because of them, I have a generational connection that is supposed to ensure a special kind of communication and understanding. It was an obvious negotiation ploy.

Years later, I was at home, with a bunch of neighbors – all roughly my age, except for one who was a few years younger. At one point, David interrupted and sounding annoyed, said, “You all speak in a kind of code.” An interesting comment. But remembering it weeks later, hard as I tried, I could not come up with a single part of the conversation that might have sounded like code. Did we mention Janis, without using her last name? I should have stopped him on the spot and asked him for a list of words he needed decoded, but I didn’t think of it.

Oh, about that sales job, I took it and started on Monday. I had known him for less than an hour, but his vintage was so very familiar. If I couldn’t trust a guy who grew up with the Beatles, who could I trust?

You didn’t see Bernie Madoff dancing at Woodstock…or did you?

Bernie Madoff, born in 1938, would have been too old to go to Woodstock (unless he was there just to sell drugs – probably phony ones). John Thain, born in 1955, would have been too young to know or care about Woodstock. I was born in 1948, and I didn’t go to Woodstock either, but like a lot of us, there were moments when I could have been convinced that I did.

Here’s my question: Would real Woodstockers (defined as those who attended and those who sort of attended) ever have gone on to become members of today’s avaricious sociopathic business elite (the venerable ASBE)? Look, most of us eventually sold-out (that’s what we called it when one of us got a job that required wearing a tie), except for Ben & Jerry types who managed to whip their Chunky Monkey sixties values into a sweeter kind of capitalism, and never had to go clean shaven to do it. Of course selling-out doesn’t mean selling your soul. To do that, you have to go the extra $1400 wastebasket mile.

Where have you gone Lee Iacocca
A nation turns its doubting eyes to you
Woo, woo, woo…

Before there was all that sex, drugs, and rock & roll, there was The Great Sadness.

In fact, for those of us who were thirteen or eighteen, or somewhere in between (I had been fifteen for one day) it was indeed The Great Sadness, which went on to become The Great Betrayal, and led to The Great Anger, and finally -- The Great Cynicism. Not everyone in my tenth grade class was saddened by the news from Dallas. Strangely, some really didn’t care. It didn’t stop them in their tracks. It didn’t break their heart. I‘m sure some of them loved the Beatles, and I bet a couple of them went on to manage hedge funds.

But for the rest of us, who had just experienced our first real life Greek tragedy, the future turned kind of scary. We fell asleep staring at a portrait of JFK and woke up seeing the face of LBJ painted over it. Cruel. Very cruel. Couldn’t they have given us a transitional face? And while they were at it, a transitional mind, heart, and soul?

Please forgive the speaking in code, but if you are not of that age and if your eyes didn’t fill with tears, as did Cronkite’s…then it’s hard to explain. All I can tell you is that this was the real day the music died.

Wherever you are now, you passed through Dealy Plaza on the way there.

Oh, before I forget, I find this interesting, and hope that you might too. It was only recently – just a year or so ago – that I stopped being a grassy knollist. How about you? I watched a television documentary that demonstrated that a lone gunman could actually have done it. Maybe. Maybe not, but possibly. And with that possibility, my lifelong, rock-solid grassy knoll-Warren Commission whitewash-Mark Lane-Jim Garrison-CIA cover-up worldview -- begun on the first day of my sixteenth year – cracked! Yes,cracked…then dissolved sometime in my sixtieth year. You know, it felt good to be relieved of all that self-protective, but debilitating cynicism. Now, where do I go to get it back?

When you finally broke down and joined the country club, did you remember to bring your inner Dylan with you?

When Yippies became stockbrokers, did they only sell stocks in good, clean, socially responsible companies? I doubt it. For one thing, there weren’t enough Ben & Jerry’s to go around. And for another, middle class comfort was back in style. We all did what we needed to do to get our piece of the pie. But thanks to us, it would become a much more idealistic pie. I’d like mine with a half scoop of Chunky Monkey, please.

Well, enough reminiscing. I have three questions: Where are we now? Who are we now? And, does it even matter?

Oh, and one more question:

Still crazy after all these years?