‘Getting to Zero’: David Brooks on Ernest Hemingway

In April, while in Havana, New York Times columnist David Brooks visited Ernest Hemingway’s house. Brooks filed a column that focused on Hemingway’s later years, which he characterized as a sad and prolonged decline.

And yet despite his flaws Hemingway still managed to produce some of the same magic prose that made him a world-famous novelist.

Brooks wrote:

When you see how he did it, three things leap out. The first is the most mundane — the daily disciplines of the job. In the house, there is a small bed where he laid out his notes and a narrow shelf where he stood, stared at a blank wall and churned out his daily word count. Sometimes it seems to have been the structure of concrete behavior — the professional routines — that served as a lifeline when all else was crumbling.

Second, there seem to have been moments of self-forgetting. Dorothy Sayers has an essay in which she notes it’s fashionable to say you do your work to serve the community. But if you do any line of work for the community, she argues, you’ll end up falsifying your work, because you’ll be angling it for applause. You’ll feel people owe you something for your work. But if you just try to serve the work — focusing on each concrete task and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done — then you’ll end up, obliquely, serving the community more. Sometimes the only way to be good at a job is to lose the self-consciousness embedded in the question, “How’m I doing?”

Finally, there was the act of cutting out. When Hemingway was successful, he cut out his mannerisms and self-pity.

Read the entire column.

Oakmont Is Cage Fighting in Fashionable Clothing

The 116th U.S. Open tees off on Thursday at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The USGA’s course setup man Mike Davis was “giddy” about course conditions at Oakmont Country Club heading into the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“I am truly giddy the whole week that I’m here. It’s just so good,” Davis said. “In fact, it’s perfect [and] it’s been that way the last five days we’ve been here.”

And it’s fair to say that Davis is also very pleased heading into the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

This is not necessarily good news for the men who must actually play Oakmont for 72 holes over four days. When the USGA man declares his love for Oakmont, that it’s a firm and fast test for the world’s best golfers, you just know there’s going to be trouble—and lots of it.

Here’s what I know about Oakmont after watching the boys play it since the late 20th century: It will seriously mess you up. It will blacken your eye and bloody your nose. It will spit in your face and kick you in the groin. It will beat you up, take your lunch money and steal your identity. Oakmont is cage fighting in fashionable clothing.

If you have a bag and 14 sticks, Oakmont doesn’t like you. If you come near it, it will try to destroy you. Oakmont is Lee Van Cleef in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Oakmont is Alien, The Terminator and Predator.

Oakmont does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, gender, marital status, familial status, parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, or political beliefs. Man, woman, child—Oakmont doesn’t care. It whips all comers.

If you complain, whine, or cry about it, Oakmont gets stronger. If you talk to yourself, toss your club in disgust, or berate your caddie, Oakmont gets stronger. When—not if—when you make bogeys, double bogeys and “others,” Oakmont gets stronger.

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Oakmont is permanently in a surly mood, and has been dating back to 1973 (if not longer). That’s when golden boy Johnny Miller slipped by Oakmont without so much as a tear in his patterned slacks or a scuff on his red, white and blue patent leather golf shoes. Johnny walked away with a 63 and the U.S. Open trophy, and he’s been reminding people about it for the last 43 years.

Oakmont has been taking it out on golfers just as long.

Godspeed, men.

Writing a Corporate Newsletter That Has a Human Touch

Corporate newsletters go stale. It seems to happen sooner or later.

Last year I was called upon by a Seattle agency to write an eight-page quarterly newsletter for a large national paper company. This is a good project for me. I like writing long-form copy and am adept at putting together interesting articles even when the input isn’t the best.

The assignment started with a teleconference that included the agency’s account director and the paper company’s director of corporate communications (the client).

I asked about goals. What are you trying to accomplish?

The client shared three:

1. Communicating the company strategy throughout the newsletter articles.
2. Motivating and inspiring people in the company.
3. Bringing their customers’ perspective into the stories.

Then, another question: Was the content right but the presentation wrong?

Yes, the content was OK but the newsletter was flat. She wanted the newsletter to be more engaging and bring a human interest element into the stories. And so, with the agency creating a new design and me writing the articles, that’s what we’ve done.

This is always a fun challenge for me: Write about what can be boring company news and make it come alive, including the people who work there.

See a sample issue on my Portfolio page.

Allenby: ‘5 Most Important Metrics in Annual Giving’

At the Annual Giving Network, Dan Allenby writes, “Measuring the results of your annual giving effort can be daunting …. While it’s tempting to take a deep dive into the details, you should always start with the five basics. They are, quite simply, the most important metrics in annual giving.”

Those five basics are revenue, donors, participation, retention and leadership giving.

Read more here.

 

 

A Good Neighbor

Bob Shelor told me he felt the best he had felt in six months, which said a lot for an 80-year-old with a damaged heart and other maladies.

What did Bob do when he had that six-month feeling? He mowed our lawn.

That might not sound like such a big deal except for one thing. Bob didn’t mow his own lawn—the lawn service did.

Bob Shelor had an ancient Snapper mower, similar to this one.
Bob Shelor owned an ancient Snapper mower, similar to this one.

Yes, Bob was feeling especially spry and neighborly. So he lowered himself onto his Snapper—a faded red with faulty brakes and a flat tire—and he mowed our steeply sloped back yard, which was in a mild state of neglect while we vacationed for nine days in Seattle.

I thanked him profusely when we got home. Bob shrugged, as if it was nothing.

My family lives in a Shelor house, built circa 1953 by Bob’s brother, P.L., and P.L.’s wife, Pauline. We’re the second family and the first not named Shelor to reside in this 60-year-old brick home near the elementary school. When folks ask me where I live, I often say Pauline Shelor’s house. It makes perfect sense to say we live in her house because no one knows us the way people know Shelors, who have lived in these mountains for more than two centuries. We’ve barely been here a moment, a scant dozen years.

Not only did Bob and his brother live side-by-side, their businesses were side-by-side on Locust Street in downtown Floyd. Upon his return after the Second World War, Bob opened Bob’s Radio and TV with one new television to sell. His training and service in the Navy while stationed in Norfolk prepared him well for his new venture. After enlisting, Bob became an electrician who repaired and refurbished battle-damaged aircraft such as Hellcat fighter planes.

Bob could fix anything, and Bob’s Radio and TV turned into a long career. Jim Casteel told me Bob was a genius. Jim would know; he worked alongside Bob for 42 years. Bob sold enough products for RCA that he earned trips with his wife to Italy and the Caribbean. And, as the newspaper said, “He was friends with all his customers.”

Despite mowing my lawn as an octogenarian and dispensing other kindnesses, Bob was convinced that he didn’t measure up as a neighbor. He was always saying so, and would often tell me that he had never helped us in any meaningful way.

“Can I do anything for you?” Bob would ask.

“No,” I would reply. “But thanks—I appreciate it.”

He never seemed satisfied with my answer.

Actually, Bob was the best neighbor any person could hope for. When our family moved to Floyd in 2003, I selfishly thought, “I hope he lives next door forever,” despite his health challenges and advancing years.

Bob knew more about my house—the plumbing, electrical, everything—than I probably ever will. He also knew everything about Floyd County dating back to his childhood before the war. Bob would entertain me with stories when I joined him in the small den at the back of his house. Sometimes his memory failed him, but what he remembered was interesting and usually included a colorful anecdote or two.

I also wanted Bob to live next door forever because he was the kind of neighbor who brought my daughters ice cream when they were sick or dropped by with stuffed animals for no reason whatsoever. One day when my daughter Beth passed by on the way home from elementary school, he slipped her a few dollars for getting good grades on her report card.

The last time I saw Bob was at the Christmas parade in 2005. It was two days before he died in his den, sitting in his favorite chair, watching television. He had walked the parade route with fellow members of the American Legion. He didn’t notice my daughter Caroline and me standing on the opposite corner of East Main Street and Barberry Road. I wish I had crossed the street and said hello.

“I knew him for a long time to be one of the friendliest and most honest men around,” said veteran Connie Wood in the newspaper. “He went out of his way to help a lot of people in Floyd County.”

We miss our good neighbor.

The Day I Brought Home the Wrong Mayonnaise

I remember the day I brought home a 30-ounce bottle of JFG Mayonnaise. Marriages can fracture over small things, but for many people mayonnaise is no small thing. Allegiance to the wrong brand can be an unpardonable sin. I was only trying it out, I sheepishly told my wife about the mayo from Knoxville, Tennessee.

getMainImageSquareMy wife was, and always will be, on the Hellman’s bandwagon, despite now living in the South where Duke’s and other regional brands of mayonnaise are like religion.

“There is nothing more personal than mayonnaise,” said Ms. Robin Fisher in the New York Times.

Ms. Fisher would know. She works in accounts payable at Duke’s in Mauldin, South Carolina, where, according to the Times, 70,000 pounds of egg yolks and a million pounds of oil are made into mayonnaise products every day.

“People want their coffee a certain way,” Ms. Fisher added, “and they want their mayonnaise a certain way.”

That’s a perfect dollop of southern wisdom, right there.

Mayonnaise, of course, is a French word, and it’s known the world over as a creamy, white sauce that has been around for two centuries. However, it seems as if mayonnaise is something the South invented, sort of like grits, which have Native American origins but are unabashedly southern.

Southerners are fiercely independent, but they unite around comfort food – and that includes gravies and sauces. That might explain why mayonnaise crowds and flies off grocery shelves, whether a jar of Duke’s in Virginia and the Carolinas, JFG in eastern Tennessee, or Blue Plate Real Mayonnaise down in the Louisiana bayous.

Yes, mayonnaise is a staple of the southern diet and economy. Sandwiches as we know them – and an entire society that hinges on what you put between two slices of bread – would crumble without mayo’s creamy goodness.

Take pimento cheese and BLT sandwiches. Would they have achieved greatness without mayonnaise? (This is a rhetorical question.)

The Great Depression produced hard times. They would have been even harder without mayonnaise, which folks spread on their raw onion sandwiches, or with peanut butter. That’s right, southerners gobbled down peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches.

“Merita white bread, Duke’s, chunky Jiff, bananas & a little drizzle of honey,” commented one southern lady in a popular magazine. “Heaven!” she exclaimed.

And yet one person’s heaven is another person’s crusade. Sadly, there are movements against mayonnaise, including a website called holdthatmayo.com. They are misguided. They should find a new cause, something actually worthwhile. But you don’t have to be adopted southern daughter Taylor Swift to know that “haters gonna hate.”

It’s another reminder that mayonnaise is a controversial and divisive topic. You can almost hear a proud drawl in the words of Mr. Robin P. Little:

“Down here there are certain topics northern transplants learn to avoid bringing up if they want a conversation to stay civil,” Mr. Little commented in the Times, “and Hellman’s versus Duke’s mayonnaise is one of them. Below the Mason-Dixon line, Duke’s rules.”

By the way, I loved the tangy flavor of JFG, but I mostly keep that to myself around the house. I also make sure there’s a jar of Hellman’s in the fridge.

How I Won’t Remember Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, died in her sleep on February 19 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She was 89.

Lee is literary royalty.

“All I want to be,” she said a long time ago, “is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”

It would seem that she far exceeded her goal.

I will cherish some memories about Lee and her work, but I won’t remember her for Go Set a Watchman, a lost-and-found manuscript from 1957 that was published as Lee’s second novel a year ago. I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. I doubt that I will. It strikes me as an opportunistic publishing episode that should not have happened.

And yet, it’s not a blemish on Lee’s legacy. Not for me. Instead of reading “Watchman,” I’ll just read “Mockingbird” again. There will be many others who do the same.

The New York Times obituary and video.