A Driving Force

Where did this come from? Was it from the movies? Maybe. Was it Detroit’s automobile-obsessed grip on me that made me love this so? There are so many commercials that end this way. Who cares. To this day, I get chills even thinking of it. It’s so perfect. 

I am not one for staying in. I never have been. I love to travel for leisure. I especially love to drive. I love to see this beautiful world at my own pace– turning down any side road I choose, and skipping the smooth road for the one with twists and turns. These days, while I am forced to stay inside, I has allowed myself to reminisce.

As a teenager, when I first learned to drive, I had one small desire. It seemed silly, but I was determined to accomplish this one, very important thing. But before I tell you what that was, let me tell you how important that first set of wheels was for me.

I didn’t choose my first car, but rather my mother purchased one for me. It wasn’t fancy. That 1978 baby blue Pontiac Sunbird was a dream, though. White vinyl interior and a (leaky) after-market sunroof, combined with an auto-reverse cassette player (also added after-market), meant I would soon have all the freedom afforded a sixteen year old suburban punk.

My mother purchased the car for me (I know, I was spoiled) mostly to avoid having to drive me to and from play practice, choir rehearsals and work. I was an active teenager, and made sure to stay plenty busy– thus requiring my own set of wheels. And I loved my Sunbird. But it was 1987, and this 11 year-old car had pretty much lost its appeal.

I used to sit in the front seat of that car (before I turned 16) and play music on the stereo. The cassette tape blaring “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo” by Echo and the Bunnymen (my favorite band at the time), or the two cassette pack of Les Miserables (my dream musical at the time), I’m sure raised many eyebrows from the neighbors.

I would rush home after school, and get to work at customizing my new freedom-machine. I remember buying a compass for the dashboard, a detachable mirror for under the visor, and custom (cut to fit) rubber floor mats. I can still smell those mats. All these things I did- before I could even take it out for s spin. My mother had purchased the car in December, and my birthday was in February… those months were painful! And I would sit in that seat. In the driveway.

Once I turned sixteen, we rushed to the DMV, and I returned home with that tiny plastic card that gave me permission to drive. Wow! But, I would have to wait until October to really accomplish my one true desire. And that desire? It was simple, but so exciting.

And then, that fateful Saturday came, and my one true desire as a car owner became reality.

It’s October. It’s early morning. There’s a crisp chill approaching. The trees are gold and red and orange. And they cover the road. There is no end to the road, except somewhere over that hill ahead. And the street? It’s a simple, two-lane highway. Although, you can’t really see the pavement, for it is covered with foliage, having just fallen from the trees overhead. And you are alone. Alone behind the wheel of a slick, 1978 Pontiac Sunbird. It’s rusty, sure. And the white vinyl top is, well, less than spotless. There’s a light fog in the air, the kind only October mornings can promise. And you begin to accelerate. Swiftly you ascend the hill, gaining speed and confidence with every second. And just as you approach the top of the hill, it happens. You lock your eyes on that rearview mirror, and witness the cinematic glory: Thousands, millions, perhaps– of gold, red and green leaves– all trailing behind you, like the wake of a great speedboat on Lake Michigan. They curl and spin, and some even take to the air in a tiny whirlwind– all a result of your ultimate power and control. Amazing.

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Where did this come from? Was it from the movies? Maybe. Was it Detroit’s automobile-obsessed grip on me that made me love this so? There are so many commercials that end this way. Who cares. To this day, I get chills even thinking of it. It’s so perfect.

And, today, as silly as it is, I still cannot wait for that moment to come again. Sure, it may not happen until October, but I will anticipate that moment until it gets here. And it makes me not hate (quite so much) being stuck inside. For, if I was able to wait all those months to take the wheel of that Sunbird, I can wait now.

One caveat: I no longer drive a 1978 Pontiac Sunbird.

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Dream a little dream

For in the mere seconds that followed, there would be a problem with our tickets to Boston, rerouting us to Gandi International Airport in India, and a missed connector rail separating my (still-earbudded) son from myself. I would watch him speed away in the train car, to a place unknown, completely unaware I wasn’t with him. And just like, that- he was gone. Forever.

What is it with dreams?

We all have them. Dreams that wake us, stir us, even move us to tears. But what is the real power of dreams? I probably won’t be able to answer that question fully in my blog post today, but I do want to share some thoughts about this most curious part of the human experience.

Earlier this week, I awoke around 3 a.m., unable to shake off what I had just encountered. My heart was racing, like I was speeding up a flight of stairs, as my mind replayed the horrific scene- over and over.

My 17 year-old son and I were at the airport, about to board a plane for our flight to Boston, apparently. It wasn’t O’Hare International airport, though – the airport with which I am well-acquainted. And it wasn’t United Airlines, my regular carrier. No, it was an ambiguous airport, and we sat at an ambiguous gate, about to board an ambiguous airline’s airplane.

My son sits next to me, eyes glued to his iPhone. Thumbs and fingers racing across the screen, swiping and “liking” videos on TikTok or some other silly, mindless app. He’s wearing his earbuds, and I’m wearing mine. I’ve got a Ravel string quartet playing in my ears, and I’m browsing email on my iphone: Files due today, proofs need to be returned overnight to the printer, etc.

I look over to my kid and smile. He looks up and smiles back. I would never see that smile, or my son again.

For in the mere seconds that followed, there would be a problem with our tickets to Boston, rerouting us to Gandi International Airport in India, and a missed connector rail separating my (still-earbudded) son from myself. I would watch him speed away in the train car, to a place unknown, completely unaware I wasn’t with him. And just like, that- he was gone. Forever.

Lately, my life has been consumed with crisis management. Not just for myself (which probably could be useful), but for clients. Things have been stressful. Not catastrophic, but general, mid-level “tough.” Everyone is talking about how challenging it is to leave stress at the office. (How is that possible, when we carry our offices with us on tiny computers in our pockets?– that’s a blog for another time.) But stress surrounds us. Stress of work, stress of life, stress of family.

And stress drives our dreams. Apparently, one of the more prominent theories as to why we dream is thus: We dream to cope.

Results of a 2017 UC Berkeley study suggests that dreams help “take the sting out of our painful emotional experiences during the hours we are asleep, so that we can learn from them and carry on with our lives.” (READ ARTICLE HERE)

In his book, Why We Sleep, author Matthew Walker says dreaming is like “overnight therapy.” His study reveals that time spent in the most important dream sleep actually helps heal us, and the intense REM-sleep often produces productive dreaming, allowing us to take the sting out of difficult, traumatic, emotional episodes, offering a sense of emotional resolution once awake.

Great. So sleeping is therapy? Ugh. Can’t sleep just be sleep? I’m sure I need it! Oh well, back to my dream.

The facts are all true.

My son does scroll TikTok, and we had just lived this very moment earlier in the day, laughing about the uselessness of it. And we have flown together many times. And my details were all real- I was on deadline. The proofs did need to get to the printer. Just earlier that day, I was delighting in my new recording of Ravel string quartets by the Soundiva String Quartet.

All those those emotional triggers are grounded in truth, too. The palpable emotion of the events included in my dream are still heavy for me. I feel those emotions even now, as I type this.

Here’s why I think it’s so intense. Seeing my son smile always makes me smile, and it makes me feel. That’s not a “dream”- there’s nothing “pretend” about that- that’s all real. And watching him slip away onto that rail, to an unknown destination- that was real fear I was feeling, grounded in truth. The emotions of that moment were all genuine, all actual.

The dream perhaps triggered my fear that my young son was entering manhood, and we were losing him. And maybe his departure into the unknown was a signal that he needs to choose a college and make the real plans for his future. Or, maybe it was just to remind me of how very much I care about this kid. And just how important he is in my life.

See what I mean? These emotions are real!

Here’s my takeaway: The situations are false, but the emotions are true. Maybe we are to learn from the emotions we feel in our dreams, and work our best to feel those emotions as deeply during the waking hours.

That next morning, as I made coffee and watched him stuff a granola bar in his backpack and fill his water bottle, I soaked it all in– feeling grateful to be here, in our kitchen- not boarding a plane, or stepping out into some unknown destination.

Then, he grabbed his coat, turned the door knob to go and said, “Later. Love ya.”

“Love you too, kid. See ya after school,” I said.

And I felt the irony of the moment.

New Yorkers got it right.

Check it out. Seriously. You must.

It’s a phrase I don’t say all that often, but, “I agree with New Yorkers.

Why don’t I say it that often? Because every individual I know in New York feels differently about virtually every subject imaginable. But this time, New Yorkers agree, and I am with them one hundred percent.

I’m not talking about Mike Bloomberg, and I’m certainly not referencing the cannabis bill or the new cat-declawing ban. (Yeah, that’s really a thing- it’s now considered inhumane to remove your cat’s claws in New York, and once Cuomo signs it, curtains and couches all over Manhattan will be shredded in celebration.)

Building Palaces for the People Can Fix the Country: Justin Fox

I’m talking about readers’ decision to select and presumably read Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. In the history of the New York Public Library, this classic tale of a young African-American boy in winter has been checked-out more than 485,583 times.  (Read the full New York Times Story here)

I’m not gonna lie. I literally shed a small tear when I saw the news of this story come across my feed. And then, I might have verbalized a small cheer. “Yes!” Here’s why: I love this book. I loved, and still very much love this book.

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THE ALLURE OF THAT LITTLE BOY

What is the universal appeal of this book I wonder? People select books based on their cover, right? So is it the stop light? The city? The book cover’s bold strokes of that red suit, tucked among the footprints of white? Perhaps it’s the inquisitive face of this child –examining the path behind him, not ahead. Ahh, yes. His would be an epic journey, but where was he heading?

The picture book tells a simple, beautiful story of… wait. I’m not telling you. If you don’t know, you must pick it up. Stop reading this useless blog, get to a library and check it out. The simplicity of Keats’ book is what makes it a timeless treasure to behold.

For those of you who are not en route to your local library, I will continue.

I grew up in a very suburban, homogeneous, working-class neighborhood outside Detroit in the early 1970’s. I can tell you, The Snowy Day was regularly on my short list to check out from the Warren Public Library, where I was permitted to select up to four books per visit. When it was there. More often than not, it was missing from the shelves.

In my earliest days, I was able to visit my local library once each week, accompanied by my mother, where I was also permitted to check out hand-puppets, vinyl records (albums), and (you won’t believe this) framed reproductions of major works of art. The walls of our home, would (to my mother’s embarrassment) be adorned with the works of DaVinci, Rembrandt, and Renoir. When I discovered Kandinsky and Picasso, they were relegated to my bedroom– which was just fine with me. “Composition IV” and The Muppet Movie poster, side by side.

 

This snow-immersed little boy looked nothing like me. His home looked nothing like my home– but I wanted to be his friend. I wanted to be with him at the party. I wanted inside that world that was so unlike my own. And those emotions were unlocked thanks to this American institution known as the public library. There are more than 116,000 still active in America today.

There is something so special about children (or adults, even) having to choose a book, commit to keeping it safe (for a time), and returning it safely to its home. It’s almost like a secret society of sharing.

I loved that library. It was there that I discovered Keats’ story, among others. I would go on to learn there was another Keats, but that would be another time, at yet another library in Chicago.

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BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS

Full disclosure: I’m a pretty great dad. I have the birthday cards, coffee mugs and notes to prove it. And my wife is “mom of the year” nearly every year. And even though we made our family reading time together a top priority, we maybe, sorta screwed this one up.

You see, when our boys were small, we would consume picture books like they were cheerios. Every day and each night, story time was precious. And we made time for it. We would each select a book (or three), hunker down among the bed pillows and stuffed animals, and read together. The Snowy Day was always among the first chosen–even in summer.

“One more! Pleeeease” was the recurring request. And it was nearly impossible to say no. The bed stand would occasionally tip over from the uneven weight of that day’s picks, awaiting to be re-shelved.

And here it is. My problem with libraries. I love to buy books. I have always bought books as gifts. Gifts for me, gifts for the family, gifts for friends. By the time our boys were in high school, we had amassed six huge shelves of picture books and young adult novels.

Anytime I was on the road traveling (which was often), I would always come home with picture books, and (eventually) novels for my children. I still do this.

When we needed some time away from the home, we would pack up the car and head to Barnes & Noble or Borders Books and Music (I’m still sad about losing this one). We would spend hours at the bookstore, and we always returned with 1-3 new books. But we never really made the library a real commitment.

I love our libraries, and we need our libraries, I just can’t seem to make time to visit regularly. I’m too busy, I suppose. And, I fear I would never return my selections.

I’ve never sold or thrown away a book. I suppose if Amazon couldn’t get something I wanted quickly enough, I would probably have to check out my local library. Maybe it is a commitment I will make with our (one day, perhaps) grandchildren– to introduce them to this unique community of sharing, called “Library”.

As my family can attest– I am building my own library at home. We now have a thousand (thousands, maybe?) of books, and I am okay with that. Nestled among the best-selling biographies and novels in the Wolff Family Library, you’ll surely find The Snowy Day.  Unless it’s still on a bed stand, waiting to topple.

So, we kinda, sorta messed up the library thing.

But we did give them Blueberries for Sal. And Caps for Sale. And Ferdinand, Corduroy, Madeline, as well as Harold and that pesky purple crayon. And The Little House. And The Giving Tree.

And now I’m crying again.

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The Gift of Subtlety.

There are some gifts I willingly admit I possess; I have a talent for identifying color- which shades work together and which do not; I understand how to turn a phrase, or align words in such a way that they seem to make more sense; and I have a decent singing voice. These are real gifts.

The gift I do not have, nor has ever been attributed to me, is that of subtlety. (At this very moment, people who know me are nodding their heads, or laughing at the very thought of such an attribution.)

Subtlety, of course, isn’t the only gift I am lacking. I have zero idea how to throw a football or even the faintest understanding of the game. Numbers and I have a difficult relationship, making sometimes even the most basic equations an all-out brain freeze. And the square-jaw, rugged-handsome gene skipped my generation.

If my mother were to chime in right now, she’d probably say something like, “Well, Tom Brady and Daniel Day-Lewis certainly don’t have your singing voice, do they?” Thanks, mom.

However, just because I don’t possess those gifts, doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate them.

The gift of subtlety and nuance is one rarely witnessed today– but you know it when you see it. And you miss it when it is absent.

New York Times Opinion columnist Frank Bruni recently referenced this in his take of the 2020 Democratic Presidential Debates:

We’ve entered an especially coarse chapter in American politics. We’ve also entered a spectacularly unsubtle one, in which what stands out and wins the day are big jokes, bold strokes and broad-brush moralizing. Tidy, intellectually facile dichotomies rule: good and evil; villain and victim; oppressor and oppressed. The least exalted real estate is the middle ground and… the most rapidly fading shade is gray.  (full article)

In my line of work, subtlety is risky, but it sometimes really pays off. There are great examples of this in advertising over the years. I think of the simple “S.C. Johnson, a family company” creeping in at the end of television ads.

What isn’t said matters.

One commercial I saw recently brought me to tears in the first ten seconds. Watch it here, but try not to read what the commercial is for, just watch the ad. You’ll be glad you did. This is even the abbreviated version and it totally works.

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The subtlety of this ad is everything. What isn’t said is so important. (Watch the full movie here.)

I am looking forward to more opportunities in my creative life and my actual life that cue me to face challenges with subtlety and nuance.

Say What You Need To Say

Sometimes, we are just not all that invested. Sometimes, we don’t really care that deeply about the issue at hand, so avoiding our real stance on a subject is just easier– more convenient.

John Mayer proclaims nearly 30 times, “Say what you need to say” in his song by the same name. Ironic? I think not.

All too often, we avoid saying what needs to be said. We tiptoe around the truth or the hard truth with mere suggestions of what we are really wanting to say. We “suggest” our intent by veiling it with “perhaps…” or “maybe…” 

But– do we feel strongly? All we need to do is spend ten minutes on Twitter or Facebook to know that we are a people who feel. Unfortunately, it is all too simple to post strong feelings or attitudes without the backbone of a face-to-face confrontation.

Sometimes, we are just not all that invested to speak up for how we feel in the workplace. Sometimes, we don’t really care that deeply about the issue at hand, so avoiding our real stance on a subject is just easier– more convenient.

Recently, I saw a post on LinkedIn entitled, When Your Most Motivated Employees Become Silent! by Graham Thompson. I was immediately overwhelmed at the very concept. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I proclaimed as I read these words, “the origin of the lack of passion so often lies in leadership inappropriateness, neglect or selfishness.”

Have I created an atmosphere in the workplace where my coworkers feel comfortable to speak the truth? Have I created a safe place?

We have always tried to maintain a high-performing ensemble of teammates who are welcome, even encouraged to voice their differing opinions, knowing full well that dissent and criticism is often a crucial element of the creative process. It’s not for everyone. And the moment it becomes personal or petty is the moment the process grinds to a halt.

Every opinion matters. Yes. Indeed– or you wouldn’t have a seat the table. However, every opinion does not and cannot carry the same weight. The key challenge is discerning who is owning the project. And who is ultimately responsible for that project’s success.

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HERE’S WHAT HELPS:

CLEAR EXPECTATIONS

I will often begin a group session with something like, “Hey- a lot of these decisions have already been made, but I would love to get you take on where we are, and see if you have any suggestions for improvement.” That is different than, “What do you think?” If you aren’t prepared for, “I hate it”- you shouldn’t even ask.

CLEAR BOUNDARIES

Sometimes, it is important to remind your team of the Rules of Play. “This is John’s project, and he’s done a lot of work. Let’s discuss how he can take it to the next level” or “Folks, we are on a strict deadline. Only constructive, easy fixes at this point”.

CLEAR RESULTS

Here’s where we often fail. Celebrate the success of your team, and your team’s work. I fail at this all the time, because I am so in love with the process. I absolutely take great pride and reward in the teamwork of a project, and I seldom remember that the rest of the team may find their reward in celebrating the win of the project once it is completed.

 

 

The Joy of Being Known

We all hear that a cardinal rule of sales is “know your customer.” As an oft-for-hire actor, I can tell you the cardinal rule for any performer is “know your audience.”

I have benefitted from that sage advice many, many times.

The gist of knowing one’s customer, or audience is that, if you know them, you can adequately serve them, or (in the performer’s case)– reach them.

Today, like I always do, I stopped by a coffee shop to acquire my hourly fix. ( Full disclosure: I contemplated typing “daily fix,” but I decided to be honest– its hourly.)

This was a brand-spanking-new coffee shop. It has been open for less than 24 hours. I had the privilege of stopping by the coffee shop for an ‘advance tour’ on Sunday, and was excited about its opening.

Today, when I stepped to the counter at this new coffee shop, I was greeted with a friendly smile, and a warm, “Hi, George– you want the Nitro, right?”

You bet I do. And lots of it.

coffee picYou see, Nitro Cold Brew is my jam. Big time. I love it. But, you’re missing the point. How did she know my name– and my coffee order. It was day one!

The reason doesn’t really matter. But she did. And that mattered.  You see, she knew my order, and she knew me. And I love that.

Now, sometimes, I like to be not known. I’m not famous, not by any stretch of the imagination. But, there are those moments when any of us loves to disappear into a city, or a foreign place and merely be a spectator. But not today.

Today, I was reminded that I was known. Even at a brand new coffee shop. And that really meant something.

Who You Know Matters

We all recall the phrase, “it’s not what you know, but rather who you know.” This is usually referencing climbing the corporate ladder, or some reference to unfair opportunities based on relationships, rather than skill or talent. But some of it may be true in our work: Do we really know our clients or customers?

“Hey, George! How was your trip to Colorado?”

“Good morning, George! Where have you been? We’ve missed you!”

“George- so sorry to hear about your sick dog- is she better?”

These may seem trivial, but they are important signs that we know each other–– really know each other. This kind of interaction goes beyond emoji-level responses to real life, and ground us in the importance of being known.

Perhaps we could all take a few minutes this week and attempt to “know” one another. We may find ourselves embracing the joy of fellow humans in our midst. At the very least, we may end up with a delightful cup of coffee. And a smile.

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Why do the Wrong People travel?

“Travel they say improves the mind, An irritating platitude, which frankly, entrenous, Is very far from true.”

from Noel Coward’s, “Why do the wrong people travel”

 

I love looking at the year ahead, and anticipating what great things I may encounter. It seems silly, I know. The resolutions, the predictions. But, maybe lookin a head is exactly what we are supposed to do.

Anticipating the Future

It’s not really possible to predict the future, I think. I know I may make some enemies by saying this. However, we can make goals and prioritize the twelve months that lie ahead of us.

I’m not a big goal maker, although I live by my daily lists and calendar items. You might say they guide my daily progress. The items not tended to from today get bounced to tomorrow’s list. Sometimes the top, sometimes a sidebar.

But this year, I looked at 2019 and thought, “I want to travel more.” This great article in the New York Times emphasized my longing to succumb to my wanderlust and depart the midwest for adventures unknown.

But then I got to really thinking about it, and discovered a greater truth. I don’t want to just travel. I want to travel and explore with people I love–– my family and friends.

Noel Coward famously penned, “why do the wrong people travel… when the right people stay back home?” Coward blasts the American tourists for slathering food with ketchup and mucking up dust in famous attractions around the world. It has nothing to do with my article, but it makes me laugh.

As for me, I want to be with, and experience new things with my children. To watch their eyes light up at the revelation of a new understanding, and to see them experience different cultures. I want walk cobbled streets and sip coffee at cafes we alone have discovered.

I have traveled for work most of my life-– first as a performer, now as a creative director, but even in those moments, it wasn’t the travel itself that was fun, it was the people I encountered, and those with whom I shared the experience.

For our family, road trips are crucial to our family dynamic. Each holiday, we pack into the SUV and make way to family’s homes across the country. And the ride is important. We always end up singing some goofy song together, arguing about who sits where, and casting our ballots for which coffee shops will earn our business along the route.

And, the family needs that time together. We need to be cramped in a limited space, relying on each other for map guidance and navigation, dj-ing, and management of the all-important snack bag. But– making this trip alone? Not hardly. The reason we enjoy this trip is because we are together.

Travel on, wanderers. But do it with those you love.