Sorry, Mr. President, It’s Not “Flee” New York, It’s “Free” Western New York

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If you’re from Greater Western New York, you love it. That makes you part of a long tradition. American patriots felt the same way during the Revolutionary War. In 1779, George Washington dispatched General Sullivan to thwart the British and their Iroquois allies based in Western New York from continuing their lethal terror attacks on the small towns and settlements along the edge of the then New York frontier. When Sullivan’s troops first laid eyes on the beautiful landscape, they immediately knew where they wanted to spend the rest of their lives: Western New York.

Why would you be any different? And yet, living in Western New York too often becomes a burden. Although not as bad as it was decades ago, outsiders continue to disrespect our region. We’ve been the butt of late-night TV jokes. Organizations routinely bypass our bounty, lured by promised riches from others. Even our own state leaders forsake us. We’ve seen this as recently as when the New York-Albany axis decided to use our Continue Reading “Sorry, Mr. President, It’s Not “Flee” New York, It’s “Free” Western New York”

After the Fall

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I grew up with concrete driveways. That’s what happens when your father and your grandfather were professional masons. I hated those concrete driveways in the winter. All my friends had blacktop driveways. Blacktop driveways retain heat better. When the snow falls on blacktop driveways, it melts (at least at first), making shoveling easier. When it falls on concrete driveways, it doesn’t melt. Try shoveling that. I vowed my house would have an asphalt driveway.

Of course, in those freak lake effect events, the snow accumulates quickly. Especially when it’s cold. Even blacktop driveways can’t help you with the shoveling.

That’s not the only way blacktop driveways can disappoint you.

Asphalt – the material of which blacktop driveways consist – tends to be more flexible than Continue Reading “After the Fall”

The Decade the Music Died

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We’re a few days away from February 3rd. It’s a day that forever lives in Rock and Roll infamy.

It was on a cold winter’s night precisely sixty years ago – February 3, 1959 – that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson boarded a Beechcraft Bonanza and found Rock and Roll heaven in a barren cornfield outside of Clear Lake, Iowa.

Much has been written about this, including two film biopics (The Buddy Holly Story in 1978 starring Gary Busey and La Bamba in 1987 starring Lou Diamond Phillips). Perhaps the seminal tribute, though, remains Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie.” It was his song that first used the phrase “the day the music died” to describe the plane crash that took the lives of those young rock stars.

I’m not going to add to the litany of previously published thoughts on “the day the music died.” Rather, I’m going to share with you a conversation I had with a reporter. We sat at a high table in The Menches Brothers Restaurant in Green, Ohio (between Akron and Canton, for those using a GPS). I sipped my Diet Pepsi as the reporter asked me questions about what inspired me to write Hamburger Dreams (my latest book that looks at the evidence refuting and supporting the various hamburger origin stories).

At one point, he asked if I had written any other “food” books. I mentioned A Pizza The Action (albeit it’s more about business than food). Then I added that I had penned a short article on my grandfather’s pizzeria, mapping its beginning to the emergence of Rock and Roll.

That’s when the fun started. Little did I know this reporter, though nearly my age, still Continue Reading “The Decade the Music Died”

Would You Rather Be Free or Equal?

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I call it the “Dichotomy Game.” It acts as a great conversation starter. I use it for more than that. But that’s another story. I will, however, explain how you can play it at home with your friends and family.

First, everyone must remove any self-imposed restrictions on their imagination. You need to think with complete freedom, without the artificial constraints of peer pressure, political correctness, of fear of being made fun of. In other words, you must be completely honest with yourself and with the other folks playing the game.

Ok, have you limbered up those rusty synapses in your brain? Now it’s time to create a list of dichotomies. A dichotomy is a pair of words. In the game you look at each pair of words presented and choose one. Then the game begins.

A word about dichotomies: these aren’t randomly selected pairs of words. They are carefully chosen to cause those aforementioned synapses to fire intensely. (Don’t worry, this mental heat is what fuels the fun in the game).

Here’s a trick that will help you choose enticing dichotomies. To get the gist of this trick, Continue Reading “Would You Rather Be Free or Equal?”

This is What Public Speakers Can Learn from Aristotle’s Greatest Mistake

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Spoiler Alert: I can only reveal once you fully appreciate the useful parts of Aristotle’s idea.

Have you ever had to – or will you ever have to – speak in front of an audience? It could have been (or be) an audience of one hundred or an audience of one. In either case, you may have noticed what happens when you’re in the audience watching other people speak. Sometimes you enjoy the presentation, sometimes you’re bored to tears. And it’s not based on the nature of the subject.

Here’s why.

Most speakers employ some variation of Aristotle’s Model of Communication. While roughly based on his Treatise on Rhetoric, it does not directly incorporate the persuasive tools Aristotle outlines in that classic volume. Indeed, neither does it involve the five canons of rhetoric, although this makes more sense since Cicero identified them centuries after Aristotle’s death.

Still, despite the lack of these important communication components, there’s another, more important, reason why Aristotle’s Model of Communication often fails. To best grasp the reason for this failure – and how to either avoid it or take advantage of it – you need to understand why this model has been both popular and effective.Continue Reading “This is What Public Speakers Can Learn from Aristotle’s Greatest Mistake”

The Aging Curse

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I sit here watching as Rob Lowe tells us in so many words of the highs and lows of the decade of the 1980s. As I view old news clips of thin ties and big bouncing perms with their constant fluttering curls, I sadly lament the innocence lost, the people lost, the dreams lost. I see in those once thin and optimistic faces the images of people I have known. Not all of them, but far too many.

In those faces I saw the hope for the future, a future that would never be. I lament those souls of time past. Perhaps it’s the need for the National Geographic Channel to turn every story – real or imagined – into a cathartic Greek tragedy. As I reflect, though, I come to realize that perhaps the Greeks were right after all. All life is hubris. And hubris leads to downfall. Catharsis becomes necessary to cleanse that hubris from our psyche.

Without this purification, dreams go unachieved. The temptations of everyday life divert us. They lure us from our critical path to success. They take us away from what we truly aspire to be. Instead, they have us accept the shallow trappings of a material world.

“Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” read a popular bumper sticker from the 1980s. Those who lived by this “Greed is Good” credo may have found success in the short-term. As I see the cavalcade of faces float across my television screen, however, I see faces that weren’t realizing their own dreams, but living the false siren of Madison Avenue. Rather than becoming the elite they so imagined themselves to be, they reduced themselves to that hoi polloi they so loathed.

And so I go on, listening to the serious voice of a dire Rob Lowe recount what I had lived through. I’m compelled by the desire to go back in time, grab the lapels attached to those buoyant yet naïve smiles, and shake them in hopes of breaking that evil spell.

Then I remember, that message was always there. Again, it was the hustle and bustle of the unyielding rat race that spoke in volumes loud enough to captivate so many. Those faces had to try very hard to hear the message that would lead them to their dreams. You can’t blame them if the distracting din proved too flashy. You shouldn’t blame them.

What you can do is learn from history, learn from the mistakes of others.

It begins with recognizing the traps wasn’t merely wanton materialism. That’s easy to identify. Most of us no longer idealize Madonna’s “Material Girl” and therefore don’t fall for the feckless lure of the material world.

Believe it or not, there’s a trap much sneakier than materialism. It is the antithesis of such flamboyance. It is mundane. It is routine. It is the run-of-the-mill activity you experience each and every day. That omnipresent “to-do” list that governs your very being. That’s what keeps you from achieving your dreams.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” You’ve probably heard this quote many times. In 1957, Reader’s Digest attributed this adage to Allen Saunders, a cartoonist of such serials as “Steve Roper,” “Mary Worth,” and “Kerry Drake.” If you think about it, the quote fits perfectly in the “organization man” era of post-World War II America (William Whyte’s bestselling book by that name came out in 1956). In the 1950s, it wasn’t so much Madison Avenue that called the shots as it was the corporate boardroom.

Although the anti-establishment mandate of the 1960s and the entrepreneurial era of the 1980s effectively muted the stultifying bondage of the organization man, the feeling never quite left us. Two major recessions (1991 and 2008/2009) curbed our economic enthusiasm. Those events caused us to fall back into the familiar comfort of the organizational cocoon. So we make plans on how to survive from day-to-day.

Today, we subordinate our long-term dreams for the perceived imperatives of the short-term. Go back to that to-do list for a moment. Image the delight you feel when you cross off an item. It pleases you. It inspires you to take the action required to cross off another item.

This is quite natural behavior. It’s the basis of most games. It’s what leads to success. It’s what makes us achieve our dreams.

So, what’s holding us back?

It’s the composition of that to-do list. If the tasks consist only of day-to-day “needs,” then when it’s all said and done, you’ll look back sorrowfully at a life spent merely spinning wheels.

On the other hand, take a moment and consider your long-term dreams. What is the sequence of milestones you need to accomplish to make that dream a reality? Now, imagine your to-do list consists of a healthy mixture of your daily tasks and your long-term tasks (hint: start small with the latter). This allows you to use the immediate gratification of crossing off those short-term tasks to motivate you to begin crossing off those long-term tasks. Doing this will propel you towards your lifetime dreams.

It’s the curse of getting older that you see with sadness the lost dreams of so many. In contrast, it’s a blessing that age permits you to learn from the success of others, from those who have achieved their dreams.

It’s not rocket science. It’s discipline.

The kind of discipline we are all capable of.

Uncertainty Breeds Opportunity

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Uncertainty creates anxiety. It doesn’t have to be that way. For gamblers, warriors, and investors, uncertainty signals opportunity.

Your opponents sitting across the card table from you don’t know the hand you’re holding. Skilled players learn to take advantage of this uncertainty by bluffing their way to higher jackpots. These players accomplish this by both encouraging those with lesser hands to call their bets and intimidating those with better hands to fold. Expert poker players study how to marshall, disguise, and portray their emotions in ways to fool their opponents. That’s how gamblers win.

Similarly, seasoned generals understand the fog of war offers the opportunity to mask Continue Reading “Uncertainty Breeds Opportunity”

50 Years Ago When the Earth First Rose

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It was the first time I flew in a plane. It was the first time I skipped school. It was the first time we took a “real” family vacation.

It would be the first time we wouldn’t be home for Christmas. It would be the first time we’d be having Christmas with no snow. It would be the first time a young astronomy enthusiast would discover his own Christmas “Stars.”

December 1968. California still had a sparkle of promise. When all those who defined cool were still busying themselves leaving on the last train for the coast.

We weren’t leaving. We were just visiting. Courtesy of American Airlines. The excitement derived from all those firsts overshadowed the fact we wouldn’t be spending the Holy Day with the extended family we grew up with. On the other hand, my father no doubt looked Continue Reading “50 Years Ago When the Earth First Rose”

George and Me

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Bush turned to me and said, “C’mon, let’s put our arms around each other to show everyone we’re friends.”

You may not remember this. Leonard Zelig was the kind of ordinary everyday man who  you’d expect to live an ordinary everyday life. Somehow, though, he managed to find himself regularly appearing with extraordinary celebrated people during extraordinary celebrated events. Leonard Zelig isn’t a real person. Never was. Yet Woody Allen’s brilliant 1983 mockumentary Zelig left theater-goers thinking he was.

It seems like we all have our Leonard Zelig moments. We live each ordinary day in an ordinary way. Then, fate brings us face-to-face with extraordinary people in extraordinary times. Think about the times you’ve found yourself at the same shop with a movie or TV star – someone who seems so distant because our only connection to them is through some unapproachable media context. When we’re young, that can be a very exciting thing. As we age, we come to understand those distant stars are no different than us.

Like you, I’ve had my fair share of close encounters. Like the time I rode the train seated across from Pearl Bailey. (Don’t remember her? Read “My Lunch with Pearl Bailey,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, September 13, 1990, to find out more about the incident and the subject.) I always tried my best to be polite and respect the person as a person. (Except in the case of John Dean, who, while having dinner with him, I bluntly said, “You Continue Reading “George and Me”

Thanksgiving Leftovers

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If your family is like our family, you’ve no doubt dined on Thanksgiving dinner for, oh, about five days. Nothing says “Thanksgiving” more than “leftovers.” It is in that spirit that I offer these remnants that somehow never were able to make a complete plate:

Why is it we always end up with more turkey than we started with (as in, a 21-pound turkey yields 25 pounds of leftovers)?

Will the Redskins ever beat Dallas on Thanksgiving?

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Bohemian Rhapsody (the story of the rock band Queen) was much more enjoyable than Continue Reading “Thanksgiving Leftovers”