An Essayist? Yes, I Make an Attempt

Just as Richard Todd writes in Good Prose, “I awoke one morning to discover I was an essayist.”  Nearly six years after accepting an invitation from Doug Magill to write an occasional “piece” for his online site, Cleveland Business Review, I make the same discovery. I am addicted to crafting essays on business, politics, literature—fearlessly repeating E.M. Forester’s quote “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” After all, insists Todd in the 2013 book he wrote with Tracy Kidder, “Essayists tend to argue with themselves. The inner dialogue that might be suppressed in other writing finds a forum here. Montaigne blessed the form when he said, ‘If I knew my own mind, I would not make essays. I would make decisions.’”
Not only did Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) bless the form but the French writer expressed “subjective reflections on topics such as religion, education, friendship, love, and freedom,” according to the website bio. He called these original works essais—that is, “attempts” in French. And a new literary genre was born, the essay. By the year 1588, Montaigne had a third volume of essays in print, with such tidbits as “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know” and “I quote others only in order the better to express myself.” The popularity of the essay has never waned since.
“Essays are self-authorizing,” write Kidder and Todd in the chapter dedicated solely to essays. “This is the dilemma but also the pleasure of the form. The chances are that nobody asked for your opinion. But if your idea is fresh, it will surprise even someone, perhaps an assigning editor, who did ask.” Moreover, the Kidder-Todd collaboration adds, “just as no word has an exact synonym, no idea can be exactly paraphrased.” And further, the Pulitzer-winning writer of The Soul of a New Machine and his patient longtime editor insist that the “essayist’s relationship with the reader depends, as always, on mutual trust, but trust of a special kind. In the essay, trust in the author and disagreement with the author can coexist.”
That’s what Doug Magill believes too. That’s why he created Cleveland Business Review in 2011 and invited folks like me to write for it. Doug, whom I met when I was adding a bit of business to the culture of Northern Ohio Live magazine in 2005, was an entrepreneur with an impressive business past. At the time, along with Paul DeLuca and Kathleen Haley, he was promoting Cleveland Business Radio on WERE-1300.
With 40 years of reporting experience behind me, I was—and remain—eager to attach my byline to stories, especially about business management. My first CBR article reflected on “talking” with Silent Cal Coolidge’s statue when I was on assignment for Industry Week magazine in the early ‘90s. President Coolidge had a penchant for what I call MBSOOTW—Management By Staying Out Of the Way. It’s a lesser-known corollary to Management By Walking Around. MBSOOTW keeps politicians and policy wonks from tinkering with market economics. If you haven’t already noticed, many pols and wonks resemble 13-year-old Monopoly addicts buying Park Place with brightly colored but wholly worthless money. Decades ago, Calvin Coolidge summed up his economic philosophy with this axiom: “The business of America is business.” He backed up those six words with restraint.
As you can see, classic business lessons are what I have traded in. Classic leadership lessons as well. To Peter Drucker’s way of thinking, the true leader is the exceptional musician who knows how to create great music, but does not delude himself into thinking that he’s the whole band. Further, Drucker argued that exceptional leaders—think those in the category of Lincoln or Churchill—understand “leadership as responsibility rather than as rank and privilege,” offering this illustration: “Effective leaders are rarely ‘permissive.’ But when things go wrong—and they always do—they do not blame others….Harry Truman’s folksy ‘The buck stops here’ is still as good a definition as any.”
And, on occasion, lessons on great messaging—from the classic essayist E.B. White to the contemporary master Arthur Plotnik. “With…readers drawn to ever-new distractions, who can afford a writing-as-usual attitude?” asks the author of the journalistic classic The Elements of Editing. “Not creative writers, not journalists, copywriters, or corporate communicators. Nor can writing students gear up in all the old ways. Even bloggers, even Match.com troubadours, must realize that in today’s forest an undistinguished post falls soundlessly.”
Hallelujah! say I. (Particularly in the last few years I haven’t seen so much settled content since my days as a bulk-buyer of generic mac-n-cheese dinner. My family, friends, and colleagues—savvy media consumers all—share that sentiment, if not my preference for the perfect entree.) With no slight at all to the use of middle-of-the-road grammar, Plotnik constructs a compelling 275-page case to the message-makers “whose composition skills compare with the next writer’s, but who itch for creative ideas, smart locutions, and realistic takes on language for today’s media.”
Whether the topic is writing, business, politics, family, or plain nonsense, E.B. White is right—“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” In the contemporary world of words, E.B. White is the gold standard; the rest of us are just filling in the spaces in between. Yet we all know that each of us—including those who craft ideas for Cleveland Business Review—is, to quote White, a “self-liberated man.”
Contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor, and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dog, Lord Max. whose pointed ears are greatly loved.. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com .
Advertisements

Happiness with Long Brown Ears

Happiness gets so tangled in life’s blind alleys and grand abstractions that you miss the long brown ears. With The Duchess, though, the long brown ears were the first thing you noticed.

“What a pretty dog!” declared Carol as soon as she laid eyes on the Beagle who would change our lives. “I could swear she just smiled at me. Isn’t she a dear? That brown coat is so soft. And look at those ears!”

“Soft for good reason, too,” said Jerry, Carol’s son. “Ambray and I bathed her more than once after we lured her out of the woods. We figured someone had let her escape a kill-shelter; but when she made it to the woods nearby, she quickly found herself very cold and very hungry. She was on her own—lost, scared, and searching for something to eat. Getting dirty in the woods just happened.”

“What are you calling her?” asked Carol, who lays claim to the most-tender heart this side of Heaven.

“She likes the name Holly, it seems,” said Ambray, Jerry’s wife. “She almost seems to smile when she hears the name, almost as if that were her given name from the start.”

“This pup,” I said, “looks almost regal—those long brown ears and those bright brown eyes. She could be the candidate for any magazine cover—Here Comes The Duchess of Hollingsworth!” At that moment, Holly looked at me and seemed to smile, a long grin carefully shaped as an upside-down triangle, with her eager tongue creating a sort of bright pink exclamation point.

The stately title of Hollingsworth was a given; that’s Carol’s maiden name.
“She likes you, Joe,” Ambray said. “I don’t see her go to many men since we found her. But she definitely likes you!”

To confirm Ambray’s comment, the little Beagle rubbed herself affectionately against my pants. “Hello, little Holly,” I said, even as I reached down to pat her head and touch her ears, which were as soft as a woman’s fanciest purse. Holly responded by nuzzling into my pant leg all the more affectionately.

“I think you’ve got a friend for life,” said Jerry, who was ready to fire-up the barbeque grill for dinner. Carol and Ambray agreed.

“She’s probably expecting something better than hamburger,” I said. “I told you she had all the marks of a duchess.”

“An always-hungry duchess, to be sure!” Jerry said.

As our dinner of hamburger and salad commenced, little Holly sat next to me, right below the table. In no time she was giving me a playful nudge, a reminder that she was my new friend and that she liked hamburger as much as any two-legged creature. Every time I looked at her, Holly would smile that triangle smile and flash that empty tongue. Before long, pieces of my hamburger were finding their way under the table.

The humans ate and talked and laughed; once in a while, Holly would remind me that she was still under the table and still hungry. Since Carol and I were weekend guests, the four of us at the table were in no hurry to let the day end.
As it turned out, neither was The Duchess.

After dinner we cleaned up the dishes and then Carol and I started to all get ready for bed. Jerry and Ambray had the guest room ready for us. That’s when the surprise of the evening occurred. As soon as I hopped on the bed, a brown streak moved across the room and jumped up next to me.

“Well, Holly,” said Carol, laughing, “I don’t think there’s any more hamburger.”
“That’s right, my girl,” I said to Holly.

All of a sudden Jerry and Ambray popped their head into the bedroom. In unison our hosts proclaimed: “She wants a lot more than a hamburger.”

As Carol and I found out when The Duchess added a touch of royalty to the evening by sleeping between—yet very close to—Carol and me the rest of the night. And that’s where she stayed the rest of her life.

The Duchess of Hollingsworth died November 10, 2015, having enjoyed many hamburgers lovingly prepared by Carol. CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor, and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their remaining dog, Lord Max. whose pointed ears are greatly loved as well. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com .

We Were Boys

Mike-Hawaii copy

(Carl Wilson’s son with Mike)

by Doug Magill

His name was Frank Langstrom III, but to me he was always, and will forever be Mike.  We became friends when we were both five, after my family moved from Bethesda, Maryland to Birmingham, Michigan.  He and I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone was safe, all the adults were our parents, and every house was a home.

We were boys, so we liked to make lots of noise, blow things up, shoot things in random directions, build stuff, explore, get dirty, and play.    It is amazing that we survived with all of our limbs and digits, because we liked to play with fireworks that were real explosives, and tried to make them even more powerful.  There were a number of mailboxes and trash cans in our neighborhood that ended up being unsuitable for their original purposes.

Later we took wood and pipes and made homemade cannons that were surprisingly accurate.  Many plastic models were constructed with built-in explosives so we could film them exploding.  From match heads and ballpoint pen rockets to some relatively large and powerful missiles we graduated to some pretty amazing vehicles.  More than a few small creatures had the rides of their short and unconventional lives due to our work.  And, there were a few automobiles that had unexplained dents in them from minor guidance inaccuracies.

We made model trains, small-engine aircraft, and built and listened to ham radios.  We constructed a sound-powered telephone system between our houses.  We learned to shoot BB guns to pellet rifles to guns.  More than once Mike’s father angrily complained about some projectile whizzing by him or his house.  We built the infamous Goodbye-Grackle machine that was a marvel of ad-hoc engineering and complex ostentatiousness.

As we got older we got telescopes to explore the heavens and cameras to film our lives.  We bought motorcycles together and expanded our travels.  But we also loved being home, playing bridge or poker or other games.  He loved to be vague about the rules until he won, or sometimes just cheated.  With a grin.

He and I shared so many interests, but we were different in so many ways, as well.  Mike liked to talk me into doing something while he would hang back, and laughing as I – usually – got into trouble.  I would scheme and he would build; I would talk and he would think; I would lead and he would watch.  I never met a smarter person, or a quicker wit.  His sense of humor never quit, and he could use the saltiest of language but never leave you feeling insulted.  Every time I think of something quirky I see his little smirk, and smile.

But, underneath his dark humor and clever asides, he cared and supported and helped – but never in any way that drew attention to himself.  When I broke my jaw he kept an eye on me at school so I wouldn’t get injured further.  When I broke my leg he was the one that carried my books, got his father to drive me to school, and kept me company wherever I went so I wouldn’t break my other leg.  As our careers took us further apart he was the most supportive when I had to deal with adversity.  And, at unexpected times he would send me or email me something that would make me laugh, and look at life differently.

He got involved with the charities of the Wilson brothers (of Beach Boys fame) and donated significant time and money working judiciously in the background.  Upon hearing of his passing the Carl Wilson Foundation honored him.

And, he made it part of his life to help his family far beyond what could be expected.  Even though sudden cancer claimed him, his final battle was valiant, and he never will finish that article on why kamikaze pilots bothered to wear helmets.

In all, in so many ways he was the best a friend could be.  And through it all, from childhood to the end, we were boys.   Requiescat in Pace, Mike

Doug Magill is a consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent who can be reached at doug@magillmedia.net