Hudson's Flying Socks Girl

My wife has been asking me what I want for Christmas. I don’t really need anything but when I walked past the Hudson Post Office recently, I thought of a few things.

IMG-0275.JPG

My sister, brother and I grew up almost next door to the post office, which sits on the corner of South Fourth and Union streets. For young kids in the “go-out-and play” era, the post office and the Columbia County Courthouse across the street were our playgrounds.

The Post Office looks exactly the same as it did in the mid-1960s. Its interior still smells of paper and glue. Your footsteps reverberate across the terrazzo and marble floor and your voice echos up to the high ceiling. Outside, the Classic Revival architecture with columns (the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998) gives a stately look.

In other words, it was a perfect place to run through to see if you’d get caught, which we usually did. When we were escorted out, we’d sit on the cool granite steps on the Union Street entrance and watch people come and go. It was there that we learned of great scientific advances from a neighborhood girl.

I won’t name this person because I don’t know if she still lives in the area. She was several years older than my siblings and I (we were five, six and eight). She had a reputation as being tough — and she was. When she saw us on the steps she'd join us, which made us nervous until she began telling amazing lies.

We didn’t know she was lying. To us, she was an oracle opening our eyes to wonders unknown. She declared that there were socks that could make you fly, sneakers that had rockets to make you super fast, and underwear that would make you invisible. She had many more stories of mind-blowing space-age technologies. Every time we asked where her flying socks were, she said she had just checked, and they would arrive at the post office next week.

IMG-0283.JPG

I can’t remember the face of the person telling these tales but man, I remember those flying socks. In my five-year-old mind, I imagined them as having little wings on the ankles, like Mercury. I never questioned our truth teller why someone would make flying socks instead of, say, a flying shirt, which seemed easier to control in flight. I just knew it was going to be very cool to get a pair and fly over Hudson.

We asked our parents to buy us these futuristic devices. I can’t remember their response but it was probably something like “stay away from her.”

What motivated Flying Sock Girl to tell us these stories rather than speaking to us with her fists, as she did with others? Maybe it was the new U.S. space program or that the Jetsons were on prime time TV. Still, this wasn’t your typical neighborhood bully script.

Today, whenever I see those post office steps, I recall her fanciful tales. So I am asking my wife for a pair of flying socks for Christmas. More than 50 years after I first heard of them, they have to be a real thing, right? My size is large. Red would be nice but I'll take them in whatever color they have. 

Communicators: 'bWAR' metrics myopia

Baseball's return every spring has been a source of joy for me since I was a boy. But lately, I feel more disengaged from the game because I no longer understand baseball statistics.

baseball-and-stats2.jpg

Half the fun of baseball was the ability to compare today’s players with those of decades ago based on stats like home runs, runs batted in, batting average, wins, losses, earned run average. In shorthand: HRs, RBIs, BA, W, L, and ERA. Not anymore.

Now we have bWARs, WHIP, TTO, OPS and numbers after players’ names like .432/.519/.727. I have no idea what these mean (help me Joe Sheehan!). They are being used by managers, general managers and fantasy players to drive personnel and in-game decisions.

Data analytics in baseball have led to highly effective defensive innovations but as they have risen, human judgment has receded; watch a game and you’ll see a team manager paging through a binder of stats rather than looking at the field.

The same is true of public relations, where metrics are changing and, in some cases, supplanting the “art” of our work. I remember sitting in meetings on PR/marketing campaigns listening to reports of impressions, web site visitors, reach, email open rates, and other metrics and wondering if we had made a meaningful connection – or any connection -- with anyone.

...we should use these tools to make adjustments, do a better job, and help us to set benchmarks for our goals and objectives.

In marketing, data provides insights into customer preferences and practices. For example, if 60 percent of your online customers end up seeking follow-up help from your call center, you know that something is wrong. 

In public relations, however, many metrics still ladder up to the old reliables of favorability, trust and message receptivity/audience preferences that can be tested quantitatively and qualitatively. At their worst, these metrics drive a strategy to the exclusion of other factors.

Here's what I mean. Say you're a company responding to the loss of customers' personal data. What determines your plan? The number of customers who close accounts? Favorability and key words in social media? Employee feedback?

Any smart company is sure to be looking at these and other metrics. Yet, in many instances, the responses seem to be lacking. 

Perhaps it is first and foremost a clear expression of the values that guided the enterprise in its decision-making. Metrics should inform your strategy but not determine it. Don’t let them get in the way of values-based actions, common sense and good judgment. Get your nose out of the binder and look at the field.

Metrics must be simple, predictive, well-defined and, to borrow a golf phrase -- “dead solid perfect” – meaning they must be as carefully scrutinized as financial numbers. They must be defendable under withering cross-examination in the C-suite.

Our profession is determined to get there. The Institute for Public Relations and its Measurement Commission have done amazing work advancing the definition, validity and value of measurement through research and collaboration. As IPR President Tina McCorkindale smartly says: “Our purpose should not be to try to prove the value of our profession or worth compared to other organizational departments…rather we should use these tools to make adjustments, do a better job, and help us to set benchmarks for our goals and objectives.”

IPR is sponsoring a free webinar on May 22 by two terrific communications leaders, Mark Klein of Dignity Health, and Rob Clark of Medtronic, Inc., From Complex to Concise: Using Data, Research and Measurement to Simplify Healthcare Communications.

Now if IPR can explain to me what is going on with baseball stats. Go Yankees!

The winter of our content

 A December snow.

A December snow.

An eastern bluebird flitted from tree to tree behind our house this week. Then a red fox scampered across a field. They were the first flashes of natural color I had seen in about five months.  

This was the first full winter we had spent in Hudson in more than 30 years. My wife Barb and I decided not to do a warm-weather trip to help get through the winter, mainly because I am still recovering from a bike crash in the fall.

We also wanted to see what winter was like at our home in Livingston, just outside Hudson, New York. It wasn’t like we had lived on the equator previously; southern Connecticut has basically the same climate. But we were curious if our 232-year-old home would protect us from an upstate winter.

The house sits on the Taghkanic Creek and was a caretaker’s cottage for the grist mill on the estate of Robert Livingston. It isn’t exactly a hermetically sealed environment. The perimeter of the house is about 10 degrees colder than the interior, even with new windows and doors. One thing I discovered in this first winter was that it takes a lot of courage to get out of bed early on a sub-zero morning.

It was a long and cold winter. The bone-chilling temperatures of late December and early January receded slightly in February but cold persisted right through March. The conga line of March nor’easters was disheartening. The monochrome grayness of everything – sky, roads, landscapes – was the toughest thing to take.

 A frozen swirl in the creek.

A frozen swirl in the creek.

We discovered that our dog, Charlie, likes the warmth of a fire more than food. On frosty mornings, he wouldn’t leave the hearth even when we put his breakfast out for him.  He’s a 10-pound dachshund and he shortened our walks because of the cold even when he was wearing his WWII aviator-style jacket. He would just look up at us like he was the only one with common sense, turn, and head back to the house.

We went through more than a face cord of wood and lots of propane to keep the little place warm. Sleep came early, much earlier than when we lived elsewhere. We churned books – me “Jack Reacher” novels and Barb bios of Katherine Graham and "Wild Bill" Donovan. We depleted the supply of watchable movies on Apple TV and Netflix. We binged “Fixer Upper" on HGTV.

So, what was the outcome of our first hibernation here? Well, I put on about 20 pounds because of my own inertia and the need for comfort food. The snow plow cracked our mail box post. We had a frozen pipe that plagued us for most of January. The heavy March snows snapped a few big tree limbs.

The best result was that we now know this is the place we want to be for many more winters. It was harsh and discouraging at times, a bit like the movie “Groundhog Day” as one chilly morning looked like the one before it. I sometimes sang Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” when I got out of bed – Bill Murray's wakeup song in the movie.

But we felt an internal warmth from being in a home that we finally won’t have to pack up and leave. There were new and old friends. Good music at Helsinki. Excellent food. Comfortable bars and breweries. And with technology, the ability to work with clients all over the world without leaving home.

 Ice ornaments on branches of a willow tree.  

Ice ornaments on branches of a willow tree.  

Every morning, I looked forward to watching two merganser ducks -- a couple apparently -- land in our creek even when it was nearly covered with ice. They’d dive for food, staying under for what seemed like minutes. When their meal was over, they floated together downstream on the current, energized for the day.

Having said all this, I am happy the sun is higher in the sky and the bluebirds are back.

My boring reading list blog

Most blogs about “what I am reading” are as boring as Justin Timberlake's Super Bowl halftime performance and usually self-indulgent attempts to demonstrate your smarts. I obviously will do that in this blog but along the way I am also going to jazz things up with hilarious cultural and personal references while still making my point.

My point is you have to have a reading list. I am looking at you, communicators. We are in a business that requires eternal learning vs. let’s say, my dog Charlie who dashes to the front door barking every damn time a doorbell rings on TV. No learning.

 No.

No.

A reading list should be broad and deep, literally. Mine is stacked a foot high in my office awaiting my next long plane ride or surgery – lately, the latter being more likely. It should address the issues that continue to perplex you and others  – what the hell are blockchain and cryptocurrency, and can I buy artificial intelligence for my personal use, such as figuring out the ending of the movie Interstellar?

Understanding emerging topics – even at a basic level – will make you a better communicator and leader in your organization. When I was at GE, I tried to get a basic grasp of China and India’s increasing importance in the global economy, or how additive manufacturing might disrupt industrial companies, or how changing social values could influence employee attitudes and company policies.

Part of my motivation was fear of being embarrassed. Sometimes I was. In 2008, I presented to the GE Board on the reputation risks associated with GE’s sponsorship of the Olympic Games in Beijing. There were protests against Olympic sponsors by actress Mia Farrow and others related to China’s failure to act on genocide and human rights abuses in Darfur. One protest bumper sticker said, “You Can’t Spell GEnocide Without GE.”

 Yes. 

Yes. 

This wasn’t my first Olympic reputation rodeo and I could articulate how best to handle the China issue. But then the board started asking very specific questions about the situation on the ground in Sudan. I was like a stumped spelling bee contestant: “Uhhh….could you use it in a sentence?” Luckily, the GE Foundation leader bailed me out. I was half prepared.

No one in GE was going to give me a course on Darfur. I had to educate myself on the issue and many others that confront a global company. It can be exhausting and sometimes not fun. Instead of watching GE-funded “Must Watch TV” comedy classics such as “Joey” on airplanes, I would try to get through my reading pile.

Reading lists should be diverse in their topics and source and force you out of your comfort bubble.  The usual suspects such as the Wall Street Journal are important but so are Scientific American, Harvard Business Review, The Economist and Foreign Policy.

Sounds like fun, right? Well get a gander at some of the things on my list:

·      “Effects of corporate online communications on attitude and trust: Experimental analysis of Twitter messages,” from the Institute for Public Relations

·      “Report From the Buy Side: The Power of Intangible Factors on Investment Decisions,” by Weber Shandwick

·      “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” from the Harvard Business Review

·      “Five Ways to Spot Fake Research,” by the amazing Sarab Kochhar, Ph.D.

·      “How to Read a Financial Report,” by Merrill Lynch

·      “Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds,” by Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker

·      “Brain. Behavior. Story. Why Public Relations Needs to Return to its Scientific Roots,” by Christopher Graves of Ogilvy Public Relations

·      “Hello, My Name is Jeff,” a New York Times profile of Jeff Bezos

·      “Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 presidential campaign,” by three really smart professors from really smart schools

·      “Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble,” by Steven Johnson of the New York Times Magazine

·      “How to Get The Most Out of A Mentoring Relationship,” by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations

You’re saying, “Sheffer is a gas bag. He’s not going to read all those things.” You’re right.  Sometimes the topic gets moldy by the time I get to it and I move on, constantly curating the pile to try to stay current.

 Nope.

Nope.

Okay, sorry, you’ve had enough of this haughty and pedantic harangue but you haven’t endured anywhere near the hectoring others have suffered. At GE, I often droned on about the necessity of reading and being the most informed person in the room.   

I know, that's not as fun as watching the GE/NBCUniversal comedy classic, “The Land of the Lost?” But hey, what is?

Sheffer Family Best of 2017

 
Cover_bestof2017.jpg
 

Disregard other inferior top 10 lists from the likes of The New Yorker, the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and even Plumbers, Gas and Steam Fitters Journal. The best "best of" list for 2017 is right here. Spokesman asked the six Sheffers to provide their best cultural experience from the year -- best book, movie, travel experience, TV show, or best story that I told (no one went for that). Below is the result, the Second Annual Sheffer Family Best of List. Artwork by Spokesman's talented daughter, Emily.


 

Fargo, Season 3 -- Bleak Minnesota winterscapes plus murder wouldn't seem to make for appealing TV viewing, especially for me. I  prefer happier, upbeat entertainment even going so far as to avoid listening to songs in sad minor keys. But I have so enjoyed watching FX's Fargo series over the years with Gary and I was really looking forward to its third season this past year. I was not disappointed. I was drawn into the story just as I was during the first two seasons and I am hoping they come up with a fourth season. Ewan McGregor playing both Stussy brothers In Season 3 was fun to watch and I found myself rooting for Carrie Coon's police chief character, Gloria Burgle. 

barb.jpg
gary.jpg

Springsteen’s autobio is joyously literate, emotionally wrenching when he writes about his father, and a “virtual reality” experience of the life of a self-proclaimed bar-band “f*#%ing nobody.“
 You smell the sweat, hairspray and stale beer of the Jersey bars where Springsteen learned his craft, you feel the raw power of his will to make it big, and you see his brilliance as a performer and a leader. His instinctive understanding of how to mold an odd collection of ordinary people into a kick-ass band would make a great Harvard Business School case study.
The story from the book that sticks with me most is about Jake Clemons, the nephew of Springsteen’s soul mate, the late great saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Springsteen invited Jake to his house to audition to replace Clarence in the E Street Band. Jake arrived an hour late and when he did, admitted he only “sort of” knew the sax solos his uncle and Springsteen had perfected. Springsteen sent him away with a Jack Welch-like tongue-lashing. “Where…do…you…think…you...are? If you don’t know, let me tell you. You are in a CITADEL OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. You don’t dare come in here and play this music for Bruce Springsteen without having your SHIT DOWN COLD!”
Jake went away, learned the parts, and earned a seat in the band. It is debatable whether Springsteen is rock’s best front man ever, (I say “yes”) but he certainly was the best band “boss” in rock history.

 
sarah.jpg

The best thing I saw in 2017 were New Mexico's national parks and monuments--White Sands National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve, Tent Rocks National Monument. In early May, Emily and I rented a car, booked a couple of Air Bnbs, and roughly set out to explore this beautiful state whose stunning landscape has been cut and carved by thousands of years of thermal and volcanic activity. My historical consciousness of our home here in the U.S. has started with my grade school education of the founding our our country--but Emily and I walked through pueblos inhabited by tribes far beyond our founders' time here on this continent. A humbling experience. We swam in mineral springs, hiked up ladders through ancient dwellings, spotted cave paintings, looked for elk in a crater, hiked to the dramatic gorge where the Rio Grande meets the Red River, traveled on horseback through Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch, and explored Santa Fe's historic arts district. Seeking out the natural beauty and history of New Mexico was an incredible and expansive experience in an otherwise tough year. 

peter.jpg

My favorite thing this year was visiting my friend in Boulder, Colorado. I haven’t seen the middle of the country much. At that point Green Bay and Las Vegas were the only two places I had been in the US that weren’t in states that touched the Atlantic Ocean.

We were supposed to spend the first half of the trip going to craft breweries and eating burritos, and spend the second half hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. There wound up being five feet of snow in May, just before we left for the park. So instead we wound up going to craft breweries and eating burritos for both halves of the vacation. I did manage to see the garden of the gods and a few other “Rockies” attractions outside of Colorado Springs. Next time I won’t visit during winter, which I now understand runs from September to June.

Tour de France is to Dad, as the New York Art Book Fair is to me. It’s a big deal! The New York Art Book Fair is the gold standard for all things art and book. It’s an annual free event, held at MoMA PS1 in Queens. PS1 is an abandoned public school building-turned art space in the late 70’s; a labyrinth of classroom-sized rooms, hallways and stairwells that will leave you feeling turned around by the end of the day. Seemingly endless numbers of publishers, presses, and independent sellers come from all corners of the world to show off their innovations in book making. Fighting through sweaty crowds in semi-well ventilated spaces sounds stressful, and can be, but feels worth it when you find that one special book. A Korean publisher was even selling a few photography books that I helped produce. Very exciting! If you get tired of books (it happens), make sure you’re with a good friend so you can take walks on the high line, pop in and out of Chelsea galleries, and eat plenty of oysters. 

emily.jpg
mark.jpg

Old Cinemas in New York City. New York City is full of small arthouse cinemas featuring movies by some of films greatest directors. This year, as an NYU student, I had access to many of these theaters. The Russian post-apocalyptic thriller, Stalker by Tarkovsky was my favorite feature.

Good will come from this most mendacious year

 From "Public Relations" by photographer, Garry Winogrand.

From "Public Relations" by photographer, Garry Winogrand.

2017 was a good year for communication and the people who practice it. Before you throw something at this blog, please give me a few minutes to explain this highly debatable claim. 

Yes, lies and liars abound. Yes, technology makes it easier for the devious to deceive. And yes, American leadership seemed allergic to the truth this year right from the start. 

Yet, this most mendacious year has and will lead to some good.  Already, effective communication and strong communicators are more valued than ever by smart organizations in this era of pervasive reputation risk. Plus, we’ve had a graduate-level course this year in the art of apologizing publicly, the danger of not knowing your audience, and how and how not to use Twitter as a leader.

More seriously and importantly, the unrelenting and brazen attacks on rational thinking and the truth in 2017 have raised awareness of how essential integrity in public communication is to a successful democracy.

At this point a good blogger would cite a study from Pew Research to back up this claim. I won’t because studies have demonstrated you probably wouldn’t believe the studies anyway. Instead, I'll simply tell you what I believe is happening as a result of these attacks on the truth and how I hope our profession will mobilize to fight back.

First, my beliefs.

If you care about how public policy affects people, especially those who are vulnerable,  I believe you realize it has become more acceptable for people in power to lie to get what they want.

If you care about a free and unfettered press,  I believe you realize that the growth in politically motivated attacks on it are unprecedented and dangerous for journalists and for the sustainability of democracy.

If you care about rational, fact-based discourse, I believe you realize that professional phonies and provocateurs are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet with the sole purpose of deceiving you to further their own interests.

If you care about civility, I believe you realize that it is disappearing, replaced by contempt and insults. 

Next, my hopes for turning these realizations will turn into action.

I hope CEOs will continue to be active on social and economic policy and human rights.  I also hope they will be as publicly visible on difficult reputation issues such as tax reform, trade, and globalization as on values-based issues like immigration and diversity.

I hope the communication and journalism professions will work together on a media literacy campaign to separate real work from propaganda. I hope the technology companies whose platforms are used to spread lies and outrage will continue to help fund this effort. As The Economist wrote recently, “It would be wonderful if such a system helped wisdom and truth rise to the surface.”

I hope the communication profession will continue to lead the way in the fight for integrity in public communications. I am proud to be part of an organization, the Arthur W. Page Society, whose number one principle has long been “Tell the Truth," and the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, which is funding academic research on "fake news" and all its implications. 

OiwcJq6.jpg

I hope we will be pushed to do more by a new generation of communicators who insist on working for “good” companies that have clearly stated and admirable values and that live by them. And by communication students, who feel the same way but want us to move faster and more aggressively.

I hope more companies will adopt strategies based on public good as well as profit, and that communicators will be at the center of determining the "what" and "how."

I hope you will become part of the difficult work ahead, and help turn 2017's mendacity into 2018's honesty. 

Goodbye to Hudson's grand sports ground

Hudson High retired an 80-year-old sports ground this month, a visually striking and distinctive field where I have lost pride, blood and tears. It feels a bit like when they tore down the old Yankee Stadium -- nostalgic for their best days and sad that it is too costly to renovate and maintain these beautiful facilities. 

 Unique and beautiful: The football field with the old school in the background. 

Unique and beautiful: The football field with the old school in the background. 

The John A. Barrett Field at what is now Montgomery C. Smith Intermediate School is a bit spartan but may be one of a kind. It was completed in 1937 by the federal Public Works Administration as part of the construction of Chancellor Livingston High School. The entire project, including the magnificent three-story brick, limestone and slate school building, cost $508,674.

I visited the school last month to talk with the principal, Mark Brenneman, an energetic educator of young people in grades 3 through 5. The hair on my neck stood up when I walked in the building because its looks the same as when I was last there 44 years ago. The marble mosaic floor in the lobby and the terra cotta tiles on the hallway walls have stood up to years of use.

Outside, the grand cupola and its flanking wood railings give the building a stateliness, particularly when viewed across the expansive front lawn. Every time I see this remarkable school, I am proud that my grandfather, Elmer Sheffer, helped build it.

But it is the athletic field that sparks memories for me and my entire family. It is a classic, with overlapping football and baseball fields ringed by an triangular cinder running track with granite curbs. It has an amazing view of the Catskills to the west, which I know well because I once lost a ball in the setting sun while playing right field. The batter circled the bases. Hence the loss of pride. 

Left field is backed by a steep rise of shale topped by pine, cedar and maple trees. We lived a block from the field and spent endless hours climbing the "cliffs," skinning our knees and elbows. Hence the loss of blood. 

 Shortly after it opened 80 years ago. 

Shortly after it opened 80 years ago. 

The football stands are adjacent to this hill, behind the track in dead center field. The stands are the kind of rectangular concrete and wood bench (now aluminum) structure you might see in a crowd shot in a Knute Rockne movie. On the other side of the stands are five well-maintained asphalt tennis courts where players lined up to get a court during the tennis craze of the 1970s and 1980s and when a Hudson High team that included my brother, Ken, dominated all takers. 

Many great athletes have trod these fields and courts, some who have gone on to professional and collegiate renown. I am not one of them. In American Legion ball, I struck out repeatedly against a flame-throwing lefty from Saugerties, NY, who pitched briefly for the Atlanta Braves.

Having the baseball and track fields together seems ridiculously dangerous but it allowed my father to participate in two spring sports: baseball and track. He'd throw the shot put in his baseball uniform when home baseball games and track meets coincided. 

The place was electric for football, particularly night games that seemed to light up the entire city. We used the shadows to try to sneak in without paying. From pickup to Pop Warner to semi-pro, the many games tore up field, denuding it of grass at mid-field. It was fun to play in the mud but I wrecked my knee on a boggy field in my senior year homecoming game and never played football for the Hudson High Bluehawks again. Hence the tears.

The semi-pro football Vikings were a gritty bunch who held their own against teams from bigger cities. The star was Bob Van Ness, a 300-pound linebacker, placekicker and quarterback -- yes quarterback. I can still hear Vikings fans singing a gospel-style cheer before a field goal try: "Big Bob is gonna' kick it now, yeah, yeah. Oh yeah, oh yeah."

Also seared in my memory is the night a bunch of local players took on the barnstorming softball troupe, "The King and His Court," featuring pitcher Eddie Feigner. Few could make contact against the King -- even when he pitched blindfolded -- so he only needed three players behind him in the field. I sensed that night that the King and his men were more worried whether any local taverns were open than winning the softball game. 

And then there were non-sporting events. My parents and their friends loved the marching band competitions when a half-dozen corps would perform. On a very hot, humid summer night a trumpet player passed out during a performance and her helmet smacked the granite curb. She was okay but it shook me up.  

One morning, my brother and our friends were playing in the stands when a big white truck pulled on the field. Out of its cab poured about a half-dozen wild-looking men -- the "road crew" for the next night's professional wrestling match. The featured villain was Kurt Von Hess, a German military character. The road crew convinced us to set up folding chairs on the field in exchange for free tickets. Ken remembers helping a wrestler named Lil' Abner with chairs. Von Hess appeared and said without an accent, "let me show you boys how to carry chairs." I guess he wasn't so evil -- or German -- after all.

IMG_0027.JPG

Weeds have invaded the outer lanes of the track and I hear the baseball stands behind home plate will be demolished (much needed). The wood pole holding up the lights in left field curves toward center field, like a sunflower reaching for the sun. The fields will be used for gym class and other student activities and the track will remain open to the public. When I visited recently, what looked like a junior high girls soccer game was being played.

Today's Hudson High Bluehawks are making their own memories at a terrific new athletic facility behind the nearby high school. The new synthetic turf field, rubberized track, and metal stands should be a source of pride for Hudson. If I played on a football field as good as the new one, maybe I wouldn't walk with this limp. 

But there is something about the old field that is special, beyond my memories. It has been a bit worn and down on its luck at times, but it is resilient, idiosyncratic and full of character -- much like Hudson. Recently someone said admiringly of the field, "How perfect is the whole thing, anyway." I'd say pretty damn perfect. 

Using the past to challenge our present

Attica headlines.jpg

The simplest way to describe the difference between journalists and historians is that one deals with the present and one with the past. At the same time, it is clear, when practiced at their highest levels, these professions share much, including rigorous sourcing and great storytelling. In fact, many of the most important writers of our time have been both journalists and historians. See David Halberstam, Bruce Catton, Ron Chernow, or Stanley Karnow

At a time when facts apparently are not as stubborn as John Adams allegedly thought them, it's important to reflect on the intersection of journalism and history. It is sometimes said of presidents that history, with its long lens and benefit of informed reflection, eventually will render a just verdict on their performance. But what good does that do us today? History is being made as you read this and much of it is being influenced by the work of journalists, pseudo-journalists and even algorithms.

This occurred to me after reading Heather Ann Thompson's "Blood in the Water," the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the bloody 1971 Attica prison uprising, and viewing "The Vietnam War," Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's intelligent and remarkably watchable recounting of a failed American war. 

Blood in the Water.jpeg

Thompson's book was ten years in the making because New York State has done its best to throw a cloak of secrecy over the truth about Attica. Persistence, instincts and a little luck led Thompson to what really happened in the prison 46 years ago (read Thompson's introduction on how she uncovered the facts). The truth she reveals is devastating for nearly every government official involved with Attica.

At Attica, 1,300 prisoners took 39 corrections officers and prison employees hostage to protest what they believed to be substandard living conditions at the maximum security prison in rural western New York. A corrections officer was killed in the prisoner takeover, putting everyone on edge during the subsequent negotiations, including heavily armed State Troopers staging and stewing outside the prison walls. 

When the talks broke down, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered the Troopers, National Guardsmen, and corrections officers to retake the prison. Thirty-three prisoners and nine hostages (not including the guard killed in the prisoner riot) died in the haphazard and barbaric storming -- all from gunshot wounds. The only people with guns in the prison yard that day were with law enforcement.

Thompson is a renowned historian but her investigative skills shine here. The book is meticulously sourced and factually framed. She does not let precision get in the way of an unrelenting and engrossing narrative. She sympathizes with the prisoners but she lets facts guide her work. 

You can't read this book and not be angered by how effectively Rockefeller and other state officials manipulated the investigation, the courts and the public to protect themselves. The prisoners were militants hell bent on revolution, they told the public. A state spokesman lied to the public after the storming, saying prisoners had cut the throats of hostages. Police and prosecutors hid evidence about subsequent torture and lack of medical treatment for the inmates. This dissembling and deception went on for decades.

Despite a medical examiner's report showing that the hostages were killed by gunfire, even residents of the village of Attica, saddened and shocked by the loss of husbands, brothers, and friends, continued to believe the state's story on the hostage deaths. A woman who lost two family members in the assault said, "the State Police did not kill those hostages." 

The Vietnam War.jpg

Similarly, in "The Vietnam War," Episode 8, Burns and Novick focus on the 1970 shooting deaths of four unarmed students by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University. The students, who were protesting the U.S. military "incursion" into Cambodia, were "the worst type of people that we harbor in America...worse than the 'Brown Shirts' and the communist elements," Ohio Gov. James Rhodes said the day before the shootings. After the shootings, President Nixon coldly said, "When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy." Again, the government's menacing characterizations of the protestors worked: a Gallup poll taken at the time found that most Americans thought the shootings were justified. 

Thompson, Burns and Novick -- as journalists and historians -- have done a service for us. Researching and retelling the stories of two of the most divisive events in our country's history, they have helped build common understanding of the reality of who we are, what we have done and why. These hard lessons will make us better -- if we are willing to invest the time to learn them. 

Of course, this led me to the present and attacks on journalists as enemies of the American people. Just last week, the president of the United States called on Congress to investigate journalists for reporting stories he did not like. That should send chills up your spine.

If you want to see and feel journalists and historians at work, read this book or watch this series. Americans should know what happened in Attica or at Kent State not only to render some form of justice for those who suffered or were wronged, but to learn that conspiracies and coverups do exist and can destroy peoples' lives if we are not vigilant. 

Often, the most vigilant people in a democracy are journalists. They know and apply the lessons of history to their reporting today. They challenge those granted power and influence. This is how a democracy is supposed to work and why it is institutionalized in this nation's founding charter.

And by journalists I don't mean those involved in shouting matches on cable news, or looney conspiracists with a radio microphone or even propagandists with websites or printing presses. Unfortunately, many Americans do not separate these charlatans from real journalists, which is why we need a sustained media literacy effort, as wisely advocated by my friend Dick Martin.

So to answer my own question above, how do histories on Attica, Vietnam and other events help us today? By providing proof that those we trust with power are imperfect and that their words and actions need to be scrutinized, criticized and held to account. To me, this is the most patriotic action we can take.

Make America Eclipse Again

The solar system didn’t disappoint Octavia, a grandmother and Uber driver.

 Sarah and Emily on solar watch in Nashville.

Sarah and Emily on solar watch in Nashville.

“I underestimated it,” she said as she drove my family and I through Nashville on Monday, just hours after “totality” darkened the Music City’s skies. “I don’t mean to get religious on y'all, but I just looked up at it and said `this is God’s work.’

My wife, Barbara, and our two daughters, Sarah and Emily, made the trek to the eclipse’s “path of totality” in Nashville. We watched the celestial event unfold in a mown hay field at The Hermitage, the 420-acre plantation of the seventh president of the United States and $20 bill model, Andrew Jackson.

Several months ago when Emily suggested we make the trip to Nashville, I was as underwhelmed as Octavia had been. “Why can’t I watch it here, at home? It’s the same sun.” That began Emily’s tutelage of me on all things eclipse and why we should see the full solar blockade by the moon.

Barb pointed to this quote from Annie Dillard’s essay, "Total Eclipse:"

“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.”

Emily, Barb and Annie were right. After experiencing the total blackout, I have to say it was worth it, even with the 2,100-mile round trip car drive from Hudson, NY, that Barb and I made with our dachshund, Charlie.

It seems like everyone has shared eclipse photos or written about it so I won’t make you read my eclipse -- much.  Just before totality, the sunlight striking the ground had a strange muted golden hue. Cicadas began chirping, tricked into thinking it was evening. Then it got almost completely dark at 1:30 p.m.  – on a clear August day! I couldn’t see Barb or my daughters standing next to me.  

That minute or so when the black disk of the moon covered the sun was the most amazing natural thing I have ever seen. The angelic white light of the corona surrounding the moon was breathtaking. A purplish “night sky” appeared instantly, replete with stars and planets, including Venus.

People cheered. It was the sound of joy – pure joy.

After the moon moved on and the sunlight returned, strangers hugged, couples toasted with champagne, and everyone gushed about the show in the sky. One woman from Cincinnati sitting near us threw her arms over her head like she had just won a race and said, “Amazing, amazing, amazing!” She turned to another woman from Chicago, and said “It felt so important, so unifying for everyone, didn’t it?” The second woman agreed, adding, “it was the break we all needed from all the crazy stuff going on.”

I asked Sarah why she thought the eclipse had been such a big event in the U.S. -- Nashville even closed its schools for the day. “Social media,” she said. Then after a moment’s thought, she added, “I think people are just craving authentic communal events.”

By the way, how did I get such smart daughters? See below Emily's art from the eclipse

I'll add a few thoughts. First, after all the hype, I suspect many people thought the eclipse would be a bust or just "meh." We’ve grown cynical about events that get big buildups – in other words, “if they have to sell it that hard, it’s probably not very good.” But it lived up to its billing – unlike snow storms, for instance, that forecasters overhype.

Second, it was amazing to have something in common with everyone in Nashville. The whole city stopped in its tracks. You weren’t afraid to ask anyone “Where’d you watch the eclipse.” It is the first time I can remember an event so positive and universal since the moon landing in 1969.

Finally, it was the perfect event for a time when mankind seems incapable of big things and is instead focused on inconsequential matters of self-interest. The natural world reminded us what amazing and inspiring looks like. Maybe Americans should rally around more natural events – free, accessible, awe-inspiring -- as a way of unifying us.

Octavia is all in on that idea. “Let me tell you, I would go anywhere – anywhere -- to see that again.”


By Emily Sheffer

In 1854, Philadelphia-based brothers William and Frederick Langenheim made seven daguerreotypes of the total eclipse of the sun - the first eclipse visible in North America since the invention of photography. 

Under the light of the eclipse this past week, I recreated Langenheim’s images with cyanotype paper, a photographic process that uses sun-sensitive paper to make an exposure. 

I printed inverted images of the original daguerreotypes to make paper negatives, and placed the paper negative on top of the cyanotype paper. The sun comes through the white parts of the paper negative, exposing the cyanotype paper beneath it to blue.

163 years later images made by the light of one eclipse are printed with the light of another.

click on images to enlarge

The progress of the process - from daguerrotype to paper negative to cyanotype.

 

A triplet of the final cyanotypes.

 

Beaches? Bah! Bars are best for baseball reading

I don’t go to the beach because my skin could accurately be described as white.

If Sherwin Williams named a paint color for me it would be “Atomic White.” I am as white as freshly sprinkled confectionary sugar on fried dough. When I take off my shirt at the beach, people put on a second pair of sunglasses. I wear four-digit SPF sun screen. My brother used to call me “Casper.

I am also a terrible swimmer. I failed beginners class at Oakdale Lake in Hudson several times. Desperate to pass, I would fake the crawl stroke in shallow water by putting my hands on the bottom of the lake to "swim." When we had young children and I was forced to go to the beach, I used to say that the best thing about going to the beach was leaving the beach.

 The White Horse Tavern from Richard Russo's novels became the Iron Horse Bar in the movie,  Nobody's Fool , some of which was filmed in Hudson.

The White Horse Tavern from Richard Russo's novels became the Iron Horse Bar in the movie, Nobody's Fool, some of which was filmed in Hudson.

So when I see lists this time of year for beach reading, I can feel my shoulders burning and my hydrophobia kicking in. I just can’t be expected to read a book while hiding under a hat, towel, umbrella, and lead vest. My preferred summer reading habitat is a dark, wood-paneled bar with cheap draught beer. For purposes of this blog post, let’s call my fantasy summer reading place the White Horse Tavern from the mind of novelist Richard Russo.

Now that we have the location, what are the best books to read in the summer? Baseball, of course. After all, it’s The Summer Game (see below). This summer I am reading Richard Sandomir’s The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic. It focuses on the 1942 biopic on the doomed Yankee great Gehrig. It’s a fascinating read filled with new details, particularly for Yankee and movie fans.

Reading it convinced me that I should do my own summer reading list focused on baseball. Why baseball? Just read a few pieces by the greatest baseball writer ever, Roger Angell of The New Yorker, who called baseball boxscores, "my favorite urban flower." Or consider the consummate Angell quote:

"Since  baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young."

I am calling this my White Horse Tavern Summer Reading List for Baseball Fans. These books can be read on a corner barstool with the Yankees on the TV and enough of your money on the bar to get you through six or seven chapters.

513S7QviXTL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

12.

Can't Anybody Here Play this Game?, by Jimmy Breslin. A hilarious account of the worst team ever, the 1962 Mets: "The Mets opened their season on April 11 and closed on September 30. In this time, the players did enough things wrong to convince even casual observers that there has never been a team like them. From the start, the trouble with the Mets was the fact that they were not too good at playing baseball."

10.

Pitch by Pitch, by Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler. Gibson goes through every pitch of his transcendant performance in Game One of the 1968 World Series in which he struck out 17 Tigers. Makes you feel like you are on the mound with Gibson.

8.

A False Spring, by Pat Jordan, the bittersweet memoir of a "can't miss" bonus baby who flamed out in the low minor leagues. 

6.

Ball Four, by Jim Bouton. The Long Season made Ball Four possible. Bouton, a former Yankee power pitcher in the early 1960s, chronicles his 1969 season throwing knuckle balls for the lowly Seattle Pilots. Its honest revelations about what really happens in the clubhouse and after games made it one of the most controversial and influential sports books of all time.

11.

Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. Yes, "if you will build it, he will come," is now cliche (with many replacing "he" with "they") but this quirky, lyrical and dreamlike novel is much better than the film it birthed, Field of Dreams

9.

The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg, a fictionalization of the life of New York Giants star pitcher Christy Mathewson and the fictional story of a Jewish immigrant family of jewelers. The best novel about baseball.

6713259.jpg

7.

The Long Season, by Jim Brosnan. An authentic -- and unusual for its time -- diary of Brosnan's 1959 season with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. 

5.

Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris. Bruce Pearson is a catcher for the fictional New York Mammoths, a lovable rube, and a dying man. This novel poigniantly chronicles his death across a baseball season. 

4.

The Natural, by Bernard Malamud. The classic novel with Roy Hobbs, a bat named "Wonder Boy," and the fictional New York Knights. It magically mixes myth, legend and baseball.

2.

The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn. A history of the Brooklyn Dodgers by a sports writer who grew up near Ebbets Field and loved the great -- but hard-luck -- Dodgers to distraction. For casual baseball fans, this is the book to read.

3.

A Day in the Bleachers, by Arnold Hano. From the subway ride to the game to the other fans surrounding him, Hano provides a captivating time capsule of what it was like to sit in the cheap seats at the Polo Grounds. It's Game 1 of the 1954 World Series and Mays still makes the catch. 

1.

The Summer Game, by Roger Angell. Any Angell books is a gem but this collection of pieces stuck with me because it focuses on baseball's glory days of Mays, Mantle, and Koufax, and for its witty and precise descriptions of what happens on the field: "Choo Choo Coleman, a catcher for the early Mets, “handles outside curve balls like a man fighting off bees.” (Sorry for picking on the Mets again).

That's it, my White Horse Tavern Summer Reading List for Baseball Fans. Look for it on Dozenbestbooks.com, a great site for bookaholics founded by PR legend John Onoda. Then head off to that dark bar.

'Don't make me barf'

 Bill Lane flanked by GE colleagues Christian Flathman (left) and Jeff DeMarrais (right) with me seated. This is a 2001 send-off party for Jeff who had been named head of communications for our locomotive business in Erie, PA.

Bill Lane flanked by GE colleagues Christian Flathman (left) and Jeff DeMarrais (right) with me seated. This is a 2001 send-off party for Jeff who had been named head of communications for our locomotive business in Erie, PA.

Sometimes the sight of a single physical thing can wrench free emotions that you thought you had tightened down.

This happened to me recently at the wake of my friend, Bill Lane. His family had placed his Green Beret from his service in Vietnam atop his coffin. When I saw it, my throat tightened and my eyes welled up as I remembered the many hours I had spent with this amazing man during our time at GE.

When I joined GE's public relations team, Bill already was a legendary speechwriter for Jack Welch. Bill helped Jack change the way CEOs communicated. No fancy boardroom talk or financial bullshit -- just plain, powerful, and realistic language without a hint of elitism. They retooled the workingman’s language for Wall Street and investors loved it.

Bill was an officer in the Green Berets during one of the toughest parts of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive. Seeing his Green Beret brought back memories of Bill telling me about his time in Vietnam, not to brag but to shine a spotlight on the idiocy of the mission or the leadership. His stories were always perfectly constructed, without fat, and hilarious and maddening at the same time. And Bill told them with red-hot passion. He’d reach a fiery crescendo and then his mood would improve instantly. He’d smile, shrug his shoulders and say, “Who gives a shit. Let’s get some coffee.”

When Jack Welch retired in 2001, GE put together a book of his 21 annual letters to share owners. Bill's introduction perfectly reflected Jack and the GE culture at the time:

"The letters were often inspiring and uplifting, but could be scary as well, to elements of the management population -- 'and the know who they are.' Startling denunciations and threats were regularly directed at bureaucracy and bureaucrats...from mere 'ridicule and removal,' to annihilation."

Bill and Jack’s writing process was elegantly simple: Jack would dictate the outline of a speech or a share owner letter. Bill would take notes or tape record Jack and then charge down the steps to his office to begin writing on a yellow legal pad with a black felt tip pen. When he was satisfied with what he’d written, Bill would hand the pages to an executive assistant for typing and then would prowl the halls until the document was proofed and sent to Jack.

At times, however, there were a few kinks. Bill and I got a new executive assistant when I joined GE. A few days after she started, Bill needed to get a speech to Jack quickly. He handed a stack of handwritten pages to the new assistant. As Bill hovered nearby, she began typing very slowly -- using only her index fingers.

“Uh oh,” was all Bill said. A few days later, we had a new assistant.

Another time a red-faced Bill came down the hall after meeting with Jack. Our new and very able assistant, Diane Laffitte, asked him how it went. Bill said, “He doesn’t like the photo I picked for the annual report. Says it makes him look bald.” Diane asked, “What did you say?” Bill responded, “I told him he IS fucking bald.”

He did not suppress his sense of humor when dealing with Jack. For example, Bill would listen to Jack give him feedback on a draft of the annual letter and then with a straight face ask, "Do you have any serious comments?"

Bill was direct, gruff, and politically conservative as they came. But he never held it against you if you disagreed nor did he take anything too seriously that was outside his control. Words, however, he could control.

He taught others to try to do the same in the famous “Pit” lecture hall at GE’s "Crotonville" learning center. He’d tell junior executives they had to up their communications game if they wanted to climb the GE ladder. “Forget PowerPoint, it’s a plague,” he’d bellow, urging more personal, less formal communications.

Mind you, several years after I arrived at GE in 1999, Bill was still using overhead transparencies. But the medium didn’t matter – his message of simplicity and clarity was burned into the brains of thousands of GE executives over the years.

I write about Bill because he was one of the most important people in my life. When I arrived at GE, I knew almost nothing about business or GE. Bill took the time to help. I’d drop a proposed statement on his desk and he’d return it quickly with big black edits that made my mundane prose passable.

The most fun was working with Bill rehearsing senior leaders for presentations at GE’s annual strategy meeting. In a dark and cavernous ballroom, Bill would stand at the back of the room, microphone in hand and give direct and blunt “voice of god” comments when the executive was done rehearsing:

“What was all that mumbo jumbo up front? Get rid of it.”

Bill could be quite intimidating until you figured out that he was a marshmallow underneath all the muscles; his warmth and caring for others – particularly his family -- could be as powerful as his writing. Our mutual friend Steve Ramsey, who led GE's environment and safety team, described Bill as loyal and generous and reminded me how much fun it was to be around Bill, and how he would pull your chain just to get a rise out of you.

Once he casually mentioned an op-ed he had written in 1988 for the Wall Street Journal about Vietnam veterans. After he left my office, I looked it up and discovered a war story he had not told. During a firefight during the Tet offensive, enemy fire kept him pinned down behind tombstones in a Buddhist cemetery for a day and a night.

Later, on our way to get coffee, I told him it was an amazing story.

His response was pure Bill (and very similar to a line from the op-ed): He rolled his eyes and said, “Don’t make me barf.”

 

A Lady and Her Town


 Mom and Dad on their wedding day with her mother, Anna Borrelle. In the background is the General Worth Hotel, which was just a few steps from where my mother grew up. 

Mom and Dad on their wedding day with her mother, Anna Borrelle. In the background is the General Worth Hotel, which was just a few steps from where my mother grew up. 


On the day she died ten years ago today, my mother did one of the best things a mother can do for a child: she laughed at my jokes.

We were in her room at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, NY, in the final hours of her determined struggle to hang on to earthly life. She was sitting up in bed, surrounded by flowers from friends and family. In the room was her lifelong best friend -- her sister really -- Fran Brady. Fran and Mom had shared a room in the same hospital 47 years earlier when Fran's daughter, Sue, and I were born.

On that final day of her life, I wore a striped blue and yellow oxford shirt that she hated and hoped it would make her laugh. 

"Hey Mom, I wore your favorite shirt," I said. "Oh, that's really nice, thank you for wearing it," she said sarcastically. Fran joined in the laughter and it seemed like any of the thousands of times when these two great women were together. My Mom was always animated by Fran's presence and today was no different. They laughed again when I joked about how much Mom loved the overabundant and fragrant flower arrangements (she didn't).

 Fran Brady, left, and my mother. 

Fran Brady, left, and my mother. 

Fran said her final goodbye to the woman she loved with smiles that hid deep sorrow. That had been their way for decades; it was a friendship cemented by laughter. My mother found rest a few hours later, quietly giving in to the cancer that had tried futilely to define her final years. Nothing, not four energetic kids, chemotherapy, or now, death, could diminish the quiet resolve and fire of Rachel Borrelle Sheffer, a diminutive daughter of Italian immigrants.

She grew up in an apartment over her father's pool hall on lower Warren Street, the city's main drag. It was a neighborhood of close-knit Italian families who worked hard to prove themselves as Americans, who did big things like build a church, and who cared deeply for each other. Mom was the community's favorite daughter, a smart, curly-haired beauty with an electric smile.

She was a little sister to two big brothers and popular with her classmates. She married a star athlete from Hudson High, our father, Kenneth "Red" Sheffer, and dedicated her life to raising the four of us -- Valerie, Ken, Paula and myself -- in her hometown. 

Hudson is a small city, but to Mom, life there and in the surrounding area was the American Dream. From the Elks Lodge to Fatso's picnic grove to Lake Taghkanic to Kinderhook Lake, it provided everything she needed, including a good job for her husband. In the "Madmen" era of serious fun, she had plenty. Every time the phone rang, chances are it was a friend calling to make plans or to relive the last party. If it was Fran, it was also a way for both to clear their heads and complete their days.

Don't get me wrong, my mother was a hard worker, taking care of everyone around her. She was an amazing cook and was very house proud. She was tough. She didn't say much when we fell short of her expectations; she just had to look at you (including my father) and you knew what you needed to do. She was direct: "Thinking about joining the Army, Gary? No. You're going to college." And that was that.

When we were young, she loved sitting on her father's front stoop with us kids saying "hi" to friends who passed by. This was even more fun for her on days of big parades in Hudson. When we moved to a suburban part of the city, she and my father sat on the front porch of their house in the evening, enjoying neighbors who stopped by for a chat and occasionally a cocktail. 

 In front of her father's store.

In front of her father's store.

A few weeks before she passed away, my mother was in the hospital and desperately wanted to go home. She let the staff know it. Usually polite and charming, Mom was frustrated that she was losing her fight and muddled by her medication. We got a late-night call from a nurse who had done her best to calm my mother but needed help from a family member. I arrived at the hospital about midnight. As I sat in the chair next to her bed, nothing calmed her until I started asking her questions about Hudson and its people.

"When did the Concras open The Paramount?" I asked about the bar and grill that was two doors from her father's pool hall. I inquired about other things in the neighborhood --  her life-long friends and next-door neighbors Helen and Rose Roberts, the General Worth Hotel where she had her wedding reception, and Mt. Carmel Church. Answering these questions soothed her.  We talked until dawn. She finally slept.

It may seem strange but that difficult night is the memory of Mom I hold dearest. Those hours in a dark hospital room say everything about a life that was simple but so meaningful. She felt lucky to have lived her life in Hudson among the people who would soon mourn her. The cashiers at the local grocery store turned out for her funeral. So did the people who worked with her at election polls for many years. So did the people still around from the old neighborhood. 

She would never say it but Mom was quietly proud that nearly every minute of her 72 years was spent in service of her family, friends and community. And she had a great time through it all, including laughing at her son's bad jokes.