The Trouble with Heroes

41hsl4kXpeL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_One hundred years after his death, Teddy Roosevelt remains one of America’s favorite presidents. What’s not to love? Exuberant in personality and with a Santa-like, kid-friendly appearance, he was a man’s man and a family man who did cool stuff most people love, like work as a cowboy, charge up San Juan Hill, create national parks, and dig the Panama Canal.

TR’s Last War, by David Pietrusza, is not that Teddy Roosevelt.

This new biography covers Roosevelt’s later years, a period of time most biographers gloss over. And it’s easy to see why. I’m as guilty as anyone of idealizing the past and making heroes out of yesterday’s leaders, assuming they were more noble and high-minded than politicos of today. Therefore, it’s beyond disconcerting to read this account, which might as well be ripped off today’s Twitter feed. TR hurled insults at foes like Woodrow Wilson that would have made Trump blush, and rivaled the Clintons in his (often ethically dubious) machinations to reclaim the White House.

As the US approached World War I, a portrait emerges of a violently divided nation driven as much by irrational passions and partisanship as by reason. Blinded by ambition and driven by personal demons, TR beat the drum for war with ultimately tragic consequences for himself and his entire family.

I love history books that shed new light, and TR’s Last War brings Roosevelt to life not as “the lion in winter” but as a man with very real feet of clay. I look forward to reading more books by David Pietrusza.

I wanted to share this beautiful visual depiction of the geometry of musical notes — fascinating!

867dc557b5efba0f437b5b2260aea513Worth some thought. Be kind to yourselves, my friends.

 

Believe in Yourself

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I recently listened to an interview with Kieran Setiya, a philosophy professor at MIT, who has written a book about career transitions and the special challenges of mid-life. I was especially struck by his thoughts on opportunity cost. I know my recent career transition was absolutely the right thing. But it’s also been a time of memories, thoughts, reflections, and a certain amount of disorientation as I move forward into a new endeavor.

Some people shy away from these emotions. No one likes feeling “out of sorts.” But I think it’s just a normal part of processing the ups and downs of the past few years and giving them an honored place in my personal history.

Perhaps tellingly, I’ve been laughing more too, so that’s a step in the right direction. All the things I have to share with you today are funny!

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Priorities.

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I love to read about history and even current events, but at the same time I wish there were more places for my thoughts about it to go.

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The takeaway: be yourself! You don’t have a choice anyway, so you might as well enjoy it!

One Time, One Meeting

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Have you ever heard of the Japanese concept “ichi-go ichi-e”? It means “one time, one meeting,” and captures the idea that each moment should be treasured because it will never come again. I think when you’re younger, such concepts don’t mean much to you, because you have a seemingly infinite series of moments stretching before you. As you get older, begin to experience loved ones passing from the scene, and become aware of your own mortality, you begin to realize how special each moment really is.

These days I feel sad to see so many people wasting their lives on anger, strife, and meaningless conflict, or working themselves to the bone for a lifestyle they don’t have time to enjoy. What moments have been the great moments of your life that you now treasure in your heart forever? Sometimes you’re aware of experiencing a great bucket list moment, like when we visited our ancestral home in Scotland last year. But what about the simple joys of sharing a great laugh with your loved ones over an ordinary weeknight dinner, or watching TV while cuddling with your loving, vulnerable pets? It’s worth remembering that each moment, no matter how humble, is indeed “once in a lifetime.”

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This is so cute. Which one do you like the best? I like “Miró.”

Everyone should do what they want, as naturally as breathing. —Joan Miró

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You all know how much I like to read about disasters. The White Cascade by Gary Krist is a great book about the 1910 avalanche disaster that overtook two trains in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains.  I learned a lot about the practice, culture, and history of railroading from this book. The railroad totally revolutionized American life a century ago, not unlike the way the Internet has revolutionized ours. But after the disaster, as Krist writes, “The tide of history was clearly running against the Victorian laissez-faire attitudes that had allowed the railroads and other trusts to gain such great influence and authority without any corresponding answerability.”

I couldn’t help but see the parallels with the big Internet companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook and the public hostility that has developed from their own abuses of the public trust. I wonder if we will see a repeat of the litigation, regulation, and governmental oversight that changed the railroad business back in the day, and if so how it will all unfold.

 

What a find! Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature, which suggests music you might like based on what you listen to, introduced me to the music of guitar virtuoso Ronnie Earl and I’m so glad. This is beautiful music, devoted to deep emotions and qualities like compassion, healing, gratitude, and love. I have ordered Ronnie’s three most recent albums and can’t wait to get to know his music. I’m the one who’s lucky!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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You might expect Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers, to be a nostalgia exercise for Gen-Xers like me, or even a movie for kids. As it turns out, it is nothing of the kind. Mr. Rogers was a profoundly counter-cultural figure in the true sense of the word. He spent his life lighting a candle against the calculated stupidity of mass culture and the indoctrination of kids as mindless consumers. He deeply respected the intelligence and sensibilities of children and lived a life of honesty and moral courage.

It took me about 10 minutes watching this documentary to understand why it was shut out of the Academy Awards (some critics had naively suggested it would contend for Best Documentary). Mr. Rogers was everything that Hollywood is not. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is beautiful, inspirational, and emotionally resonant. Highly recommended.

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I’m settling in at my new job, meeting lots of new people, and missing my old routine—especially seeing my pets all day. I think I have separation anxiety! On the other hand, I’m already known as the bunny lady at the new office.
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I recently re-read the classic political novel Advise and Consent by Allen Drury. Drury was extremely prescient about Washington and its relationship to the American people. I was struck by his critique of the press corps (Drury was a Capitol Hill correspondent for decades). He was wise to the techniques the press uses to take advantage of the people’s credulity. When I ran across this handy chart of logical fallacies, I thought I’d share it. You can find at least one of these in almost every “breaking” news story or opinion piece. Once you get on to it, it’s fascinating to realize how it works. Educate yourself.

I’ve had my differences with Toby Keith but I can’t get enough of his beautiful new song about aging. May you be forever young at heart!

A New Start

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I’m pleased to announce that I have joined Applied Research Laboratories at the University of Texas as a senior technical writer.

I loved my time as a freelance writer working on independent projects, including my book. But it was time for a change and the next challenge. In the last five years, I have experienced tremendous growth as a professional writer and as a person, and I couldn’t be prouder of this time.

Now I’m ready for the future. At Applied Research Labs, I’ll be using my skills to support scientists and researchers working in the fields of acoustics and sonar, electromagnetics, and information sciences. The labs were established at the end of World War II, and the work is Defense Department affiliated. I’m genuinely excited to have been accepted by a group of such bright and talented people doing important work that benefits our country.

On a lifestyle related note, ARL has a nice old-style campus and is located just 10 minutes from my house! And I know I’ll enjoy being part of an academic atmosphere.

I’m also looking forward to opening up my blog to a wider range of topics that hopefully will make you smile or give you something to think about. And wherever this new role takes me, I’m excited about continuing to learn, grow, and serve.

Best of 2018

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This year was a rollercoaster, with some great personal high points—my dream trip to Scotland and the publication of The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 chief among them. On the downward side, I never realized that acting as the executor of my dad’s estate would be a full time job for much of the year! Fortunately, that is just about behind me and I am looking forward to a new and different life in 2019!

It is time for the annual “Best of” lists. I never see any of my favorites on the lists, do you? Here are the best books, movies, music &c. that I discovered in 2018. I would love to hear your favorites. (They don’t have to have been new this year, just new to you).

book-cover-passage1Favorite book: This year I got back into my favorite genres—history and biography. It is my passion to learn in-depth about the people and times that made our world what it is today. My favorite book was The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson 4), by Robert A. Caro. This biography is one of the best books I have ever read. It focuses on a difficult time in LBJ’s life—the vice-presidential years and the first months of assuming the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination. An incredible page-turner of angst, tragedy, and superhuman determination.

Runner up: The Accidental President: Harry Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A.J. Baime.

Favorite movie: Darkest Hour – an amazing performance by Gary Oldman highlights this historical drama about Winston Churchill and how he saved the world from Nazi tyranny with his masterful words in the critical weeks of May 1940. One of the best dramatizations of the writing and creative process I have seen—and the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Runners up: Free Solo, Coco, The Greatest Showman

 

Favorite TV show: The Alienist – gritty historical crime drama about an elite team of sleuths hunting a serial killer on the mean streets of 1890s New York. Superb and engrossing.
Runner up: Lodge 49, the sweetest,screwiest show since the old days of Northern Exposure

 Favorite album: Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real (self-titled) – with the release of his first album and his role as musical director for A Star is Born, Lukas Nelson has transcended his status as Willie’s son to become a sensitive and wise artist in his own right.
Runner up: A Long Way From Your Heart, by The Turnpike Troubadours

Favorite song: According to Spotify, the one I listened to the most was Nobody’s Lonely Tonight, by Chris Stapleton. Runner up: Something to Hold On To, by The Turnpike Troubadours.

Favorite live event was Booth’s Richard III, an historic play produced by the Hidden Room Theater here in Austin. This was just so unique—a time travel experience into 1860s theater where the tragic twists of “blood and thunder” in Richard’s story mirror those left to history by the lead actor who made the production possible—none other than John Wilkes Booth.
Runner up: The Average White Band at One World Theater

Your turn!

Pop Culture References: Hot or Not?

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Let’s face it—a lot of business and technical writing can be pretty dry. To keep the audience engaged, there are all kinds of tricks a writer can deploy, from storytelling to active language to the now-overused listicle format. Fun pop-culture references have long been another way to make technical concepts more relatable. Recently, I was working on a white paper that described security as a castle or citadel. To jazz it up a little, I wove in a couple of light-hearted Games of Thrones references.

The client liked the references but ultimately didn’t keep them. They were worried that instead of making the piece more relatable, the pop-culture analogy sounded like an attempt to seem cool—which was hardly the point of the white paper. It was a minor point for this project, but my curiosity was aroused. What makes for a good pop-culture reference these days? And in today’s fragmented cultural landscape, is it a device that ought to be retired?

Perhaps tellingly, I’ve never actually seen an episode of Game of Thrones myself. But for years the memes, references, and buzz pieces about it have saturated the internet to an unavoidable degree. In my research, I learned that although 16 million viewers watched the finale of GoT, the majority of viewers were males under 30. My client’s instincts were right. The target audience for our think piece was senior professionals, age 40+. Within their industry, only about 15% of the end users are under 30. Our target audience would be far more likely to connect with a snappy reference to The Voice or This is Us. 

But the issue is more complex than age demographics. While 16 million may sound like a lot, it actually reflects the slicing and dicing of our popular culture into specific interest groups. Back in the 1980s, 120 million people watched the finale of M*A*S*H. Today, even the top rated shows reach vastly fewer viewers than they once did. Gone are the days when everyone got an immediate chuckle of recognition from “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Party on,” or “Festivus.”

My Toastmasters club has a theme for each meeting, and a while back a member used the theme of “The Sound of Music.” In its day, the classic musical was one of the biggest box office hits of all time, and was broadcast annually on television at holiday time. Everyone knows “The Sound of Music,” right?

Not so fast. It turned out the film, the songs, and the characters were unfamiliar to our group’s younger members and even more of a mystery to our many members who hail from outside the U.S. Since 1990, the percentage of the population that is foreign-born has doubled. Today, over 44 million people living in the U.S. are immigrants to this country. Our pop culture is not only fragmented. It’s increasingly self-referential, an in-joke that is unrepresentative and irrelevant to the actual day-to-day culture being lived by millions of Americans.

I’m glad this issue came up. I’m starting to think that the use of pop culture references in business communications is dated. Spending time and energy on more creative and inclusive approaches to lively pieces would be well worth the effort.

Trouble Right Here in River City

 

The flood that raged down the Colorado last month was a startling reminder that the river isn’t just a nice recreational centerpiece for Austin. It is the defining geographical feature of the entire Central Texas region. And disastrous flooding isn’t just part of history. It’s the risk we take every day for the privilege of living in this location.

I got interested in the Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 a few years back because I saw the parallels with the Austin I had grown up with and resided in today. It’s one of the great themes of Austin’s existence to be a city on the move and on the make. But occasionally, Mother Nature administers a dose of humbling reality. Watching these events unfold over the last couple of weeks was like watching the 1900 flood come to life—fortunately, the consequences this time were far less permanent.

Austin was chosen as the capital of Texas in part because of the potential water power of the Colorado. But for the first century of the city’s history, the river was more of a foe than a friend. It may come as news to Austin’s many newcomers, but Central Texas happens to be the most flood-prone region of the entire United States.

The reason? Austin sits at the intersection of the Gulf, Pacific, and Plains weather systems—a recipe for rain events of incredible magnitude. Pair that with hilly geography, thin soil, and shallow creeks and rivers. Well into the 1930s, Central Texas was subjected to devastating flooding on a regular basis. And as we saw last week, even the full capacity of the six dams and lakes operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority can only mitigate a major flood event, not prevent it altogether.

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A rare view.

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As in 1900, the 2018 flood began with an unusual series of rain storms that soaked Central Texas with the wettest September on record. On October 8, a rain bomb over the small Hill Country town of Junction dumped 12 inches into the Llano River in just a few hours, rampaging through an RV park and sweeping four people to their deaths. It was the LCRA’s job to move this water carefully through Wirtz and Starcke dams and into Lake Travis, which was specifically built to protect the city of Austin from flooding.

A week later, a weekend of heavy storms climaxed with a strong cold front. This time, the Llano came out of its banks even more disastrously. Most dramatically, the FM 2900 bridge at Kingsland was carried away by the force of the waters, and Kingsland, Granite Shoals, Marble Falls, and other lakeside communities endured major flooding. For the first time in history, all six of the Highland Lakes dam were open in a remarkably orchestrated ballet of floodgate operations. Lake Travis reached an astonishing 143% of capacity—the fifth highest on record.

Several people have asked me if the dams were ever in any danger of failing, as the “Great Granite Dam” did in 1900. Fortunately, the answer is no, that is not a realistic fear. The river is far better understood than it was in the 1890s, and the Highland Lakes dams are infinitely better designed and constructed. The LCRA performs frequent upgrades on the dams to keep them current—in fact, the river authority began work in August to replace the floodgates on Tom Miller dam at Lake Austin, one of the most extensive modernizations the dam has ever received. I believe the success of the Highland Lakes system is the most significant (and under appreciated) component in the exponential growth of Austin over the last 70 years.

The fallout for the city of Austin in 2018 was far short of the death and destruction wrought by the 1900 disaster. However, the city did not escape unscathed. On Monday, October 22, the unprecedented amount of silt contaminating the city’s drinking water supply caused Austin Water to issue a citywide boil water notice that remained in place for an entire week. For a short time, it was feared that the city’s water pressure might drop below the level necessary to supply the fire hydrants. Our 1900 counterparts didn’t have it so easy. Back then, residents digging out from the dam disaster had to haul water, and it was nine months before any basic utility service returned to the city.

Want to know more? Check out my book The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, available on Amazon or at your favorite Austin bookstore. It also makes a great gift for the Austin history lover or the engineer in your life.

Honesty: Such a Lonely Word

Once upon a time, it was a big deal to publish a white paper. Not only did it have to be researched and written by someone like me, but it had to be designed, typeset, printed, and then mailed to the recipients. A white paper wasn’t mere “content,” a word that wasn’t in use then. It was an event. After all, there was no point in going to all the trouble of publishing this paper unless you had something important to say.

These days, I’ve noticed that my white paper clients are aware that their words are getting lost. The Internet is sloshing with throwaway content. Who has time to read any of it? My clients are turning their backs on puff pieces and looking to bring real talk back to the white paper. But as a society and business culture, we still don’t seem to be there.

Recently, one of my clients wanted to produce a paper on an extremely controversial issue facing their industry. All of their customers know that this issue exists. It is one of their primary concerns right now. It has even migrated from talk among insiders to the general public. Fear and misinformation have undermined confidence in the industry. Yet with every pass through the editorial process, the white paper was watered down. The original language surrounding the issue, gleaned from interviews and input from the company’s own subject matter experts, was “too hot to handle.” The language was massaged, softened, and made vague.

Finally the central point was removed altogether. The white paper spotlighted a non-controversial solution to the issue, which by the end was only obliquely acknowledged. Instead of a meaty discussion, customers were served yet another word salad, initially attractive but with no protein, no takeaway, and no action items.

As a pro I’m happy to create what my clients want. But I sometimes wonder where our business culture is going to find the courage to be authentic. Companies want to provide valuable information to their customers, but then let fear and distrust prevent meaningful engagement on even the most well-known challenges and difficulties. Too often we choose to write on high levels about the big picture, rather than grapple with the nitty-gritty reality that is right under our noses.

Why publish a paper if you have nothing to say?

Make it Memorable – “Blowin’ in the Wind”

When was the last time you truly connected with something that you read or heard? In my last blog, I wrote about the spadework it takes to craft a piece that conveys your point. This time,  I want to take it a step further and talk about how you can write a piece your readers will actually remember and maybe even treasure.

This time, I thought I’d try something a little different and illustrate the point through something we can all relate to — the classic Bob Dylan tune “Blowin’ in the Wind.” A song has many of the same components as any piece of writing. For example, a few years back, I wrote an online exhibit about the Texas Railroad Commission, a state agency that for most of the 20th century, regulated the oil and gas industry in the Lone Star State. Sounds really exciting, right? Actually it was!

As it turns out, the story of oil and gas in Texas embodies some of the biggest and most complex ideas around, such as economic freedom and personal liberty, but through a story with all the high drama of novels like Giant. Don’t believe me? I can tell you that one of the greatest compliments I ever received came from a man who told me he read the exhibit whenever he felt lonely and depressed. He said it connected him with the power and majesty of something larger than himself.

And while not every piece of business writing tells this kind of story, it is possible to be much more memorable than most of the content being pumped out on a daily basis. What makes “Blowin’ in the Wind” so creative and relevant 55 years later, while its contemporaries like “Surf City” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” are gathering dust in the oldies bin?  It starts with putting the pieces in place before you ever start putting words on the page.

  1. Find the one big idea.

“Blowin’ in the Wind” asks the listener a series of hard questions, and challenges the idea that the constant babble of opinions holds any answers. In fact, the song tells us that we will not find any solutions if we keep hiding behind our fixed positions. Most people first heard the song as it was performed by Peter, Paul, & Mary at the 1963 March on Washington. It invited people to face reality, put aside their differences, and work together for a better country. Pretty powerful stuff.

To be memorable, you need to find an idea that actually matters—not just to you, but to your audience. To find that idea, think about what your audience is talking about out there in the real world. What questions are they asking and what emotions are they feeling? Is there an issue they are scared, mad, or confused about? How can you shed light on that issue with real stories and examples? Here is where you will find your idea.

2. Believe in it.

These days, people are used to hype and wise to the ways of being sold. This is why companies like Nike are succeeding by standing for something. Regardless of whether you think it is the right thing, it has resonated with people looking for authenticity. It is interesting to learn that Bob Dylan himself became cynical about  “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but Mary Travers never did. Her vulnerability and sincerity demonstrated passion, love, and commitment and was critical to the success of the song. The same is true for your piece. Once you have found your message, think about how you can convey your commitment to it in a way that is accessible to the audience and includes them and their concerns.

3. Find the emotional heart of the story.

Once you have found a good idea that you can commit to, it is time to put on your writer’s hat. How can you convey the message in a way that taps into the emotions of the audience? Funny or touching stories are great, but to be truly memorable they need to fit into an overall narrative that leads the audience where you want them to go.

In the Railroad Commission piece, I structured the narrative around dramatic turning points and played up the stakes with historic quotes like this one from the French oil minister at the close of World War I: “As oil had been the blood of war, so it would be the blood of the peace.” In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the entire song hinges around the simple metaphor that an abstract concept (answers) can blow in the wind like leaves—something everyone can relate to.

But there is more to the song’s structure than that. Instead of hitting us with everything all at once, the song asks us to think about some simple matters:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?

Before leading us on a journey where the questions become increasingly uncomfortable, ultimately asking us:

How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?

As with getting your point across, creating a piece that is truly memorable starts with a thoughtful approach. Solid writing techniques such as storytelling, analogies, quotes, and imagery will give you punch, but if you don’t have a solid idea as the foundation of your piece, ultimately your words, my friends, will be blowin’ in the wind.