Friday, October 24, 2008

The Living Eulogy

Over the past few years, I've spent a lot of time talking about the stories we share with employers, potential employers, and even ourselves. But I haven't spent too much time talking about the stories we tell our friends and loved ones. Or, more to the point, the stories we SHOULD be telling these people.

(If you would like to see the pictures mentioned below visit:

This is a bit of a departure from what I usually write, but I knew it was something I needed to share. I also knew I needed to do it immediately--before I changed my mind.

Last night, I went to the memorial service for Roman Block, the father of Parker Block, a close friend from grammar school. At the service, my dear friend Harry Wilson, who is now married to Parker's mother, Irene, leaned over and wondered aloud how it might have been for Roman to hear, firsthand, the outpouring of love, respect, and admiration. It made me wonder as well. Why do so many of us wait to collect our thoughts about how much people mean to us until after they are gone? These are the thoughts and memories we should be sharing while people are alive.

With this in mind, I decided to write a living eulogy for Harry to give him an earthly appreciation for just how much his friendship means to me. I share this with the hope it will inspire others to do the same, and to honor a dear friend. This is what I would say to the people Harry will someday leave behind:

I was fortunate to meet Harry during my last years in grammar school when he married the mother of my good friend, Parker Block. Harry was the first fine artist I had ever met. My earliest memories of Harry are of standing in the apartment he shared with Irene in Lake Point Tower, seeing his work up close, and listening to him talk about how powerfully people’s hands spoke to him. If memory serves, he had recently completed a series of large color pictures of characters he’d seen on the street who later came to life on his canvas. I can still picture the construction worker and the elderly African-American man who waited patiently while his wife shopped. In every case, there were The Hands--those powerful, compelling images that somehow told the story and captured the moment in every picture.

Sometime later, Harry showed me the image that remains my favorite to this day. The picture, which was done in a much more subdued, even understated style, showed a north suburban commuter waiting for the train as the wind carried a newspaper across the tracks in front of him. From then on, whenever I went to see Harry’s latest works, I made it a point to see the commuter picture. It was one of the first pictures I’d see when I walked into the apartment and the last one I saw before I left. One day, Harry told me about a show he did in which he put the picture on display. If I remember the story correctly, upon seeing the picture, a former C-level executive at Leo Burnett offered to buy it at any price. But alas, it wasn’t for sale. It was the picture Harry had given Irene as a wedding gift.

Even as a child, I remember thinking how much I wanted to own some of Harry’s work. That dream came true not long after I started working at Leo Burnett, Harry’s former employer. Over the years, I had fallen in love with his many styles and finally had the opportunity to purchase the first of the ten originals I now own. Although I was concerned it might offend his artistic sensibilities, I even took a chance and commissioned Harry to recreate the commuter picture I loved so much. To his credit, Harry used the opportunity to give the same subject matter a slightly different treatment. The result? Another gorgeous picture in my collection.

Click here to see the new version of "The Commuter"

Over the years, many friends and visitors to my home have commented on Harry’s work. A few reached out to Harry and purchased originals of their own. In 1997, Eddie From Ohio, a Virginia-based band, saw his picture “Flying Through The Universe In A Lime Green Hat” in my book and purchased the rights to use it on the cover of their next CD, Big Noise. In my ongoing efforts to promote Harry, the Eddie From Ohio deal gives me the most pride.

Click here to see "Flying Through The Universe in a Lime Green Hat"

The picture in my collection that gets the most attention is “Believe in What?”, a incredibly detailed pen-and-ink drawing Harry did of a concentration camp victim. Harry created the image using an architectural pen he modified to use at angles beyond the 90 degree angle it is usually limited to. After I purchased the picture, the first person to see it was the fine artist from Ross Wetzel Studios who helped Harry and me pick out a frame. I still remember how the woman looked at Harry in awe and said, “As an artist, I’m really embarrassed to ask, but how long did this take?” Harry responded, “So long, I almost went crazy.”

In late 2007, Harry acquired what may be his youngest fan, my little friend, Steele. Steele was about 3 ½ when he stood staring at “Believe in What?” without saying anything. After a few minutes, he began to ask questions about who the person was, why he hadn’t eaten, whether or not he was OK now, and why it happened in the first place. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I remember being genuinely shocked at Steele’s level of interest and his ability to probe about what was really going on in the picture.

Have you ever tried explaining the Holocaust to a toddler? Trust me, it’s not an easy road to go down. Even though I chose my words carefully and made every effort to be vague, I couldn’t escape the feeling that Steele already had an understanding of the sadness, disappointment, and confusion experienced by both Harry and his subject. And, for what may have been the first time in my life, I found myself longing to talk about Thomas the Train rather than Harry Wilson.

Click here to see "Believe in What?"

I may be wrong about this, but I am proud to say I probably own more of Harry’s artwork than anyone outside his immediate family. I am honored to have in my home what rightfully belongs in a museum. Perhaps someday when the art world is smart enough to catch on, he will achieve lasting worldwide fame with the other artists he has long admired. Or maybe it’s up to me to start a museum of my own—The Harry Wilson Museum of Art: dedicated to recognizing and appreciating fine artists—while they are still alive! I really like the sound of that.

That’s a little history, but it doesn’t adequately convey who Harry is to me.

So how do I describe Harry? Well, that’s a bit of a challenge. I struggle to put my thoughts on paper because I’m not sure the English language has words or phrases that adequately capture our connection.

Is Harry Wilson a friend?
Absolutely. A dear friend. But there’s more to it than that. Most of my lifelong friendships have, as a basis, some shared experience like growing up together or working together at the same company. Harry and I grew up at different times. We worked at the same company, but years apart. Instead, our shared experience seems to exist in a parallel universe of sorts. We are decades apart in earth time, but the blink of an eye from the perspective of eternity. As one writer I know would put it, Harry and I are on the same road. He just caught an earlier bus.

The similarity in our journeys really struck me one day when Harry revealed a pen-and-ink drawing he had done of a little boy on a curving slide winding between the brownstone mansions on Lake Shore Drive. The picture, which was from a series he had done incorporating words and images, said simply:

“Riding past the rich people’s homes on Lake Shore Drive as an 8-year-old and dreaming.”

Like so many of his other pictures, this one spoke to me. But in a much more personal way. I was fortunate to grow up in Chicago on the 20th floor of 1000 N. Lake Shore Drive where I used to dream about putting a slide in from our apartment to Oak Street Beach. When I saw Harry’s picture with the caption, I was stunned. He and I had shared the exact same childhood fantasy—a few short decades apart. Naturally, I did the only thing I could think to do. I bought the picture.

Click here to see "Riding Past the Rich People's Homes..."

Is Harry Wilson a mentor?
Most definitely. But again, not in the traditional sense. What started out as a shared interest in the business of advertising evolved into an ongoing conversation about the business of life. Over the years, Harry has challenged me—in a helpful and much appreciated way—about the decisions I have made on my own entrepreneurial journey. At the same time, he remains one of my strongest supporters. Everyone should be fortunate enough to have a mentor, coach, and cheerleader like Harry.

Is Harry an honorary uncle?
As a description, “honorary uncle” works quite well. Harry really does feel like family to me. I especially love the concern in his voice when he inquires about my personal life. It’s so wonderful to have someone with Harry’s wisdom and experience to talk to about life and relationships. At the memorial for Roman Block, Harry asked a pointed question about what I was looking for in a woman and why, in 41 years, I hadn’t found her yet. I love that about him. It was a lot like when I was in my mid-30s and my dad casually mentioned he already had four kids by that age. The smart-ass in me wanted to say, “And how do you know I don’t?” Instead, it was one of those rare moments when I was actually able to live by a Buddhist principle I once heard in which, before you open your mouth, you are supposed to ask yourself, “Is what I am about to say an improvement over maintaining silence?” In that case, the answer was clear. So I mumbled something about how times have really changed. Then I changed the subject.

Is Harry Wilson a hero?
Harry is truly a hero. I have always admired Harry as an artist, an advertising professional, an honorary uncle, a person, a mentor, and a dear friend. I have also admired the way Harry constantly challenges himself and his beliefs. In this respect, his recent decision to audit a college philosophy course was just another step in his ongoing journey of self-discovery and introspection. This is a part of Harry I have always seen although, when we first met, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it.

I especially admire Harry’s willingness to admit his short-comings as well as the personal and professional mistakes he has made along the way. I have no doubt that Harry, like most of us, would do a few things differently given the chance. At the same time, I also sense a certain comfort in who he has become, how he got here, and his continuing ability to forgive himself for the missteps on his path. No one said it better than Harry himself on another picture I am truly fortunate to own:

“For a planet bursting with miracles. For happiness and sadness. For what little I accomplished and even more that I did not. For warm hellos and reluctant goodbyes. So glad I came here. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

I can’t sum it up any better than that.

Click here to see "I wouldn't Have Missed It For Anything"

Harry is a fantastic and wonderful human being. I have been blest by his friendship. My home is blest by his work. And we are all better for knowing him.

That’s why I love, admire, and respect Harry Wilson. And I am honored to have spent such a large part of my own journey as his friend.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Horrifying Example of Texting

During a brief visit to San Antonio and Waco, Texas last week, I woke up early to prepare for the workshops I was leading. Although I rarely turn on the television, I decided to watch one of the early morning business shows to get some insight into the wildly fluctuating markets. To protect the guilty, I am not going to reveal the show or the anchors in question--not in this forum anyway.

Shortly after I tuned in, the anchors started to discuss a large bank deal that fell through when one bank rescued another and was subsequently outbid by a third. One of the anchors offhandedly asked a rhetorical question like, "How would you like to get THAT call in the middle of the night and find out the deal was off?" Without missing a beat, the female anchor said, "Oh, I wouldn't have called. I would have texted."

Horrifying. Absolutely horrifying.

This is EXACTLY the kind of behavior I was talking about in my last post. I wish I had a tape of the segment because it was so telling. It was such automatic response, there was no question she was completely serious. This is disturbing on a number of levels.
First, it's sad that people behave this way at all. Second, she obviously doesn't see anything inappropriate or she wouldn't have mentioned it to millions of viewers. Third, what a terrible behavior for a national, if not international, celebrity to validate.

Communicating that a deal has fallen through is a prime example of a conversation that absolutely should be handled in person. If it can't be handled in person, for whatever reason, a real-time alternative like telephone or videoconference may be acceptable. But voicemail, email, and text are NOT acceptable. The only acceptable use of text in a scenario like this would be an urgent message like:

"There have been some unexpected developments we need to talk about at your earliest convenience. This is urgent. Please call."

Even then, a phone call or voicemail communicating the same message would be preferable. A text saying, "The deal is off" is DEFINITELY NOT appropriate.

Think about this next time you consider taking the easy way out.