David Milch Pens a Curtain Call

It’s called Life’s Work. It’s anything but a simple title, as only to be expected from its incomparable author, David Milch. It’s not so much a play on words as it is an enunciation of intent, a spiritual aspiration. Yeah, let’s start there and see where it takes us. The rabbi is in.

There is a profound sadness that winds its way through these pages. Alzheimer’s is laying claim to David’s current challenge, and it permeates his thought process in this troubling memoir. He is assisted in committing the recallable memories to paper by his family, and even where confusion follows his path like a sine curve, it’s not just Alzheimer’s that elicits sorrow. It’s the entire path of intermittent regrets. If words are to make us feel, his words again succeed.

I hadn’t seen David in a very long time when I attended his book launch. I asked him if he remembered me. “Of course,” he said, “do either of us owe the other money?” I was 99% sure it was a joke, but just in case I assured him we did not.

In the broadest sense of its definition, rabbi means teacher. In the workplace, it means more than that. If you get one, your life is going to change. You might just be finding a path to Life’s Work.

When you’re a young writer, if you’re smart you seek teachers. They don’t teach you how to write. They teach you how difficult it is to write. They instill in you taste, fortitude, inhuman patience, proper doubt, and resilience.

The feedback is anything but pleasant. It’s not for the faint of heart. You learn that bad first drafts are a fact of process. They are necessary, but largely need to be deleted.

David Milch taught me these things, mostly by demonstrating them, but sometimes from the breakfast lectern. He taught me that subjecting others to unpolished work was amateur, lazy, and unfair. If you choose to tell stories, you must learn to craft them in ways that don’t waste an audience’s time or take advantage of their goodwill.

You learn discipline, like an athlete. You do it every day, again and again. The rabbi keeps you honest. Character comes first, then reveals plot, but plot is only a device to enhance the arc of character development. We think we love story, but what we really love are characters.

David taught me those characters are guests in people’s homes. Audiences will let them in on expectation, but will only keep them there if they grow. When a show dies, it’s not because you have run out of story; it’s because the characters have no more headroom to interpret and flourish.

Feedback becomes lifeblood. Then one day you’re on your own. When the teacher is no more, your filter is established to shield you from embarrassment. The work must pass your own sniff test as it would be blessed from further refinement by the teacher.

In this memoir, David writes of the mind’s decay. He didn’t ask for this denouement, but his choices are few. He accepts the path as inescapable. He turns to notions of faith that evaded him in his younger years, when his temperament was not tamable. I remember that David. That was the rabbi who first said to me: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

He wrote unforgettable, award-winning episodes of Hill Street Blues. He created the groundbreaking television series NYPD Blue and Deadwood. He left the craft of episodic television writing better than he found it. That is an understatement.

He battled substance abuse and gambling addiction, both almost crushing his existence. He raised a caring family and found his way back to their love. Surviving his demons to nurture love was a monumental achievement.

I came to David because my viewing experience of Hill Street Blues was TV that tore at the soul. I didn’t know that was possible, particularly because it broke for commercial every 12 minutes or so. David came to think of it as bourgeois. That’s a word you don’t often hear outside of college.

He wanted to go deeper, extract honesty from language despite the limitations imposed by presumed broadcast standards. Rules for David were goalposts that needed to be moved with concerted wit whenever a network executive forgot to interfere. All forms of writing are bound by some form of convention, but he wanted those boundaries to be in service to creativity, not obstacles to authentic expression.

He never stopped being a teacher. He saw the gift in his mentor, Robert Penn Warren, and paid it forward. He helped the careers of endless writers who learned from his example the poetic revelations in pure, gritty, messy, conflicted reality.

For many years I never believed I would achieve David’s standard. My aesthetic was too unformed, too quick to quip, too impatient to let a character breathe if it killed a laugh or shocking turn. I became despondent with my own attempts at composition. I worried words would fail me when I needed them most.

Yet I never gave up. The rabbi made that an untenable notion. Work was essential. Rewriting was essential. Craft was essential. I was on my own as David was. Every writer is alone. It takes a lifetime to learn that. The rabbi if abrupt saves you half your life denying this truth and readying you for being alone, determined, indefatigable.

A mentor is a subject matter master. A mentor is not meant to be kind in the present, only in the long arc of life. We learn this too late. The critique of the master is only meant to become self-critique in perpetuity. Like I said, apprenticeship is not for the faint of heart.

There is gravitas in the audacity of writing, absurdity in committing to an endeavor that consistently leaves you empty and unnaturally separates writer from the written. David understands that in a rabbinical sense. His ability to articulate the nature of output is simultaneously divine and existential. A brief, revealing excerpt early in the memoir captures the essence of that reduction:

There’s something about literature—poetry and prose, but particularly poetry—which disinfects the efforts of being. The effort itself is cleansing. It neutralizes what’s profane about the process, and just leaves the result.

If writing becomes your essence, the idea of not writing is about the same as the idea of not breathing. Neither is feasible. Both are equally necessary.

At the end of the reading, supplemented by famous friends sharing passages for reasons of pragmatism, David took the microphone. “Thank you so much for being here. I love you all. God bless you.”

I had never heard him say words like that. His arc had come with an unpredictable resolution. Story and character were again united in natural resonance.

The rabbi placed a small ribbon between chapters and closed the book. His eyes were clear and telling. Here ends the lesson.

_______________

Photo: The Author at Diesel Bookstore

The Thing About Vin

This month I suspect the nation is accidentally divided into two unsuspecting camps: Those hearing the beloved name Vin Scully for the first time, and those who feel the world has lost a soul whose voice permeated their imagination for what seems like forever. I probably don’t have to tell you, but my tent is in Camp Two.

I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to the touching tributes to Vin all month now, waiting for the words to come to me that might add something different to the mix. Like so many fans of baseball, I am finding it impossible to quantify the impact Vin has had on the game and my life. Let me try to get there by focusing on what Vin brought into our lives that exceeds anything to do with a child’s game played by adults for well over a century on our pastoral fields of dreams.

Vin was decent in a way that defines decency. Try to think of anyone in the public eye where you never hear a single bad word uttered about him. People like this about someone but not that, people argue about the talents and abilities of professionals, people offer pointed critiques of someone’s shortfalls despite their success. I’ve never heard anyone utter a cross comment about Vin. Never. It’s uncanny. I can’t think of anyone else who fits that bill.

Vin was a storyteller of the highest order. We frequently overuse the word storytelling to describe the sequencing of events that constitute an unfolding narrative, but Vin turned broadcasting into art and baseball into a series of real-time epics built from a foundation of plot and character. You never had to love the Dodgers to love the resonance of Vin’s unmistakable voice. You listened to the anecdotes excerpted from the lives of MLB players told gracefully between balls, strikes, hits, and runs. You never missed a play, and every chapter of the story added up to a portrait of an era.

Vin brought us together. Whether you were sitting in Dodger Stadium with a transistor radio earplug hanging below your ballcap, watching a big screen with rowdy strangers in a sports bar, or sitting at home texting friends and family while Vin did the play-by-play alone in the booth, everyone choosing to participate in the day’s game came together as part of the event. Vin was inclusive, and he made us inclusive. Our differences didn’t matter on game day when he had the mic. His friendship was our friendship. Vin made sure everyone felt welcome to be part of his 67 years of telling campfire stories while athletes performed them in stadiums linked to historic moments.

“Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you.”

“If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky.”

“A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”

“I know in my heart that I’ve always needed you more than you’ve needed me.”

Vin turned simple words into profound statements, moments into musical notes, radio and television commentary into sound bites for the ages. Today that might seem corny, impossible to pull off without sounding dated or forced. I guess when you have the perspective of almost seven decades to evolve your act, whatever you say is instantly perfect. It’s jazz. You’ve rehearsed as much as anyone alive, so you can improvise without a worry. You also instinctively know when quiet beats loud.

The stories of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Don Larsen, Fernando Valenzuela, Don Drysdale, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente — they are each 100% their own, and Vin knew that more than anyone. Vin was forever the reporter, never the story, that was his inviolable commitment. Yet the stories were better because he told them. Everyone knew that. If you had a story in the game, you wanted Vin to tell it, to record it for the ages, to make it vital, enchanting, and historic. Doing the outlandish in a game that has never seen a moment like yours is one thing. Having Vin lock down the tale for all of time is quite another.

As I think about all the kind words I’ve read and heard about how deeply this one humble man touched so many lives, I am repeatedly left breathless by the stories the fans themselves have shared. Fathers and sons who couldn’t find the right words to say to each other turned on the radio and had a catch while Vin called the game. Families who couldn’t afford the price of tickets parked their cars in open spaces, opened the tailgate of an old station wagon, spread a picnic blanket and grilled hot dogs as Vin made them feel like they were at Chavez Ravine. Brooklyn loyalists who never forgave Walter O’Malley for moving the team west generations later got satellite TV and fell in love again with their Dodgers bridged by the same voice who loved the team as much as they always had.

So here’s the thing about Vin, where the legend of simpler times and radio days brings us to the less innocent evolution we’re all trying to navigate with fragments of heart and hope. Some of us are getting older, losing the icons that carried us from youth to adulthood while poignantly keeping us young at heart. Every April baseball season begins with enormous hope, and every October it ends with one World Series champion. We all know the beginning and end of that cycle come with a change in the cast. Some of our favorite players will be gone. Some of the most important people in our lives may be gone. That is the sad and precious reality of our time together. Our memories are both powerful and fragile. When we remember a common voice that triggers the goodness in those memories, biological age for an instant is no longer a thing.

Vin was there for so many of those memories. He had the seat of honor at so many of our tables. He will stay tied to those memories as long as we stay tied to those memories. The gift of his life was to enrich the lives of all those who carry forward those memories. He wanted that even more than to call a perfect game. For Vin, every game was a perfect game.

I’ll give the wind-up to Vin, because I cannot imagine any other way to set up the close and get off the air:

“When I was eight years old, I fell in love with the roar of the crowd coming out of the speaker of a four-legged radio. When you roar, when you cheer, when you are thrilled, for a brief moment I am eight years old again.”

Yep, so am I. Thank you, dear Vin Scully. Your gift of optimism and connection is once in a lifetime, once in a century, once in sports history. Your gift forever keeps us eight years old.

_______________

Photo: Library of Congress

The Difficult and the Daunting

You may have heard recently that Amazon is pulling back a bit on hiring and warehouse space. With all their vast resources in strategic planning, the executive team there overshot on leasing square feet their forecasts no longer support. I suspect they will manage through this just fine in the long run with little impact on earnings, but it is a powerful reminder of how difficult it is to predict future business both when you’re in an up-market and a down one.

We all get this wrong now and again. It’s normal and usually navigable. The problems come when balancing present challenges heavily compromises a company’s future, or betting only on the future sours a company’s current performance to the point where no one cares about the future.

I am often humbled by the nagging paradox of making tough business decisions every day at the relentless pace of 24x7x365. Running a company in response to everyday circumstances in the present will always be difficult, Running a company for an opaque future will always be daunting.

We have to do both well to accomplish our current goals and set the table for the next generation of growth prospects. Favor either the present or the future too heavily and the question becomes whether you want to lose now or later. While that’s not an option any leader wants to consider, if we don’t see the delicacy in how one affects the other, our intentions can be undermined by our outcomes.

We often hear about the pressures of being a public company, how corporate leaders make choices to focus on quarterly earnings from which they financially benefit immediately over building strong companies for the long haul. I do think this happens at some companies where short-term stock performance can dramatically impact executive compensation. Too often those companies fall prey to what Clayton Christensen famously has called The Innovator’s Dilemma and allow their long-established norms of success to be fully disrupted by more nimble competitors.

There’s a more ironic take on this notion, where equity markets sometimes forgive emerging companies for failing to produce earnings at all in the near term in the hope that someday they will have gained so much market share that they will prove invincible. This all-or-nothing strategy has paid off handsomely for companies like Amazon that didn’t produce earnings for years, reinvested heavily in their growth, and today reap the benefits of that bet. Sadly, this example has been exploited by too many newly public companies that don’t even consider near-term profitability a goal, allowing lazy business models to overshadow unfounded optimism that someday their customers will reward them with enviable positions.

A company that bets only on the future, never becomes economically successful, and runs out of cash can be train-wrecked just as decisively as a once successful company that fails to address The Innovator’s Dilemma. If the executives steering either of those failures happen to be selling shares along the way to a company’s demise, a feast of lawyers will follow.

Inflation and rising interest rates make the cost of doing business higher for everyone. We painstakingly decide how much of these costs we pass along to customers and how much we absorb. The benefit of preserving current operating margins is always tempting, but the rewards of long-term customer loyalty and lifetime value speak for themselves. How do we decipher the balance between current and future financial results? Data will often shine a light on the path, but there are no conclusive textbooks with clear answers to these calculations.

It truly is hard to run a company both for today and tomorrow. We have to consider the staff sizes we need, the leases we’ll require, the stability of our supply chains, price elasticity, and the promise of our brands. We also carefully must watch cash flow, our balance sheets, compensation, incentives, technology advancements, and investments in future product cycles. What works today may or may not work tomorrow. It is seldom that what works perfectly in one set of conditions works just as well in another.

There are no perfect answers, but the fluidity of making a decision now for its short and long-term impact usually weighs heavily on those who wrestle with the impossible crystal ball.

Covid-19 has been a good reminder of how difficult and daunting decisions can be. We were all blind during Covid and it was easy to misread fluctuating data. No leader had substantial experience with stay-at-home working conditions. No one knew how long the pandemic would last, how it would impact supply and demand, or how it would impact investor sentiment. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, most of what we thought going into Covid proved to be wrong, and most of our assumptions about how employees, customers, and investors would behave post-Covid have been equally wrong.

If you want to be humbled, try making decisions that address the unknown with this level of frequency. You’ll likely realize you’re wrong more than you’re right, but the less tangible skill we develop is how to rethink and react quickly when we discover we are wrong. That’s why the rewards for creating a company that is “built to last” are immense, but the odds of lasting fifty years are long.

When it comes time to decide short or long, know you have to do both, and do your best you to keep dialogue and debate flowing among diverse opinions. The decisions we make have an impact we might be able to see today, but unless you know someone who has a gift the world has never seen, we are almost always speculating on the impact a year or more from today. Sometimes it’s decades before we find out if we were right or wrong.

We choose to sign up for the difficult and the daunting. The longer I do this, the more humbling it is.

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Photo: Pixabay

Finding Firmer Ground

As our nation approaches another birthday, I find myself like many Americans feeling unsteady, shaken, and increasingly uncomfortable in holding onto a sense of connection to beliefs I never thought could be at risk. Shared values are essential to me, as is the ability to build consensus on difficult issues and a fundamental acceptance of diversity. A few critical points at the moment are eating away at me.

Respecting Secular Differences

The separation of church and state is something I have always believed cannot be denied in our nation. If this pillar falls, the rest crumbles with it. Of course, I know not everyone believes this, but I always thought the majority would never abandon it. Now I worry it might only take a cleverly constructed minority for it to no longer matter. That would forever undo the nation my family chose as a place to immigrate to several generations ago and call home. Is it possible today we would not be welcome here?

Thinking Through Laws

Originalism, or the notion that our Constitution can only be applied to the literal text of its authorship some two and a half centuries ago, seems impossibly flawed as an idea. This is a document that from its inception has encompassed the notion of revision as a core tenet of its foundation. It also has been amended multiple times in its existence to correct the injustices it has allowed, unintentionally or in ambiguity. Peeling back complex nuance is as critical to an argument as referencing precedent. Judges and lawyers cite case law to examine the relevancy and consistency of prior rulings, where opinions are molded into outcomes through rigorous thinking. If the U.S. Constitution does not require interpretation in its application on the endless topics it does not specifically reference—including innovations that couldn’t possibly have been contemplated in prior times—what is the purpose of higher courts?

Growing with Technology

Technology continues to advance exponentially at a rate that consistently outpaces our ability to understand its implications and effects. Without a nimble, advanced, multifaceted framework to consider legislation around innovations that previous generations could never have imagined, we will find ourselves acted upon by invention rather than fostering wise guidelines for incorporating discovery into our everyday lives. Think ahead another hundred years and try to envision what’s coming. Now try to envision how we will create daily norms around incorporating scientific and engineering achievements so far beyond our current imagination we have no concept of how we will be impacted. If we continue to apply yesterday’s rules to tomorrow’s frontier, we will fail much worse at finding common ground than we are now.

Winning and Losing

My sense is that the heightened divineness so many of us are experiencing is becoming increasingly debilitating. If our notion of winning and losing with each other does not evolve into a more palatable interchange of conflicting concepts, our inability to work through our differences could undermine this great experiment we call democracy. There are always individuals who benefit from pouring fuel on a fire and turning otherwise kind people against each other. We cannot let agendas we don’t share take precedence over the communities we cherish.

As we celebrate Independence Day in the midst of so much turmoil and dissonance, perhaps we should reflect on how blessed we could be if we rediscovered a broader sense of shared values, or at least could approach consensus on addressing our disagreements without knocking each other to the ground in the name of unnecessary polemics.

We can do better. We can be better. The alternative is staying where we are currently stuck, and that does not seem to be leading us to improvement. Commit to clearer logic, expanded empathy, and enthusiastic compassion. Let that be our muse this Fourth of July.

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Photo: Pixabay