Master and Command Module Pilot

 

 

Michael Collins, who went to the moon with Neil Armstrong, is also a first-rate prose stylist with a natural feel for detail and a light touch for humor; his book sounds a lot like what you would expect if E.B. White had qualified as an astronaut and flown to the moon.

 – Margaret Lazarus Dean, Leaving Orbit

 

I’m only halfway through Collins’ memoir Carrying the Fire, but I’m here to tell you he writes better than lots of people for whom the pen is the day job.

E.g. on being the new guy thusly assigned the unwanted task of testing devices to slow jets upon landing:

Arriving at the appointed spot, a deserted runway ending at the lake bed’s edge, the new test pilot is quickly strapped into the oldest, most dilapidated jet he has ever seen, a model long since abandoned by even the South American air forces. Peering down through cobwebs and birds’ nests, he is shown the one and only shiny new gauge in the cockpit – the airspeed indicator, all-important in delivering a precise reading of the amount of kinetic energy (one half the mass times velocity squared) the engineer demands for a given test run. The engineer has consulted his slide rule, charts, computer, and astrologer, and screams up to the cockpit over the whine of the engine, which the sweating pilot has finally managed to start with laconic advice from a disgusted mechanic who obviously feels personally insulted by having been sent this imbecile. “Say… er… er… is it Collins? O.K., Collins, we need eight-two knots on this one, no faster please, Collins.” They need the name to put on the accident form.

 

Speaking of laconic, here’s what he has to say about the mortality rate of pilots during training (NB his prior stateside training for combat in Korea, not to be a test pilot):

Continue reading “Master and Command Module Pilot”

March of Folly

 

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Some years ago I spent three happy weeks in a town outside Paris. There was a tourism office, and as it was July, I stopped in to ask if there were festivities for Bastille Day.

Now, in French the word for parade is défilé. So it is possible that, what with my accent, the lady at the desk was maintaining admirable sang-froid in the face of a shockingly indecent request. Still, though, it seemed like I’d asked when the next school committee meeting was.

“Well,” she replied. “There is something in the town square…”

So on July 14th I showed up and there were bleacher-style benches erected. I did not have trouble finding a seat. What followed was, by gum, solemn. Military units marched by, and the mayor or whoever gave a speech, and that was that. No one ate cotton candy.

 

***

 

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My friend Will served a decade in the estimable What Cheer? Brigade. He’s probably marched in more parades than you, Gentle Reader, have had hot dinners.

“You know the thing about parades?” he once told me. “Most people watching look miserable.”

 

Continue reading “March of Folly”

The Nimrod Variations

 

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Jules, if you give that… nimrod fifteen hundred dollars, I’m going to shoot him on general principle.

-Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction

 

Listening to Radio Free Amazon the other day I was all: But soft, this is my jam! But the thing was I didn’t know what it was. So I lifted myself off the couch to investigate. Such are my sacrifices to Apollo.

It was “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Nimrod was once Merriam-Webster’s word of the day. Check out the accompanying brief podcast. Maybe I’ve spent too much of my life in middle school, but I defy you not to crack up when the guy says “the legendary nimrod.”

Anyway, this documentary on the legendary Elgar is aces. Success did not come easy for E, but he had that Growth Mindset.

 

 

Sic Transit

 

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I watched a documentary on Chicago the other night. Quite a career, transforming from a rather terrific horn band – with Hendrix-approved guitarist – to earnest power ballad millers.

I did spill my bedtime tea when I saw Peter Cetera wearing, in this video, a Bauhaus t-shirt. It’s got the artwork from their “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” single:

 

 

Admittedly, not as shocking as learning Serge Gainsbourg once autographed a copy of “Je t’aime… moi non plus” for Albert Speer, but still.

Here are some other melon-twisting musical facts I have of late accumulated:

  • The guitarist for the Police is 75
  • Pete Townshend was an editor at Faber & Faber
  • The drummer for Culture Club auditioned for the Clash

Well, that’s enough to lay on you for now. Until next time, Gentle Reader, know this: you’re the meaning in my life.

 

 

Career Coach

 

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Bill Belichick is one of the greatest coaches of all time, especially for the workplace. Bosses should take these pages from his playbook.

Look for Talent Everywhere

The current Patriots roster not only includes players who fielded different positions in college, but those who played lacrosse, rugby, and other sports. Belichick saw skills or traits in each of them that led him to believe they could succeed elsewhere. The obvious example is Julian Edelman, told throughout college he was too small to be a quarterback. His size and quickness make him ideal for wriggling through tackles on kick returns, and evading coverage as a wide receiver.

The Situation

Quick: what’s the maximum numbers of plays you can run with 34 seconds on the clock and three timeouts? Or, on fourth and 17, down by 10 with two minutes left, should you go for the touchdown or kick a field goal?

The Patriots tend to prevail over their opponents (most famously, Seattle, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh) in such moments because they practice these exact situations. In an office setting, it stuns me how often we fail to practice situational football.

How many salespeople actually conduct dress rehearsals before presentations? Or – instead of the standard interview – have potential new hires submit proposals and undergo scenario tests? Or even A/B test email campaigns? (E.g. for a campaign of 30,000, first send to a subset of 300 recipients, trying out different subject lines to see which version gets read the most. That one? Use it for the other 29,700.)

Coach Early and Often

Pundits were astonished to see Belichick turn his back to the field of play during the Super Bowl so that he could give his players pointers. Most coaches would save such advice for film study –  they don’t have the confidence in their staff to delegate while play goes on. And yet –  in my experience – what separates coaching from instruction is the continuous nature of the former. Moreover, by far, the two best times to coach someone are immediately after the mistake and immediately before the next time they attempt the task. (You wouldn’t train a dog by scolding it three days after it peed on the rug; nor does this time lapse in feedback succeed in the workplace.)

Let It Go

This is my favorite. During Belichick’s tenure, he’s had at least a dozen assistant coaches come and go; some have become his competitors. Only by such “flight risk” can bosses ensure they fully cultivate talent. Opening the door, and encouraging our subordinates to walk through it, demonstrates trust and empowers them to do their best – even if it means seeing good people leave.

 

 

Note: As is evident from the business acumen, I didn’t write this. My friend Ben Poor did. He lives in New York City and is a sharp dressed man. He will beat you at poker.

 

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

 

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A few years back I lived across the street from a Ghanaian man. One day I expressed to him my condolences on the death of Ghana’s president, whose obituary I’d just read. Kind of weird, yes, but it seemed the neighborly thing to do.

In that neighborly spirit, I offer condolences to all of us on the passing of Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah.

***

Some of my ancestors are from Norway, and I spend my weekdays with many students from other countries our president recently discussed.

I will concede that what’s most important in all of this is not my feelings, but I also wish to record it was crummy to feel the urgent need to assure my kids that America values them.

(Fine, I should be doing that anyway. I’d prefer to be otherwise inspired, though.)

 

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During college I went to see Senator Paul Tsongas, then running for president, give a speech. He told a story about his Peace Corps days in Ethiopia, and seeing on the wall of a villager’s home a photo of JFK. He asked if we should expect the same with our current president. There was much wry laughter, including mine.

His question bears repeating, but not amusement.

 

#Unclubbable

 

 

Aristippus going to dinner passed Diogenes washing garlic in a gutter. He said to him, “Poor Diogenes, if you knew how to get on with people you wouldn’t have to live like that.”

“Poor Aristippus,” said Diogenes, “if you knew how to live like this you wouldn’t have to get on with people.”

– The Ancient Greeks, Morton Smith

 

PS I’m moving to London:

There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubbable men in town. No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the Stranger’s Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, allowed, and three offences, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion.

– “The Greek Interpreter,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

 

Holly Jolly

 

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It’s the next time of the year, as Twin 2 sings, and the exigencies of the Yule preclude further posts until thereafter. But do read about this Christmas tree.

 

PS oh by golly etc.

 

Three Pointers

 

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Need a little Yuletide cheer? Consider these activities.

1. Do You Hear What I Hear?

If you see a kid walking along bouncing a ball, order him to stop. Then say, all stern-voiced, “I need you to understand something. Are you listening to me?” The kid will nod. Hold your index finger to your temple and say, “No, I need you to really listen. Are you listening to me?” The kid will nod. Then merrily cry “You should hold on to the ball!” and slap it out of his hands.

2. Good Tidings to You

Let’s say you see a bunch of kids playing basketball, and a kid misses a shot. Interrupt the game by wading in and demanding a quiet word with said kid. Pull him aside. Lower your voice and say, “You do know…” Then pause, as if unsure how to proceed, so delicate is the matter in question. “You are aware that the ball is supposed to go into the hoop, right?” (It’ll take the kid a second to get the joke but by gum it’s worth it.)

3. Let It Go

This is a good one. Next time you see a pickup game, halt the proceedings and ask for the ball. Walk to some improbably distant point from the basket and say, “Think I can hit it from here?” Dismiss their objections and begin a laborious process of preparation. Roll up your sleeves. Count paces to the rim and back. Scribble calculations in a notebook (this teacher keeps one in his shirt pocket; perhaps you should too). The kids should be getting impatient by now. Ask for complete silence, face the hoop, and take your final stance. Then fling the ball in some other direction.

 

 

For previous contributions to mirth, see General Hilarity and Reasons to Be Cheerful.