Movies That Most Influenced My Life (So Far)

Shortly before the 90th Annual Academy Awards aired this past weekend, I took an online quiz asking how many of the 89 previous Best Pictures I had seen. Somewhat to my shock, the answer was 70. While many of these were late-night film society screenings during college when I was a projectionist, that’s still a lot of wasted youth.

Or was it?

With this year’s Oscars behind us, I thought it an apt time to confess the 10 (actually 20) most significant commercial motion pictures that have impacted my thinking and creative process. You probably know I read a lot of books, but I wanted to share with you some of the filmed stories that have most shaped me as a writer.

Although a few of those 70 Best Pictures are noted below, many of my choices are further off the ranch. Should you agree or disagree, I hope you might share your own favorites with me privately or publicly, particularly as they have influenced your creative thinking.

These are not in specific order, although they are directionally stacked. They all matter to me, and while my reasons are kept deliberately brief, I hope some of the influences come through in my own writing as you may experience it. No apologies, this aesthetic is a bit of who I am!

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

It’s based on Joseph Conrad’s forever-haunting Heart of Darkness. It was supposed to be Marlon Brando’s crown achievement, but that honor went to Martin Sheen. This Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece breathes the existential and freezes in time the horror of the Vietnam War with natural metaphor and nuance. “The End” by The Doors is the glue in its arc, and Robert Duvall demonstrates in a few brief lines that insanity is a product of subjectivity. The movie poster has been in my home office for over 30 years. It means that much to me.

2. All That Jazz (1979)

Bob Fosse’s unforgettably dark self-portrait took his kinetic style of dance and nonlinear storytelling from stage to screen. When I first saw Roy Scheider smoking in the shower it strangely gave me solace to know I wasn’t the only person who did that. I gave up smoking long ago, but not the image of this wildly imperfect creative force. Curious it was released the same year as Apocalypse Now. It is just as creepy, just as thought-provoking, and just as hard to imagine ever being replicated in rhythm or texture.

3. Amadeus (1984)

The stage version of Amadeus changed my life by forcing me to look into the eyes of gift and mediocrity, so the film version should have been doomed by physical separation of the ephemeral. Joyously it made it through the system unblemished and leapt off the screen with passion, suffering, orchestral grandeur, and tragic demise. Milos Forman’s adaptation to the screen has everything going for it except Tim Curry, and if you don’t know he’s supposed to be there, the rest is superb. As the Emperor Joseph II repeatedly concludes, “Well, there it is.”

4. Casablanca (1942)

If there were ever a need for proof that a movie could simultaneously be a romantic love triangle, a piercing polemic, an adventure story with life-and-death stakes, and a slice of life that looks at war caustically through the lives of individuals, this is the perfect brew. Toss in the eternal Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and you barely notice the Nazis surrounding them. Well, you do notice them, you’re supposed to know they’re there. That’s what ups the stakes and allows the endless deflection of one-liners to be etched into memory.

5. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It’s a perfect movie, from a perfect book, with perfect music and a perfect cast. It’s a living time capsule, and if anyone is delusional enough to think they’ll ever prove the American musical is not a serious form of art, make them watch this once a year for the rest of their lives. You’re probably starting to see from this list that I have a leaning toward musicals, but only when they have an edge, and only when they become a part of the soundtrack of our lives. That obsession begins with Dorothy and her rainbow.

6. The Right Stuff (1983)

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s lyrical New Journalism account of America’s entry into the space race—if there is anything that can be put on-screen better, I’ll be first in line and watch a day’s worth of repeat showings. We can never forget this seminal chain of events in American history, because in so many ways the Mercury astronauts bridged the Second World War to the scientific present. Sam, Chuck, Tom, all heroes of mine, and director Philip Kaufman stitched together the launch plan and fired it into orbit.

7. Lenny (1974)

Before Dustin Hoffman gave into being the movie star version of himself, he played Lenny Bruce in a remarkable character study also brilliantly directed by Bob Fosse. I have been a student of Lenny Bruce all my life, and while there have been many renditions of who he was and why he mattered, Fosse pulled off the definitive portrait by pulling Hoffman’s strings and using editing as an interpreter to punctuate the sting of language in a world that needed to listen.

8. Stand by Me (1986)

I was never much of a Stephen King fan. His short story upon which this film is based, “The Body,” changed that forever. This grounded tale is presented as a simple coming-of-age story that is wildly not simple, but instead a real-life parable of the naive courage and joy of childhood that becomes the fear and challenges of our adult lives. Once in my life I hope to write a line of dialogue as solid and well placed as “Suck my fat, one you cheap dime-store hood.”

9. Patton (1970)

With Francis Ford Coppola behind the typewriter and George C. Scott owning the wide-screen, this “blood and guts” gem proved to me it was possible to make a highly political film that confirmed the biases of every side of the aisle. It’s pro-war if you want it to be, anti-war if you want it to be, and proof that a literary interpretation of history is a compelling way to get people talking with each other about decisions and consequences that matter.

10. Yellow Submarine (1969)

Please don’t laugh milk through your nose on this one, but if you know me, you know Pepperland is forever part of me. Okay, so I attempted to write a sequel when I was 17 because I loved The Beatles that much and knew I always would, but why is the toy sub on my desk, the iconic blanket on  my sofa, and the logo clock on the wall? I will never shake those Blue Meanies.

To be fully confessional, here are my 10 runners-up with even more restricted commentary, begging your imagination to extend my expository:

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Meryl Streep arrives in an epic yarn where the horror of Vietnam is actually fictionally manipulated to make the idea of war even more horrible than the reality. The creative license pushes credibility to the wall, but with reason and deliberate intention to make change happen.

12. Field of Dreams (1989)

Fathers, sons, loss, regret, unanswered voices, spiritual rebirth, Iowa cool, and baseball. If you never played the game it still makes you feel its gravitational essence.

13.  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Kubrick and Clarke saw a future spectrum the rest of us wouldn’t inhabit for decades. Scoring it with Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss was even more mind-blowing.

14. Network (1976)

Paddy Chayevsky sculpted the words and Peter Finch enshrined them: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” Now we live this.

15. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Love, sensuality, and fleeting artistry exploded by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Author Milan Kundera distanced himself from the film, but director Philip Kaufman never lets your eyes leave the characters on-screen.

16. Hair (1979)

Another Milos Forman interpretation of culture and generations run amok, proving that stage-to-screen musicals can last forever when they hit every note. The Age of Aquarius lives embedded in Central Park.

17. Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)

Director Alan Parker puts his blustery visual stamp on one of the most enduring rock concept albums and alienation conceits of all time. Fascism is revealed for skeptics in connect-the-dots human unraveling.

18. Dead Poets Society (1989)

Behold the living argument against cynical compromise that makes poetry relevant and teachers the vital yet imperfect heroes to our younger selves.

19. Midnight Express (1978)

This nerve bender could be the case study for “Just Say No.” If this Alan Parker film written by Oliver Stone didn’t scare you off from crossing borders with the wrong stuff, your bravado was misplaced.

20. Young Frankenstein (1974)

It’s a slapstick comedy with literary roots that never stops being funny. Mel Brooks is a national treasure.

Well, that’s a wrap. I told you it was an eclectic and eccentric list, but some of each of these is in the stories I tell, the characters I share, and the images I try to illustrate. I hope this sheds some light on my world and opens a dialogue between us.

Dialogue, yeah. I do like dialogue!


Photo: Pexels


Your War to End

Dear Teenage America:

Your outrage is well founded. All your lives you’ve known gun violence as a norm. It was not a norm when we were in school. It should not be a norm.

This is your Vietnam. It is a corrupt war hijacked for purposefully obscured reasons. It is your war to end.

Vietnam was a war abroad challenged at home. This war is solely on our land. The names of schools suffering premeditated surprise attacks of destruction ring out like the battles of any prior global conflict:

Columbine (1999).

Virginia Tech (2007).

Sandy Hook (2012).

Parkland (2018).

Add to these battle monikers the neighborhood mass shootings near your campuses:

Aurora (2012).

San Bernardino (2015).

Orlando (2016).

Las Vegas (2017).

These don’t even include the lessor acts of weekly gun violence that no longer seem to warrant national news coverage. The assaults are frequent and terrorizing, yet somehow they have become numbing. With these numbers and the vast unpredictability of some 300 million guns in American civilian hands, no public space can be declared protected, fortified, or safe. Not schools. Not churches. Not theaters or clubs. Not government office buildings.

How is this not a war?

We hear your cry. Enough already. Make it end here. Make it end now.

Eliminate assault weapons from the American civilian landscape and you will have changed our nation for the generations to come.

You have risen with spontaneity, passion, and authenticity to oppose injustice. You can no longer tolerate the breach of trust perpetuated on the places you come in order to learn, share, trade ideas, grow, and ready yourselves for the future.

Your immediate impact and opportunity have not gone unnoticed. Here is what one writer, Emily Witt, wrote about you in The New Yorker:

By Sunday, only four days after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, the activist movement that emerged in its aftermath had a name (Never Again), a policy goal (stricter background checks for gun buyers), and a plan for a nationwide protest (a March for Our Lives, scheduled for March 24th). It also had a panel of luminary teens who were reminding America that the shooting was not a freak accident or a natural disaster but the result of actual human decisions.

You are moving quickly. You can’t stop. We are counting on you to create outcomes the adults of this nation have been unable to create. You are not conflicted. Your agenda is pure. Stay focused on demanding the safety and security of outcomes that make sense, and you can make this happen. You are our best hope.

We didn’t have social media in our youth. You have mastered it and know how to use it to bring change. Even in our most agitated state, we largely maintained a sense of awe and respect around Congress and the Presidency. Your trust in them has been so violated that you are not bound by the conventions of artificial deference. We may have opened the doors to opposing the restraints of conformity, but you can walk through them. Your fear of violating your own beliefs is greater than your fear of retribution from those in power who need to fall.

Do it peacefully but relentlessly. Fight with words and ideas, rallies and activism. Stand your ground in civil disobedience until there is no fight left.

We failed. You should not.

Do what no one has been able to do for a generation:  Defeat the NRA.

Knock Wayne LaPierre off his arrogant perch and discredit him as the gun lobby huckster he chose to become, not an American patriot fighting for constitutional rights.

You know this is about money, about preserving the profit in selling weapons that no other modern nation exploits. You see the reality. Expose the falsehoods.

You are right to call out the hollow shell of condolences spouted by the talking heads in empty sound bites. You are wise to know the head fake of leadership paralysis, the helplessness of those elected through bad money who are beholden not to their duty to protect our friends and families but to the special interests who rent their authority.

Thoughts and prayers in absence of action aren’t even background noise.

In a few years you will have the vote. You will no longer be teenagers and will have the same voting rights as every adult in America. You can use those votes in blocks to eliminate every cynical politician who has sold us out. Between now and then, it’s all about exposing them and pressuring them to do what is right or step down.

Organize, gather, and demand what is right, once and for all. Yes, it will take decades to clear the land of guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. The sooner we begin, the fewer the decades.

You are on the side of moral right.

Assault weapons have got to go.

Background checks must be mandated.

Mental health requires more than lip service.

You can make this pointless bloodshed end.

We are counting on you.


Humbly in your debt,

The grown-ups who so terribly let you down



This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo: Rhona Wise / AFP / Getty

The Emergent Miracle of 50

Were popular songs from 1918 played widely in 1968?

How about songs from 1928 in 1978?

Or songs from 1938 in 1988?

So how come songs from 1968 are still widely played in 2018?

Want to know why? Here are ten songs from the top of the charts in 1968, from the Billboard Hot 100 of that year:

“Hey Jude” by The Beatles (#1).

“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream (#6).

“Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (#9).

“Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells (#13).

“Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone (#20).

“Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf (#31).

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones (#50).

“Light My Fire” by Jose Feliciano (#52).

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (#57).

“I Say a Little Prayer for You” by Aretha Franklin (#93).

I don’t think I need to write any more words today. The point proves itself. We don’t need to know why. The songs speak for themselves. They sing for themselves. Our attachment is primal, mystical, enduring.

Given the fifty years between the 1960s and the 2010s, not a day goes by that we don’t celebrate the 50th anniversary of something, for many of us our own time on the earth.

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This year it’s The White Album.

The Rolling Stones already have a 50 and Counting tour on their resume. Last year Fleetwood Mac hit 50 and headlined The Classic West and East stadium tours alongside iconic peers the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Journey, and Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Paul McCartney will likely tour until he can no longer stand on the stage. Ringo is still regularly on the road with his All-Starr Band.  You’ll remember that The Beatles led The British Invasion shortly after the Kennedy assassination. Yes, “all those years ago!”

So what is the endurance factor of what we now call classic rock? Is it simply that the baby boomers who shepherded these bands in youthful acts of defiance are living a lot longer? There might be something to that, but it doesn’t explain why so many millennials are subscribing to the same Spotify channels as their parents.

Certainly improvements in studio and consumer technology have made it easier to preserve and share high-quality recordings of later eras, but the conduit of access is a mechanical bridge, not an emotional path to replay. Variety shows on television in the 1960s and 1970s harkened back to songs of prior times, but not with the same urgency, devotion, or pervasiveness. The sheer volume of fifty-year-old songs populating playlists across age groups today tells us that “something’s happening here.”

Walk into a downtown bar or hotel lounge and you might be as likely to hear a cover band playing “Suzie Q” (Creedence Clearwater Revival, #97 in 1968) as you are anything from Bruno Mars or Beyoncé. I’m not suggesting every roadhouse on the highway basks in nostalgia, but when you walk into a live club and hear “Hello, I Love You” (The Doors, #14 in 1968) little about it seems dated or out of place. Of course there is an entire segment of the population who couldn’t care less about fifty-year-old relics, but the fans who forever revel in these not-so-ancient hits will stay up all night on the dance floor as long as the song list rolls.

It’s the music. It was good fifty years ago and it’s good today. For many who loved the music when it first hit the airways, this is the soundtrack of our lives. We love it, we love the memories that come with it, we love the way it makes us feel. We are silly enough to believe it keeps us young, and we want to share the beat with anyone who can’t sit still once the guitar licks begin pouring from the stage.

It doesn’t matter if that stage is a tiny corner platform in a pizza joint or a grand proscenium dragged into Dodger Stadium. We love the famous original acts when they are on the road, but we also love the young house bands who take the time to learn to play the hits well and then sneak in an original song of their own.

We love the occasional current star who braves an interpretation of a long-ago track (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” covered by Devlin with Ed Sheeran is mighty powerful material). We love the new beside the old. We feel those classic rock tunes as part of our being, whether live, broadcast, streamed, satellite transmitted, or silently resonant in our minds.

Surely there is context to consider in a half-century of resilience, the voices of youth and diversity fighting for equal footing with established authority in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet context doesn’t make a pop song last. Composition does. Performance does. Texture does. Maybe artists under contract just got better at the whole Tin Pan Alley game. Maybe they started to care as much about their legacy as their commercial acumen. Maybe connecting the generations came to mean more to them than the hunger for flowing cash. Well, maybe.

I’ve been thinking and writing about these songs most of my life, linking them to stories and plays, stitching their lyrics into the fabric of modern and historical philosophy. I’m never quite satisfied with the words I choose to explain why this music matters to me as much as it does. I suppose the songs are an organic whole without explanation. As so many of the young artists declared of their work when it was created, it was never meant to be analyzed. The songs were meant to be felt.

That doesn’t adequately address why this half-century is different, and why people like me believe so many of these songs are not likely to evaporate from the earth when we are no longer here to listen to them. The magic has emerged without anyone showing how the trick is done. That’s probably because the magicians don’t know how they did the trick.

It’s probably better that way. It keeps things authentic.

Keep listening. Keep embracing the beat. Feel young and stay young. You know I will—with any luck for another fifty years.


My Third Book: From Nothing

Writers by affliction are an idiosyncratic lot. Other than a willingness to spend an enormous amount of time alone and a preternatural love of language construction, we don’t have all that much in common. We write about different things, from the historic lives of dead people to the ponderous calculations of romance that could never live up to its description. Some of us have enviable discipline in reserving hours for our craft day in and day out. Others are beasts of procrastination who binge occasionally in overnight typing sessions while devoting daylight hours to cleaning out pencil-stuffed drawers and ceiling fan lint. An author on tour may enjoy speaking publicly, while another cowers at facing readership in the form of human flesh.

We may share a passion for literary achievement, but we are in few ways the same. One bit of sameness has occurred to me exactly three times, each when I’ve finished one of my novels. When the final copy-edit has put the book to bed and readied it for your consumption, I’ve invariably asked myself the same simple question:

“Why did I do that?”

The existential query is unavoidable. Why does a writer remain dedicated to the challenge of completing a book? I am guessing I am not alone in that meditation. It is impossible to think that most of my colleagues and the legions of our predecessors have not asked themselves the same thing. It’s a heck of an endeavor, for most not particularly lucrative. It disarms the writer to a battalion of transparent critics, and the incomplete satisfaction is resolved only in the reborn commitment to attempt it yet again.

So I ask you, as you are likely to ask me: Why bother?

To say that we are without choice in the matter may sound glib, but I am afraid that is the only reasonable answer I can muster. We do it because we can’t not do it. We do it because there is something inside of us that needs to ferment and emerge, to escape the confines of a sole mind and become part of a shared consciousness. If we could avoid or redirect this need many of us would, but we cannot, and so we sit, ruminate, draft, and revise. Somehow the new book becomes complete and we are ready to share it, with the best of intentions. For me, happily that time is now, and I hope the new work resonates with some of you the way its voice called out to me.

I am glad it is done. I am honored to share it with you.

It has been a fragile three years in the making. It was delayed partly by life’s interruptions and partly by my need to pick each word at least a dozen times. I may not have the discipline to write in predetermined sections of each day, but I do have the discipline to embrace each of my sentences before I toss them to you. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s time-consuming. It’s exhausting. I know of no other way to do it with pride.

From Nothing. That’s the title, and sort of where it came from — out of nowhere, yet grounded in a collection of moments I have known or expanded in scope. Should you choose to read it, you’ll discover in more detail why I called it that.

It’s the story of why a life becomes a story, how that story is guided concretely and through alchemy, and why some stories are better than others, even if they didn’t set out to be something more than assembled emotions wrapped around an evocative philosophy.

Weird stuff, huh? The problem remains that it’s difficult for an originator to talk about the plot and characters in a book without giving away any spoilers or making light of one’s own intentions. Allow me instead to dance around a few of the book’s themes.

Technology: Yes, it’s me again, come to take you inside the empirical land where I earn most of my living. This is the universe of creative destruction, where bad things have to happen to otherwise good people for progress to have its way with all of us. At the same time, bad people have a way of making these spoils the treasury of their own private club, and the best most of us can hope to do is stay out of the way of the greedy stampede when it targets our cubicle. Change comes with ugly intervention and nasty byproducts. We then quickly abandon the carnage, cash in whatever chips are left on the table, and reinvent ourselves in our evolving world.

Bar Music: I hope you like piercing lyrics and backbeat as much as I do. Sound is at the heart of this novel. We’re still digesting the baby boom, the soundtrack of our lives, the guitar-hero worship that came and went as fast as any other craze but lingers in the possibility of ephemeral ambition. I spend a lot of time thinking about music, and in this tale I devote a lot of pages to unwrapping composition. The songs connect the dots, even when the dots don’t want to be connected and would rather fade into the Milky Way. I have my favorites and they may not be yours, but our immersion in star-quality memories holds us together. That makes for songs that matter.

Redemption: This book has been a strangely spiritual journey for me, more unmasking than I have attempted previously and certainly more uncomfortable than I intended. The protagonist, Victor Selo, has a troubled life that he finds ways to overcome on the surface, yet he can neither come to terms with success nor adequately interpret loss. He makes a lot of mistakes, stumbles through a litany of lifetime accidents, and where he learns from some misdoings, the ultimate assessment of moral right and material wrong forever confounds and eludes him. Theology and philosophy are a tight couplet in our curious canon. I know I have done no better a job of answering the unanswerable than any before me, but perhaps I can open a different door for you to the unquenchable struggle.

So there you have it, a new book is born and with my deepest hope on its way to your hearts. Reserve a copy, read it when time allows, and let me know where we are and aren’t on the same page. With any luck I’ll be back again in a few years with another adventurous yarn, asking myself why I once again committed to the improbable. Much of that will always be up to you, more than you will likely ever know.

>> <<

Publication date is June 12, 2018. If you would like to review an advance reading copy please contact my publisher, The Story Plant, or via email:

>> <<

A Brief Excerpt from Track 2

When Victor awoke it was dark. He looked around and the parking lot was filled. He recognized a third of the cars from the office parking lot. Full Stack Max’s mustard yellow minivan, dents on three sides. Code Machine Clarence’s jacked up Escalade with the shotgun bucket seat usually toting that new kid, QA Juan. Admin Darcy’s prized lime green Prius gleaming under security lights as if she had driven through the car wash on the way there. The familiarity was comforting. At least some of them had come. He was head to toe in perspiration but relieved in the dashboard’s digital transmission that it was after 7:30. People inside would be singing. There would be friendly faces. Inside Providence it would be safe.

Victor had slept in the car almost six hours. That was odd. He really was drained, more than he had thought. As he mustered the courage to open the car door, a tap came on the half-open window. The face beyond the glass was unfamiliar to him.

“You okay?” It was the voice of a man perhaps a decade older than him. Victor looked at the stranger, his plain grey T-shirt, blue-black lumberjack flannel overshirt, vintage khakis, stubble beard, untrimmed mustache and mutton chops. It was a programmer look, but Victor knew all the programmers at Global Harmonics and they were the only programmers who came to Providence. Who was this guy?

“I’m fine,” replied Victor, not yet finding the energy to move.

“Come on inside, you look like you could use a drink,” said Mean Master Muttonchops.

“Yeah, I’m coming. Do I know you?”

“You don’t. My name is Thomas Katem. I’m an investment banker.” He handed Victor his business card through the open window slot. “You’re Victor Selo, right?”

Victor eyed the card for familiarity and put it in his damp chest pocket. “Have we met before?”

“It’s possible, the circles we travel overlap. Unfortunately your meeting at Global Harmonics was over before I got there. Late to the slaughter, the way I heard it.”

“Your loss, we put on a good show. You don’t dress like an investment banker.”

“It’s afterhours. I carry a change in the car. Doesn’t everyone around here?”

“You think I need to clean up before we go in?”

“Nah, come on, I’ll buy you a drink. I’ll bet you have friends inside.”

“We’ll find out.” Victor opened the door and got out of the car. Strangely, the asphalt felt comforting under his feet.

As Victor walked through the doors beside Katem, Providence was in full swing. In all the day’s drama, he had forgotten this was Friday, Live Band Karaoke Night. A warm fall weekend was getting under way. Tonight people wouldn’t sing with a machine, they would front a cover band. It was what made Fridays special, particularly for anyone who had abandoned a long-ago dream.

At the mic was possibly the worst Elvis impersonator of all time, a grey ponytailer doing his best to belt out “Viva Las Vegas” with more stage drama than musicality. He wasn’t an awful singer, he could work his way through a tune with credible intonation. He just didn’t sound anything like the King. He didn’t look like him either, beyond the tattered white sequined jumpsuit. Elvis recognized Victor from across the room and raised the mic stand to him as he entered. Victor waved briefly, then crossed toward the bar with Katem a half step behind. Elvis found the segue to a low pitch baritone interpretation of “Love Me Tender.”

“You know Elvis?” asked Katem.

“His name is Johnny Olano. He lives for this. Friday is his day. Three Elvis tunes, five shots of tequila, and he never goes home alone.”

“He must be seventy, maybe seventy-five,” observed Katem. “How does he pull off that trick?”

“Welcome to Providence.” Victor motioned the bartender with two fingers and was handed a pair of Coronas. Few of his colleagues in the bar were making eye contact with him. A few nodded slightly his way, but his usual warm embrace wasn’t to be found.

>> <<

Proactive Means Now

For many of us the new year begins with the best of intentions. It’s not so much that we delude ourselves in committing to resolutions we will never pursue as it is the open calendar before us filled with possibility and promise. What can we do with all of those days between now and the end of the year? The choices are as endless as the opportunities.

Almost immediately we start falling behind in our daily tasks. Days into the new year we are already playing catch up. Why can’t we get ahead of our task lists and beat the daily grind into submission? Why can’t we focus on projects and prospects that matter? Why do we spend endless hours on stuff but still waste so much time?

Maybe it’s just too easy to kick the can.

Difficult challenges don’t sort out themselves. They have to be wrangled and wrestled. That’s the kind of intellectual and emotional commitment that takes the force of will to muster. If you want to achieve meaningful progress, you have to get ahead of your calendar, not let it consume you.

Want that glorious promotion at work? It’s not going to find you.

Want to make a significant dent in your competition? They aren’t going on vacation to give you breathing room to pounce.

Want to learn a new skill, a new language, accelerate your ability in an artistic discipline, or finally figure out why your department is going sideways instead of upward? Those are all really difficult things to do that won’t take place between Facebook posts or tweets.

If you want to stop drowning in your dizziness, learn to think proactively. Set your sights on a potential outcome and work your way back to the present. Envision a roadmap and establish a set of checkpoints that will lead you to a better outcome. Own the outcome by owning the process.

Most important, you need to do it now. Not in a month. Not in a week. Not tomorrow. Not in an hour. Now means now.

Procrastination will cost you your dreams. If you have dreams, you need to act on them. Even if you don’t have dreams, and you should, if you have stuff to do that will make you more successful and personally fulfilled, you need to do it immediately.

Not after breakfast. Not after lunch. Not at the day’s end when you are exhausted, pissed off, and want to climb under a blanket. Do it now.

I don’t care if you’re busy. We’re all busy. If you are putting off the stuff that matters for busywork, knock it off. Do the hard stuff first. Busywork is a punt. People do busywork to look busy, often at the expense of making a difference.

What does it mean to be proactive? It means not waiting to be reactive.

Reactive is a deflating death march of punch lists.

Proactive is an uplifting rallying cry of planning.

Reactive is missing a sales forecast and formulating a remedy to catch up on lost business.

Proactive is outpacing a sales forecast by building customer loyalty through surprising and delighting.

Reactive is compiling a list of customer complaints bludgeoning customer service.

Proactive is regular ride-along listening sessions in customer service to turn suggestions and trends into repeatable wins.

Reactive is lowering prices to steal market share with thin margin transactions from customers who will easily abandon you to save pennies.

Proactive is designing a brand that is equal parts price, service, and quality so that small fluctuations in price become ignorable noise to your best customers.

How do you stop being helplessly reactive? You have to commit to the habits of being a self-starter. You’ll know you’re a self-starter when your boss asks a question in a meeting and everyone looks at you to serve up a suggestion fearlessly.

Ready to be a self-starter?

You need to move faster. If you thought something was going to take a week, do it in a day. Force yourself to accelerate.

You need to act with higher quality. If you thought good enough was going to please a customer, you’re wrong. Exceed their expectations.

You need to utilize fewer resources, not more. Use every tool that is available to you and don’t worry about what you don’t have.

The formula for reinvention is better, faster, cheaper. Not one, not two, not two and a half, all three.

What does being proactive mean?

Proactive means to take on a task before someone asks you to do it. It means to finish the task with excellence before someone even knows you started it.

Proactive means knocking the stuff off your to-do list that will have an impact, not the maintenance stuff that no one will notice.

Proactive means knowing that email is a tool, not a task. Unless you work in customer service, no senior executive is going to promote you because you answered all your email.

Proactive means plan for a crisis by avoiding it. If you’re dealing with a surprise crisis, you’re already reactive. Anticipate the crisis. Write down your response to the crisis before it happens. Scenario plan. Have notebooks filled with scenario plans.

Proactive means investing in quality assurance testing at five cents on the dollar instead of a product recall at 200 cents on the dollar.

There aren’t that many commonalities in the success stories you may admire, but one that holds true is urgency. Setting priorities, making time for abstract planning before reporting memos consume you, carving out blocks of time to schedule the milestones of your challenge — that’s how big things in your life will happen.

No outsider will hold you to the promises you make to yourself. You have to decide you want to be proactive. Then you have to remain consistently proactive.

Someone has to make change happen. Why not you? Your future outcome is at this moment in the making. Think about how you could be feeling this time next year if only you can get ahead of your day.

Being proactive is more than a choice. Being proactive is finding the freedom to make this year a year like no other.


Image: ©Scott Adams

Dan Rather Live

Last week I attended a talk with Dan Rather, who is on the road in support of his latest book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism. Produced by Live Talks Los Angeles, it was an especially engaging conversation because he was interviewed by someone equally interesting and unique, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kareem made it clear this was an unusual gig for him because he is usually the one answering rather than asking interview questions. He opened with the observation that what he and Rather have in common is that today each of them is considered an elder statesman. Without missing the lightness of the moment, Rather jumped into the dialogue and made it clear that he does not think of himself in any way as a statesman. He also declared with humility that he is not a philosopher or a political scientist, just a very lucky reporter grateful to have enjoyed a long career in professional journalism.

I have to admit that I am quite the fan of Dan Rather. I was in college when he was passed the torch from Walter Cronkite. In those days anchoring the day’s national  news wrap-up was both a high honor and enormous responsibility. I was raised on the CBS Evening News and to this day it remains a welcome friend in my home, played back late at night from a digital recording. The anchor chair has changed hands several times over the years, but when Rather sat there, he carried the weight of the world’s biggest stories with dignity, authenticity, precision, and charm.

I found Rather’s comments that evening so insightful and energizing, I wanted to share a few of his thoughts in hopes that those who share my regard for his career know that his voice is still resonating, and those who are unfamiliar with him might choose to discover the depth of his observations.

“News is what powerful people don’t want you to know,” he offered with certainty. He defined the job of journalism as getting the story that others may be hiding, and that is why journalists are often unpopular with people in high places. This has always been the job as he sees it, finding out what the public needs to know no matter who doesn’t want the public to know it. Mistakes will be made along the way, and he as much as anyone knows there is a severe price to reporting news imperfectly let alone incorrectly, but if a reporter on the beat does not understand that uncovering the hidden story through research is what matters, then that journalist is not much of a journalist.

To that end and in answer to several questions about our current President, Rather observed that Donald Trump is a fearful man. The awkward speech patterns and erratic management behavior of Trump suggest a man who is “very afraid of something.” As a journalist, Rather sees in Trump’s tone glaring similarities to other political leaders who have attempted to cover their tracks, and in so doing he believes this fear will only become heightened as the investigations around him intensify.

In response to broad attempts to discredit the media with sweeping labels of “fake news,” Rather acknowledged that the news landscape today is cluttered with an enormous number of competitive brands, but that to lump them together as equal in diligence or relevance makes little sense. He reminded us that without journalism a democracy will perish, and that widely dismissing media with the catch-all critique of irresponsibility was the most dangerous conclusion we could reach. We have choices in media, and we need to make those as individuals in evaluating standards of discipline. This is a significantly more cluttered playing field than it was in the days of the “Big Three” television networks, but the rules of fact-supported journalism haven’t changed and the idea of uniformly devaluing reporters is a tactic of tyranny.

Rather spent a lot of time talking about the frightening path of authoritarianism fueling the emotion of extreme nationalism, with that being a step toward self-asserted nativism and ultimately devolving into tribalism. He believes in patriotism and has served as a U.S. Marine (an admittedly short tenure), but he is deeply concerned that if we let rhetoric drive our culture to tribal conflict, our nation’s model experiment in democracy will be no more.

In that same concern of internal conflict, he worries that our nation has yet to come to terms with sufficient advances in race relations. He sees the ongoing suppression of minority voting as pernicious and systemically in need of our attention. This struggle dates back to our founding and seems likely to remain unresolved until the final page of our history is written.

Rather worries that our population doesn’t understand how close we are to the brink of war with North Korea, a human tragedy we will regret if we don’t navigate it properly. He sees China as the key to containing North Korea, because China largely controls the supply lines there. The emphasis of our negotiations is better served with China so that China has enhanced motivation to ease tensions with North Korea. We shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise.

With regard to national priorities, Rather believes that “the three foremost issues in our agenda need to be education, education, and education.” There is no doubt in his mind that education is the core of an informed constituency, and without it democracy will collapse. Likewise he reminded us that “dissent is American” and to think otherwise is to misunderstand the foundations of our nation. Our nation was founded on dissent, and it is always our right to dissent. He chooses to stand for our national anthem, but he appreciates that other forms of peaceful expression remain valid and core to our principles of free speech.

In closing, Rather spoke eloquently of avoiding the trap of cynicism. He believes in skepticism, both as a reporter and consumer of news, but he emphasized that no good can come of cynicism. There is no value in the snide dismissal of hope. I was particularly heartened to hear him end by encouraging us to hold onto our idealism. To hear a career journalist who has stood in the trenches of war and seen close-up every form of violence our world has suffered end on a note of idealism reminded me why I loved his newscast. This was a journalist who at the height of his fame signed off at night with a single word: “Courage.”

Dan Rather is a reporter still on the job, a journalist forever unafraid to do the job that has been his life’s work. Courage and idealism have never mattered more in our world. He might not want to be called an elder statesman, but I know one when I see one.

Every Hope is Worth Saving

It’s been a rough year.

I’m not sure what to make of 2017. What we’ve seen this year on the public stage is unlike anything I can remember. We hear casual conversation about whether our elected officials and senior federal employees colluded with Russia to soil our national election. We observe mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas, now so common we barely discuss it a week later and don’t even bother utilizing it to foster a conversation on common-sense gun control. We watch the parade of famous men from all walks of life falling from prominence when confronted with their ghastly predatory behavior. We experience nature’s record storms devastating the southeastern mainland United States and Puerto Rico as we strip down the EPA, deny climate change, and fail to provide adequate resources to those fighting to rebuild their lives.

Maybe for you this was just another year. For me it was something different. I can’t get my feet to walk solidly on a path below me. My legs are too shaky. The ground is unfirm.

Despite the turmoil, the holidays have arrived. It is the season of wishes. Here are a few I am guessing many of us share:

Don’t you wish the President of the United States was a man of grace, wisdom, and compassion whom our children could admire, instead of cementing this image of awfulness in their brains for the rest of their lives?

Don’t you wish Harvey Weinstein had been called out decades ago so that dozens of women could have been spared his lurid, violent, inexcusable acts of supremacy and self-importance?

Don’t you wish the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team comprised of child champions had been spared the physical and psychological abuse of their team doctor posing as their protector?

Don’t you wish that our absolute defense of the First Amendment wasn’t being utilized by racists unashamed to wear swastikas in public and proclaim a new day for Nazi ideology?

Don’t you wish that a tax cut for the wealthy was not broadly accepted as an apologia for the reprehensible inattention to human needs our Congress trades for the financial support that keeps them in office?

Enough already, right? I told you that for me this wasn’t just another year. This was more than enduring tone-deaf leaders who won’t lead. This wasn’t a year solely to rant. This was a year that tested my belief in fairness. This was a year that took me on an inward journey where I questioned the ability to maintain my values in a world that too often and too easily openly rejects them. This was a year where I wondered if justice was more than an eloquent ideal, and whether healing was possible in a nation that can no longer find common ground in a path forward that invokes a shared understanding of our founding principles.

And so I go looking for a hope.

Because it’s the holiday season, I am also listening to a lot of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This music is an annual tradition in our home. Last weekend my wife and I attended the TSO concert in Southern California as we do every year around this time.

The shows are fun. They are energizing. No matter how many times we hear the same songs played live under laser beams and surges of flames, the story of hope rekindles my childlike sense of wonder and optimism. In particular of late, these lyrics keep hitting me with profound motivation:

Let it go!
Let it go!
This old world that I know
For soon everything will be changing
In a single glance
Where it all enchants
And every hope is worth saving

Paul O’Neill, the visionary who created TSO, died this past year. Yes, we lost him, too, but he left behind words like this that matter to a lot of people. At this year’s concert, music director Al Pitrelli noted in honoring his former boss that Paul used to say, “Individually we are finite, together we are infinite.”

I’m buying into that. Every hope is worth saving. We cannot give up hope. We’ve had presidents who have talked about that, in metaphor and aspiration. We can lampoon the storybook notion all we want, cynical survivalists that we are, or we can be childlike and share in the embrace of vital idealism.

In my last book, my wife picked this line as her favorite, spoken by Daphne, the wise mentor and guiding light of experience:

“Hope is the strength that keeps us going.”

I’m going to try to continue that theme in my writing this year. I can always find snippets in songs that inspire me, but maybe we can find some resets hidden in the hard events surrounding us.

Throughout the darkest hours in Puerto Rico, there were quiet acts of selflessness where local individuals stood in ten-hour lines for fuel, foregoing their own ration for an elderly friend. When we see goodness in action, we are reminded that grabbing for oneself has none of the power of building together.

I recently saw a TV news story where a judge in Minnesota met repeatedly with a pregnant young heroin addict until she assured him she would get clean and become the mother he believed she could be. He could have gone by the book and sent her away, but instead he invested the time to work with her. Today the mother has a healthy son, and the son has a healthy mother.

The national (and hopefully global) awareness of men exploiting women in the workplace is likely to instill new norms of decency in our interactions. If nothing else, the immediate fear of losing everything should shut down a lot of the oppressive behavior that morosely became too common. Deterrent is a good start. Choosing to live by example is where we need to go.

Even more than the season of wishes, this is the season of hope. We can grab firmly onto any teetering branch that is reachable and attempt to repair it, or we can walk away from the broken bough and give up against overwhelming odds of measurable impact. Those are difficult words to write without sounding preachy. It is a more difficult promise to make and keep to oneself.

We arrive at the end of this year in an awkward place. In my heart I want to move along and tackle new turf, but at the moment I feel stuck. I know I am not alone. We need to get unstuck together.

Together we are infinite.


Lyrics Excerpt from “Christmas Dreams” by Paul O’Neill and Robert Kinkel
© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Image: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, Tran-Siberian Orchestra