Podcast: Open Letter to the Children of Robert McNamara

I’s been over 50 years, but I am finally apologizing.

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Open Letter to the Children of Robert McNamara

Dear McNamara Children,

This is a belated apology.  I have been meaning to set things straight, but the right moment never materialized, and now it has been over 50 years.  However, my guilt came flooding back as I watched the recent Ken Burn documentary on the Vietnam War.  Night after night I saw your father, with his slicked back hair, ramrod straight part and rimless glasses.  He was an intimidating figure as Secretary of Defense, standing in front of a map of Vietnam with the menacing China and Russia seeping down from above.

You must understand that I was watching him at the same time our neighbors were building a bomb shelter in their basement and we were having bomb drills at school.  At the sound of the alarm we all rushed to crouch beneath our desks with our hands on top of our heads.  But even at age 12, I knew this was a useless exercise.  That flimsy desk could never protect me from an atom bomb.  I counted on your father to save me.

And then I saw him in the flesh.  Perhaps you remember a family spring break ski vacation in Utah in 1964.  My family was there too.  Your father brought an air of celebrity to the entire resort and everyone treated your family with the utmost deference.  My ski school instructor scuttled us to the side of the slope as your father passed.  I have a distinct memory of his smiling face as he whizzed by in baggy ski pants, his greased down hair totally unperturbed by the blowing wind.  I looked at him and thought, “How can this man be taking a vacation.  How could he be smiling?  Isn’t the Communist threat a serious business?  Who’s manning his post back in Washington?

One day I arrived at the lift line at the same time as your father.  Then he did the unthinkable.  He cut in line.  In my suburban grade school,  my only exposure to social justice was simple:  No cuts.  It was inviolate.  Line cutters were bullies, the worst sort of kids, deserving universal scorn.  I didn’t care whether your father was the only thing between and me and the Commie horde, your father cut in line.  It was unforgiveable.

I fumed.  At lunch I saw my opportunity for retribution.  I couldn’t get back at the mighty McNamara, but you kids were in my ski school and emerged as surrogate targets.  I looked at the youngest and blurted out the meanest thing I could think of.  “You know, there is no such thing as Santa Claus.  I mean it.  He isn’t real. Your parents are lying to you.”  I remember mouths hanging open, and a little drop of milk hanging from one of your lips as you sat in stunned silence.

Yes, it was me.  I was the one who punctured the greatest hoax of childhood, drained the magic out of Christmas.

I immediately felt remorse.  I had turned into a vindictive bully, worse than a line-cutter.  Any regrets quickly turned to abject fear.  What would your father do to me if you told him about my indiscretion?  Robert McNamara, the man who held the fate of nations, who sent young men off to remote rice paddies, there was probably nothing he couldn’t do to me.  Apologizing and admitting my guilt would only exacerbate the situation.  I wanted to slink away and hide forever.

Now I want to make amends.  So here it is.

I am very sorry for my unwarranted cruelty.  I am ashamed that I turned into the person I did not want to be. 

Wait a minute, now I am rethinking this.  Maybe I did you a favor.  My Santa Claus reveal was perhaps your introduction to the fine art of the dissembling and deception of adults.  Maybe it prompted a critical and questioning mind that has served you well over the years. And perhaps you began to understand the tyranny of the lie, that once established it is so difficult undo.  Armed with this knowledge, perhaps you were better able to understand the agony of your father as he absorbed the guilt of Vietnam.

Okay, who am I kidding here? Forget it, I’m overstepping.  Just please accept my apology.

Sincerely,

Liza Blue

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Final Expenses

Who wants to hear the word death out loud?  For advertisers, the answer is nobody, and they work hard to avoid this basic fact of life.  Pharmaceutical ads are required to list potential complications.  So the taboo word must be spoken, but few can appreciate the word death midst dreamy images of puppies and walks along the beach.

Those watching crummy TV or afflicted with insomnia are treated to the machinations of the death industry itself.  Typically a middle-aged couple bemoans the fact that they’ve been forced to shell out coveted savings for their parents’ funeral.  They don’t look pissed, but underneath I bet they’re seething.  Then a cheerful neighbor pops in to report that she just got her check from Dominion Life, which paid for her father’s “final expenses.”  The obvious solution to avoid lingering resentment is a burial policy to pay for funeral expenses – the casket, the flowers, the plot and various other sundries.   However, the word funeral, burial or death is never uttered during these ads.

I am the target demographic for these advertisers.  Recently flushed out of the sandwich generation myself, I admit that vague thoughts of mortality have inched their way forward, but I’m irritated by the bland euphemism of “final expenses.”  The word “death” may seem a bit harsh, but why not take advantage of the creativity of the English language and use the clever and amusing euphemisms for death?  Lighten up and make it fun.

Here is my script for a “final expenses” ad.  I’ve tried to use as many expressions as possible, but the sheer number suggests that different expressions could be rotated through to create a whole campaign.

Warning:  The following ad may contain material that is offensive to sensitive viewers who are uncomfortable with the reality of death.  However, this ad does not contain the “D” word, but instead uses the colorful idioms that enliven our English language.  Motivated viewers are referred to Mark Twain’s essay “Death in Nevada” where a rustler and a clergyman talk in their own euphemisms for death, and as a result are incomprehensible to each other.  In fact, Mark Twain may have popularized the term “kick the bucket.”

Scene:  Kitchen counter, two neighbors talking:

Delores:  Mindy how are you doing?  I heard that your father went toes up last month.

Mindy:  Yes, my father finally bought the farm, but he was ready.  He’d been swimming away from the dock these last months and now he’s peacefully pushing up daisies.  Just look at all these bills for the funeral.  Motions to a pile of envelopes strewn across the counter.   I don’t know how we’re going to pay for all of this without dipping into our daughter’s wedding money.

Delores:  Mindy, didn’t your parents have Crossing the Rainbow Bridge insurance?  Mine did.  Look here’s the check I just got.  It paid for the all the expenses when my father joined the choir eternal.

Mindy:  Do you think that it’s too late for me?  Do I have to have a medical exam?  What if I am about to croak?

Delores:  No worries, a medical exam isn’t required, but if you do kick the bucket right away there might be a two-year waiting period for the policy to pay out, and it might not pay out that much more than what you put in.

Mindy: Hmm.. I think I understand.  This is like forced savings.  I can either spend on my kids now, or save money so that my daughter can spend on me later.  Interesting choice, she’d probably want the money now, and just do an ashes to ashes thing when I sprout wings.

Delores:  Mindy, you’re right.  Money now is a great temptation, but personally I do want the horizontal phone booth when I go to sleep with the fishes. I don’t want my family to pay for my cement overcoat.  I’m going to shuffle off this mortal coil with equanimity knowing that my family won’t begrudge the celebration of my big dirt nap.

Mindy:  Delores, thanks for this great advice.  I’m like you, when I assume room temperature and go to my reward, I want to spare my children what I’ve been faced with.  I want them to throw in my towel with gratitude and good cheer.

End Scene

The following are euphemisms collected from various slang dictionaries sorted into vague categories.  These could go by in a crawl beneath the ad.
Mob style

Wear a cement overcoat

Sleep with the fishes

Deep-six

Mining Style

Go up the flume

Hand in your lunch pail

Put to bed with a shovel

Agrarian Style

Push up daisies

Bought the Farm

Bite the dust

Go into the fertilizer business

Examine the radishes

Picking radishes from below

Become a root inspector

Picking turnips with a step ladder

Become a landowner

Cowboy Style

The last round up

Happy hunting ground

Navy Style

Slip one’s wind

Cut the painter

Take the ferry

Swim away from the dock

Lose the number of one’s mess

Answer the last roll call

Go to Davy Jones’ locker

Cribbage style

Peg out

Party Style

Definitely done dancing

Finally got his tab called at the bar of life

Avian style

Yield the crow a pudding

Turn over the perch

Swan song

Frog Style

Croak

Hop the twig

Travel Style

Take the ferry

Booked on the Gravesend bus

Go up green river

Wandering the Elysian fields

Crossing the River Styx

Taking an all expense paid trip aboard the Stygian cruise line

Heavenly Style

Meet your maker

Climb the golden staircase

Push clouds

Shoot one’s star

Sprouted wings

Cleaned the trumpet

Cross the rainbow bridge

Sports Style

A race well run

Juggling halos

Climb the greasy pole

Traded to the Angels

Cuisine Style

Ate it

Lose the number of one’s mess

Lay down one’s knife and fork

Stick one’s spoon in the wall

Worm food

Vegas style

Cash in your chips

Throw in the towel

Deal the final hand

Philatelic Style

Stamped returned to sender

ET Style

Called home

Author Style

That’s all she wrote

Permanently out of print

Shuffle off this mortal coil (Shakespeare)

Pot Pourri

Curtains

Pay one’s debt to nature

Go over to the majority

Six feet under

Snuff one’s glim

Put into one’s cool crepe

Medical Style

Assume room temperature

Metabolic processes are history

Living-impaired

Tending toward a state of chemical equilibrium

Wear a toe tag

Kicked the O2 habit

… and my personal favorite

Baste the formaldehyde turkey!

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Podcast: Final Expenses

The word “death” is taboo to advertisers.  Here is my solution.

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The Day We Burned a Piano

Nick  and I stood in the empty living room quietly staring at the piano.  We had sold the farm after my parents died and now were clearing it out for the new owners.  Some of the contents stayed with the house and others were distributed among siblings, but the piano was unclaimed.  What were we going to do with it?   I couldn’t bear the idea of trekking back up to the farm with a rented van and finding someone to help me load it. Where was I going to take it anyway?  Phil, the neighbor who lived at the end of the driveway, walked in and stood with us.  Minutes ticked by.

Suddenly Phil said, “Let’s burn that fucker.”

Okay, the piano wasn’t worth much.  After all, it was a player piano.  You inserted a paper roll of music with punched out holes.  A motor, which made the piano really heavy, turned the roll and out came the music, but only barely recognizable since the holes were hard to line up properly.   But who burns a piano? That seemed sacrilegious.  A piano represents music, the arts and creativity.  Wouldn’t it be like torching a set of Dickens or a printing press?  Burning Mozart, Bach, Alicia Keys at the stake?  And is a piano even flammable, aren’t there a lot of wires and metal in there?

Phil’s solution hung in the air. Then the two of us spoke in unison, “Yeah, let’s burn it!”

We lurched and heaved the piano into the back of Phil’s pick-up truck.  While we packed up the rest of the sundries (I still have a roll of wax paper from the farm) Phil drove the piano somewhere into the back field, dumped it, poured gas over the frame, and lit it.   I felt too guilty to watch.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the incident came flooding back in exquisite detail.  I heard our voices echoing in the empty living room and saw the discolored patches on the wall where pictures had hung.  Dead flies and one moth dotted the windowsill and the slanting sunlight highlighted a vast collection of dust motes.  I pictured Phil standing there in his stained Carhart jacket and cracked work boots, holding a spit cup for his chaw of tobacco.  Why did I remember this incident at all, and why did it come bubbling up as Nick and I sat quietly reading the paper?

My thoughts drifted back to the colorful fifteen-year chapter in my parents’ retirement.  They had bought a weekend hobby farm in Wisconsin, an hour and a half from their suburban home north of Chicago.  Neither of them had any farming skills, but they warmed to the idea of a unique project to fill their empty-nesting days.  Their farmhouse sat atop a hill overlooking a small pond, where their grandchildren spent many afternoons on a rope swing hung from an overhanging branch.  The rolling land was not ideal for farming, but was suitable for cross country skiing in the winter.  They grew some feed corn and raised a few beef cows.  My father liked to point out that the money he lost on the whole operation was tax deductible.

Phil, who worked at a nearby factory, became vital to the whole operation.  He would tell my father how many cows to buy, what kind feed to buy, what model of tractor to buy, and when to send the cows to the butcher.  When a cow died in the barn, Phil knew how to summon the renderer to pick up the bloated corpse.  Phil knew how to snake toilet but also to fix the snake.  He was the epitome of a boots-on-the-ground problem-solver.

My father would arrive on the weekend and start doing the chores Phil had set out for him.  I remember my father, wearing his trademark crisp khakis, shovel shit out of the barn while Phil supervised from the fence.  “What the fuck, Ralph put that crapload of shit over there,”  he barked and then spat.

My father looked up, a piece of straw stuck in his hair, and dutifully slung manure to the appointed spot.  His khaki pants became stained and worn, his hands cracked and calloused. The whole time that he worked the farm, I don’t think his hands were ever completely clean, but his standard was now Phil’s and that was good enough.  After a career in coat and tie with demanding clients, he appreciated uncomplicated physical labor.

Phil had the filthiest language imaginable, every sentence was studded with F-words, used as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, often strung together into a vulgar garland.  I doubt if my father used an F-bomb in his entire life, though I did hear him say “Bullshit” once. Now he could take vicarious pleasure in the company of a champion swearer.

Phil immediately cleaned up his language when my father’s suburban friends came to visit.  He didn’t swear in front of just anyone and my father was proud to be one of the chosen few, a visible sign of Phil’s acceptance and trust.  One of my father’s signature characteristics was his absolute lack of pretension.  He often referred to his suburban peer group as “swells” or “white shoe boys.”   Phil picked up on this; the acceptance was mutual.

My father would have looked to Phil for practical advice on the piano.  As I turned the memory over in my mind, I imagined Phil expanding on his advice to us, “Shit Ralph, what the fuck are you going to do with such a crap piano – it’s out of tune, plays like fuck, and the fucking asshole has not yet been born who would want the fucker.  Let’s burn it up.”  And like Nick and I, my father would have smiled and agreed, grateful for Phil’s brilliant plan, a solution we would never have thought of ourselves.  Who burns a piano?  Well why not?

I set my paper down and looked across at Nick.  “Hey, do you remember that time when we were getting rid of all the junk at the farm”

The  memory deepened as I realized that Nick’s presence was a key part of the event.  He had spent hours on all the negotiations and paperwork on the farm sale; the piano was merely mop-up duty.   There was no compelling reason for him to be there other than his unwavering support and love for my father.

Nick nodded and said, “You mean, ‘let’s burn that fucker’?”  We both smiled and returned to our reading.

I felt the comforting weight of our 37 year marriage.  The memory glowed quietly between us, perfect in every detail.  I knew that Nick was also thinking of the triangular relationship between Phil, my father and a smoldering piano.  I imagined the next owner walking through his field and puzzling over a pile of ashes mixed with metal bits and piano pedals.  If I could find that pile again, I would raise a toast to Nick, my father and Phil.

I now wanted to put the memory into regular rotation.  Over the years I have concocted family code phrases signaling that it is time to go.  For years the phrase has been, “Have you pleasured the bear?” derived from a sanitized punch line to an awkward joke we once heard at a banquet.  It is time to retire the bear.  As of this writing, here is our new family expression, “Are you ready to burn a piano?”

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Podcast: The Day We Burned a Piano

Who burns a piano?  Is it even flammable?  Aren’t there wires and metal in there?

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The Lost Seinfeld Episode

When I picked up my deck stain at the Sherwin Williams store, I realized I’d stumbled onto the perfect scenario for a Seinfeld episode.  I couldn’t believe that the beleaguered Seinfeld writers, who appeared to run out of ideas by the 9th season, missed this one.

I had just listened to a history of the Seinfeld show on my six-hour drive to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The audio book went into excruciating detail on the “show about nothing,” hammering away at the premise that the episodes focused on the minutiae of everyday life, taking a small incident beyond its logical extreme into the realm of absurdity.

I stared at the array of paint samples in the store.  Each had been given a specific name by someone who had clearly gone soft in the head in the process.  There was “laughing taffy” (i.e. pink), “blue bicycle” which was indistinguishable from “amidship.” I didn’t know what to make of “bunglehouse blue” other than it sounded like a raunchy bordello.  The color “grayish” looked exactly gray to me, there was no “ish” to it.

I immediately thought of the comedic possibilities for the character Elaine, who wrote the pretentious clothing descriptions for the J. Peterman catalog.  What if she received the assignment to name and to create a story about all the colors in the paint store?

The following is my script.

——-

Scene:  Jerry’s Apartment – Elaine and Jerry together.

Elaine:  Jerry, remember that J Peterman description of the dark brown jacket?

Jerry:  Yes, the oilskin jacket that is the color of the most beautiful brown horse you can ever imagine?

Elaine: Nods agreement.  Peterman told me that description doubled sales.

Jerry: I’m not surprised.  You see there are certain young girls who are, quite frankly, obsessed by horses.  And when they grow up to be women they still have this “je ne sais quoi” about anything that reminds them of a horse.  Some women just go for the horse. Worked for me last month. Continue reading

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Robert McNamara and Me

 

My first brush with greatness came in the mid-1960s on a Utah ski vacation that overlapped with Robert McNamara and his family.  As a preteen, I was only vaguely aware of the man.  My parents, who still had complete confidence in the government, never talked politics and rarely watched the evening news, and yet the snippets drifting through the ethos must have seeped into my psyche.  I could easily recognize him standing in front of a crude map of Vietnam, or pointing at a graph with rising zig zagging lines.  But his appearance made the most distinct impression – that slicked back hair oozing with grease, ramrod straight part and rimless glasses.  He looked like the epitome of steely-eyed control.  He scared me, but I wasn’t sure why.

At the ski area my unease deepened as I witnessed McNamara first hand.  This was a man you stepped aside for.  I remember standing in line for the chairlift watching McNamara and his family cut directly in front of us to the head of the line.  There was a strong undercurrent throughout the slopes, a frisson of excitement and awe. We were in the presence of greatness, breathing the same air, and sitting on the same chairlifts. It was here that I learned that he was the Secretary of Defense, in charge of stopping the spread of Communism, routinely making life and death decisions both for our country and individual families. Continue reading

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Podcast: Robert McNamara and Me

As a 12-year-old, speaking truth to power

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Marketing Unplugged: Super Foods

Going to the grocery store can be a dreary chore, so I reframe the trip as a contest of wills between me, the wily consumer, and marketers, eager to suck me in with their coveted eye-level shelf-space, flashy packaging and dubious health claims.

I have seen marketing terms come and go.  Natural, light, organic, craft, vine-ripened, and various iterations of fresh (farm fresh, fresh frozen, fresh picked, etc.) have all have grown stale with overuse.  The word “artisan” is in the process of being flogged to death.  When properly used the word implies a product that is individually made, perhaps a loaf of bread made by a stooped woman from the old country with knuckles gnarled from a lifetime of kneading.  Now McDonald’s has co-opted this word to describe its buns.  When I asked the cashier with the greasy hair and visible bra what makes the flattened bun “artisan,” she said, “How am I supposed to know?  Do you want it or not?”

The grasping maw of McDonald’s marketing department has perpetrated an identity theft on the true artisans of the world. Continue reading

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