Of Tchotchkes and Turtles

When I was a kid, my Dad attended one conference every year.   We went as a family and on one day of his conference, he would take me into the exhibit hall – and allow me to collect all the giveaways I could carry.  So armed with a bag (a give-away unto itself) I gathered up the rulers, notebooks, buttons and stickers and more items than I can remember that vendors at this educational meeting were offering – including turtles.

I honestly can’t tell you most of what I dropped in my bag, but I distinctly remember – some 40+ years later – that someone gave me turtles.  Two turtles.   Little ones. 

We brought them home, bought a bowl and turtle food and other decorations to make them feel ‘at home.’  I think they died a week or two later. 

I don’t think they made any impression on my Dad, at least not in a positive sense.

Years later, I am the owner of a marketing company that is often asked to create promotional items for our clients – for trade shows, events, or as sales call leave-behinds.   Over the years, I’ve come to understand 3 basic and simple rules:

1)      The item has to be memorable. 

When you hand it to someone, they say ‘Wow.”

 This doesn’t mean it has to be expensive.  But it does have to be different.  Whether you are passing it out in an exhibit hall, or handing it to a prospective buyer, it has to garner a reaction.  A positive reaction.  You want that customer to genuinely say ‘Thank you.”

 2)      It becomes part of their business or personal life. 

 Will it sit on their desk, reminding them (however subtly) of your company?  Will they use it – like a portfolio or a pen (more about pens another time) where they will see your logo in their daily business lives?  

 Or will they take it home?  A magnet he puts on the refrigerator, a notepad she puts by the phone, or even a silly thing to give to their kids. 

 Does it make an impact, deliver and re-deliver a message long after you place it in their hands? 

 3)      It says something about your company or product.

 Does this item remind the customer about what you do?  If you are a builder, a tape measure?  A computer company, how about a flash drive?  Got a catalogue of health products?  Give ‘em a loofa.   You get the idea.  Match the tchotchke to your business.  Let it help you deliver your message.

 Of course, these rules (like all rules) are made to be broken.  Your giveaway may be disposable – (candy, a bottle of water).  It may be a coupon.  Or a bowl of chips and dip in your exhibit area.  (We once gave away $1 table chip to a casino next to an exhibit hall.  It was a great promo.  But the casino took objection.  So, we converted the promo to a raffle where people could win a $1 token.  The casino was satisfied.  Oh, yeah, everybody won.)  

 Or maybe your promo item does no more or no less than to make them laugh.

 If It makes an impression – it works!

 Let’s face it, a pen, or t-shirt or $1 or a loofa doesn’t close a sale.  But, done right it adds that glimmer of a positive feeling about your company and products.   Hey, your customer may not even understand why they like you – but they do.

 If you are going to spend the money to put your logo, your message, your phone number and website and whatever other info you want your customers to see, on a little piece of something that really doesn’t close a sale, take your time.  Spend your money wisely (and it doesn’t have to be a lot).

 But, you have to work at it. 

 I’ve driven suppliers and clients crazy trying to find that ideal item.  My best vendors learned that I didn’t want to see catalogues – and the best one I’ve ever worked with walks into my office with a gleam in his eyes that says ‘wait until you see this!’ 

 And clients, the good ones (and they know who they are), have that same twinkle in their eyes as I reach into my bag to reveal my latest suggestion.

 (Yes, the tchotchkes I recommend to them are also sales tools for me!)

 But I wander off topic.  The topic is what works and why.  And there really is no magic bullet.  (And, to be honest, not all of my ideas have been home runs, and some potential big scorers I believed in weren’t to my clients’ taste.  But I think we won more than we lost.)

 That’s really all you can ask of a tchotchke.  To win one.  It is there to ask your customers and your prospective customers to remember you.

  In a positive way.

 Not like turtles.

 John Rice

 John Rice is an award-winning writer, author and video producer.  His company, Komedia Group  (www.komediagroup.com) has worked with companies including Sony Electronics, BMW, Mack Trucks and a lot of other clients that you may not have heard about – but you will. 

 [Next time: Let’s talk about the good and bad of pens.  And the best T-shirt I ever (accidentally) created for a client.]

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Of Baseball, and Beer and a Pool

It was time for us to leave our newlywed apartment and look for a house, a home to raise a family.  The quest was difficult, in a time when houses for sale were rare and interest rates were at double-digits.  Yet, on a Sunday afternoon, we found an open-house listed in a newspaper and went to take a look.

 It was nothing special, a split-level on a street we would later learn was busier that we suspected on that afternoon.  We liked it. 

 “There’s  a pool,” I said.  My wife smiled and said “Yeah!”

 We made an offer on the house that night.   We bought the house – with a pool.

 In the years we lived there, my personal goal was to spend at least as much time enjoying that pool as I spent enjoying it.  I don’t think the math ever worked in my favor. 

 But I miss that pool.

 I miss it on hot summer nights when I would grab a beer, turn on the radio to listen to a baseball game and drift in a floating lounge chair, with a cupholder, and let whatever baggage of the day wash away.

 Our sons were born in that house, and they swam in that pool.

 But we’re not there anymore. 

We moved, moved on – for better and for worse.   To a bigger, better house.  Then to a smaller house. 

We’ve never had another pool. 

We changed.

Don’t we all.

Was once a time when we were told, and we believed that we had nowhere to go but ‘up.’  The world was our oyster, or words to that effect.  We would be better than those who came before us.  We would be more sincere, more honest, more open, more active and  pro-active.  We would, and could, change the world.

We believed it.

We believed it on the banks of a hill of a concert drenched in rain.  We believed it in a crowd marching down a street with banners and singing songs.

We believed it at polling places.

We didn’t want pools, but that’s where many of us ended up swimming. 

We were a generation of change, but we didn’t really change anything, did we? 

We went swimming at midnight, with a beer and a ball game, with nary an apology to those ideals we once held high in our youthful commitments.

We wanted to change the world.  We settled for swimming pools.

So, I’m sitting here in an apartment, wondering why I don’t have a grandiose house on a hill (with a swimming pool). I’m wondering where I went this way instead of that way, and if those choices were as bad as they seem to have been.

I’m wondering where I drifted away from my ideals – with an acknowledgement that ideals don’t pay the rent – and decided only to live my life to pay the rent.  And, I’m wondering if the fact that I can’t always pay the rent might be, in some part, because I walked away from who I am.

I’m wondering if our old, somewhat compromised idea  that we could ‘change the world’, was an investment misspent.

I’m thinking that we can’t.

But I want to believe, with whatever folly, that we can.

And I miss my pool.

And I want to know why, and where I have failed.  And to be reminded of where, and why I have succeeded.

Because we all do (succeed and stumble).  We all win ones, and lose others, don’t we. 

And we all get up each morning, dust ourselves off, and go take on the new day.

Don’t we?

 Do we?

 It’s been a long time since I bought into the American dream.  I have seen classmates, friends, and colleagues tossed aside as their services are ‘no longer needed’.  I’ve watched great and brilliant people strive to re-invent themselves in a social and economic world that no longer values them – while they (and I) have admittedly failed to react, respond, re-learn, and redefine ourselves and a valued and valuable members of our new economy.

 Do we ‘get it?” Maybe.

 Can we be good at it? Absolutely.

 Can we still ‘Change the world?’  You better believe, we can.

 And we’ll find a pool, a baseball game and cold beer….

 And maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember how we got here, and our stumbles along the way…and where we need to go.

 If and when we do, step aside…and get ready to see where we are going.

 We have a pool. The water is fine.  Jump in.

 John Rice

8/9/2012

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To Fly

My grandfather died when I was 6 years old.  I have few, vague memories of the man.

 Yet one returns time and time again. 

 He was standing at the end of a long hallway as my family entered the door.  I ran to him and he caught me under my arms and lifted me high into the air.  For that moment, I was flying. 

 Flying.

 There is a photograph of my father holding me high in the air when I was a child.  I honestly don’t recall the moment, but the expression on my face tells me I knew I was flying.

 We wonder, I suspect, what it really means to be a Dad.   What is our responsibility?  What is it that we want to give our kids?  Safety?  Security?  Wisdom, as best as we might provide as we are looking for answers ourselves? 

 I have two sons.  Wonderful sons, wonderful men.  I have no idea how they turned out so well.  Really!

 I tossed them baseballs.  We sang songs (you know, the good songs from my era).  We ran on a beach.  We built snowmen.  We built fires and told stories.  We launched kites.

 They flew.

 I do not have any specific memory of me and my sons as strong as that moment when my grandfather lifted me to the sky, but I believe that I did toss them in the air – and that I was there to catch them.  As my grandfather did.  As my father did. 

 It is what Dads do. 

 I am nearing the age when my grandfather died.   My memory, admittedly that of a 6-year old, tells me I wanted more time with him.  My sons had more time with my father and I know what it means to them (although I can only guess at those ‘snapshot’ moments they recall.)

 As fathers and (potentially) grandfathers we can try to map out what we might do for our children and the children of our children.  We can provide for them, or we may fail.  We can be a model for them, or we may disappoint them.  We may want them to be like us – and then delight when they become better than us.  If we are good fathers, grandfathers, we are always there. 

 As fathers, we really only ask some simple things:

  •  To be everything we thought you could be – and be even better,
  • To call your mother,
  • To teach your children what we may have taught you – and add what you have learned.

 And never, ever forget, you can fly. 

 John Rice

6/16/2012 (Fathers’ Day Eve)

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Defining Moments

There are moments in time.  Defining moments.

 We may not know them when they happen, but they happen.  They happen all the time.

 Some are personal. Some impact our families, our communities, or nation or even our lanet.  They happen all the time.  Good or bad, or yet to be determined, there are moments that change us whether we want to be changed or not.

 Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play professional baseball in the U.S.  The game was forever changed.   Moment defined.

 Women were voted the right to vote.  Moment defined.

 A Catholic was elected President of the United States, and later a candidate of mixed color.  Moments defined.

 A hurricane devastated New Orleans; a man named Madoff became the poster child for financial dealings that rippled down to virtually everyone;  a bomb destroyed a building in Oklahoma City and planes brought down the World Trade Center in New York.   After each, we were re-defined.

 After each, we were different than we were before.

 Better?  In many ways, of course.  Who of us would have done for us what Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, the rioters at Stonewall did to help us change.  Who of us is not better for what those who stormed Normandy Beach, or those who dumped tea in Boston Harbor did for us?   

 Who of us cannot say that what has happened to us, before us has not shaped us?  And who of us can honestly say we are not better for it.

 No, all moments do not necessarily re-define or improve us – personally or communally.  We disagree as often as we agree.  And we often disagree as these ‘moments’ occur and their impacts slowly invade our national conscience.   But they impact us.  And, no matter how we feel about them, we are different because of them.  Maybe a day after, or a year, or a generation, or we just wake up one morning and know our world has changed. 

 That’s what we do.  We change.  We change for the better.   We get smarter, wiser…and as we were told in Sunday School or Temple or wherever we choose to reflect upon our beliefs and consciousness, we embrace that which is good, we discard that which is bad.  (And we ask forgiveness for the wrong decisions we may have made in our past.)   We pray.  Even agnostics and atheists pray – they just call it something different.

 We pray to a higher being.  We pray for understanding of that which we cannot understand.  Why do buildings crumble to the ground?  Why does nature destroy a city?  Why does my neighbor not love me or respect me for who I am if we differ?

 And my God, for one, does not answer.

 My God, I suspect with a bit of a smirk on her face, and a not-so-subtle nudge on my shoulder says ‘go figure it out for yourself.’

 My God cannot explain the Holocaust, or Tsunamis, or droughts, or floods or earthquakes or high gas prices, or falling housing, or unemployment…or ‘Jersey Shore’. 

 She somehow says to me, “This isn’t about me”.  And I understand.

 Be it by her gift or our own instinct, we change.   And, to my mind, we change for the better.  I’m not sure if we need them but we have those ‘moments’ we can point to that show us, and those behind us, when we changed, and why.

 Perfection eludes us, and always will.

 Change, however is…inevitable.

 Ask Rosa Parks.  Ask JFK.  Ask Cesar Chavez, or Barney Frank or the next person you pass on the street who may not look like you or act like you.

 Ask the next couple walking by, hand-in-hand, if they are in love.

 Ask the voters of North Carolina (and 29 other states) if they have ever been hand-in-hand in love.

 And then, ask them to ask my God – no, ask their God – what is the problem with that?!

 Let’s define this moment.

[ADDENDUM: This was written in the late night/early morning hours after the North Carolina vote to ban same-sex marriage.   Today, President Obama stated his support for same-sex marriages – and already the conversation has changed.  Perhaps, unexpected -at least to me – this is one of those moments.]

 John Rice

5/9/2012

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The Unexpected, Inexplicable and Inspiring Benefits of Having a Garage Sale.

We are moving and we are downsizing and as the date of our changes approaches it was time to reduce the inventory of our possessions and inventory – perhaps to make a few bucks, and perhaps to find new homes for things acquired that can no longer be part of our lives, be they cherished or incidental.

 So, the signs were put out on the roadside and ads run and internet notices posted inviting one and all to take advantage of our ‘Everything Must Go’ sale.  The front yard covered with tables and boxes, the garage doors open for all to explore, and furniture condensed to a few first floor rooms for interested buyers.   I’ve held similar sales before, but never as extreme as this – reducing 20+ years of accumulated stuff, the contents of a 4-bedroom house, to make the move to a 2-bedroom apartment.  ‘Everything (that we decided was no longer necessary) Must Go!”  And after Day 1 of a 2-day, much of it did.

 This sale is not about the money – although the money is nice.  It was about finding new homes for the cherished and incidental accumulations of lifetimes.  And the results of Day proved to be successful – financially, and in ways I could have never expected. 

 For example:

  • The sincere conversations with people who I have never met, and will likely never meet again, who wanted to know the stories of the items for sale, where we are heading, and offering both unsolicited advice and best wishes for the next chapter in our lives,
  • The apparent delight of people in finding something in the boxes that brought out their own memories that they wanted to talk about,
  • The fact that I could ‘negotiate’ or change prices for those people I genuinely enjoyed meeting, and – perhaps more enjoyably – rejecting the counter offers and negotiations of those who I found overly aggressive or just plain rude.  (Like the guy who yelled at other visitors because they were getting in his way.  He got no deals.  He bought a few things, but left seemingly as angry and nasty as when he arrived.)

 Two incidents in today’s sale made it all worthwhile.

 A red pick-up truck rolled in and the driver got out and said ‘Hi, John’.   He was a High School classmate who read about the sale via my Facebook posts – who I had only reconnected with because he is at the forefront of putting together a 40th Year Class Reunion.  He stayed for over 4 hours, helping clear out my garage, filling the pick-up with items I didn’t even know we had, and occasionally negotiating with prospective buyers.  When the sale slowed, we chatted, and realized that the last time we had seen each other was on our graduation day nearly 40 years ago. 

 And then there’s Tommy.  He and is parents came to the sale.  Tommy, as his father described him, is a special needs child.  He looked thru a box of children’s book and selected one, then with his parents’ encouragement, asked me what it cost.  I told him he could have it with my compliments.   His attention turned to a field next to our house where our three goats were grazing.  His father pointed them out to Tommy and he seemed interested so Dad and I walked with him to the field where the goats came up to greet him.  His father took Tommy’s hand and helped him scratch the head of one of them, and Tommy let out a laugh I cannot explain other that it sounded like pure joy.  The goat, Tony, wanted more and Tommy obliged.  I saw his mother touch her finger to her eye.

 Dave and I promised each other that we would not let another 40 year pass before we saw each other again.

 Our sale continues again tomorrow.   There are still items and memories to sell – to pass on.  All are welcome.

 But I cannot, will not, ever give away Tommy’s laugh. 

 I wanted to sell things, give things away.

 And I was given something that is more valuable than anything on my lawn.

 It is mine.  It is priceless.  And I will have it forever.

 Thank you Tommy.

 John Rice

4/14/2012

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Peter Bergman: Come Out and Play

For a too brief, few years I worked with the Firesign Theatre and we created a PBS special, we got Sony to re-release their albums, and we got  a deal with NPR that lead to the release of ‘All Things Firesign” that the 4 or 5 graciously gave me the credit as Executive Producer.

Before those years, during those years, and after those years I was and remain no more,  no less than a fan.  (But I gotta admit there is an inexplicable thrill when the voice on the phone says “Hey John, It’s Phil Austin – or Proctor, or Ossman – or Bergman.)

In time, the voice was more often Bergman. 

 I worked with Peter when I worked for Sony and we hired him to write and appear in a trade show presentation that, to my mind, re-invented trade shows.  And, when a radio station in Philadelphia wanted a new morning drive personality, Peter accepted the challenge.  He came to Philly and we spent a week doing late-night radio as his audition (and sitting up late into the morning reviewing his performance).  He was offered the job.  But, as seemed to be the cloud that often followed Peter, the program director that offered him the job was fired and the offer was rescinded.

 Imagine a world if Pete owned the morning airwaves.  I did.  So did he.

 During those years, Pete and I spoke often, often daily.  The phone would ring, sometimes at dinner time (Pete being on the West Coast and me in the East).  I would take the call and wander around the house talking business but too many times falling into a verbal game of ‘can you top this’. A game I always lost. 

 My son came to call these calls “Can John come out to play?”

 Yes, I could, and I did.

 As time passed, the calls became more infrequent.  I can’t recall the last time we talked.  Too long ago.

 An email from Phil Austin broke the news of Pete’s passing and I sat for hours in silence, and pain, and sorrow. 

 I only wanted the phone to ring. 

 I want to ‘come out and play.’

 John Rice

April 2012

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Reflections on an ordinary, extraordinary February weekend

As I write this, an amazing event is taking place in the Bryce Jordan Center on the Penn State University campus.  It’s called THON.  It is a dance marathon in its simplest description.  It is, by many reports, the largest student-run philanthropy on the planet.  For 40 years, these students and those who have danced before them have raised $78 million dollars.  The money goes to the Four Diamond Fund at the Hershey Medical Center to support research and care for children fighting pediatric cancer.  Some survive, some do not.

On this extraordinary weekend, all have hope.

On this weekend, extraordinary things will happen.

This marathon, this THON, is ‘celebrated’ as hundreds of Penn State students ‘dance’ for 46 hours.  They will not sleep, they will not even sit.  They will be entertained and inspired by bands, dances, speakers and each other.  When the event concludes on Sunday afternoon, a human tote board will unveil the money raised in this year’s effort and everyone will cheer.

I’m told that for the ‘dancers’, after the hours have passed and the donations are totaled, they have an extraordinary understanding that they have been a part of an event that will forever be a part of their lives.

I was told that by my son who was on the dance floor two years ago.   And I understand it myself, if only vicariously, because I witnessed what it meant for him, for the kids their efforts aid, and for how I’ve learned how extraordinary this weekend becomes for those who participate, who support and benefit.

The theme of THON is “For The Kids.”

Yes, they mean the ‘kids’ inflicted with cancer – and by extension their families.

But, it is also for the ‘kids’ who are dancing.  It’s for the ‘kids’ who stand on street corners in the cold winter months ‘canning’, i.e. holding out buckets and cans asking for donations from those driving by.  It’s for the ‘kids’ at Penn State’s campuses across Pennsylvania who hold their events to raise money for this effort.

And it’s for us, us older ‘kids’ who are reminded by this extraordinary effort that there is much more to charity than giving.  There is something that redefines a person who commits to any effort as much as these Penn State kids do to their THON.  They are better for it.  We are better for it is as well.

I suspect we all have a bit of THON in us, in our past, perhaps in our present, hopefully in our futures.  I’m talking about that time when one believes in something so sincerely and is willing to give of one’s self to be part of a greater effort.    If you’ve been a part, or are a part of such a thing, you know what I mean.

We may see some of ourselves in the dancers on the THON floor.  At the same time, I for one, have an inexplicable respect for them.  And some envy.   Would that I had the passion, energy and endurance to stand and dance for 46 hours for this, or any cause.

But they inspire me to do what I can do.

I’ve made my donation to THON (and I ask that you consider doing the same.)

And, as I watch them on the live webcast of the event, I pause to consider what I can do that might approach the enthusiasm that they bring.  I delight in seeing how much genuine fun they are having as they accomplish such great things.  And I miss that enthusiasm of my youth.  Perhaps, they inspire me to rediscover it.

I invite you to ‘visit’ these dancers on line at www.thon.org and watch the live webcast.  I also encourage you to lend your financial support to their cause.

Whether or not you watch and donate, please take note of these ‘kids’, and perhaps, like me, take a new look in the mirror and ask ‘what have I done to change the world this weekend?’

Now, go change it.

John Rice

February 18, 2012

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Idyll Talk

[As part of my ‘re-invention’ journey, (see my previous post: Re-Inventing Me (A Personal Note)  it was suggested that I dust off my ‘creative writing’ efforts.  Actually, I was made to promise that I would write more!  To get the ‘juices flowing’, I dug back into my archives for this piece, written many, many years ago and, with a few tweaks, offer it here for your consideration and comment, and should you care to – to share.]

Idyll Talk

 It is not so much that winter has arrived as autumn has gone.  The trees have turned, the birds have vanished and the holidays have passed assuring that there has been no miscalculation of time.  But the moment is awkward.  Winter has not arrived.  It is as if the season were a traveler who has missed a scheduled bus or plane.  No one doubts its arrival, they only question the time.  Both the traveler and the party awaiting his arrival are left in limbo and, if anything, look for someone or something on which to place the blame.

___________

It rains.  It should be snowing and I am late.  It is as much my fault as it is of my transportation.  I’m late, again, as usual, and will offer the excuse that the train schedules have changed since I last traveled to the country from the city.   Arriving at the station, I grab a friendly cab to take me to my appointed brunch.  The day tempts winter and freezes the rain to the road, further delaying my arrival.  But the driver and I manage through, sliding occasionally, slipping back and forth from pleasant conversation to gasps of panic and back to pleasantries.  He drops me off at the restaurant and continues on his way.

I find her in the back, next to a huge fireplace that rivals the size of some Manhattan apartments.  The flames blaze as if it were the dead of winter.  She sits facing the window, away from the room, looking out onto a country street and the city tourists who have come for a Sunday in the country air.

“Sorry,” I say standing behind her.  “The road was slick, and….I was late in getting off.”  She turns and smiles and tilts her head, acting more a teenager than a woman in her early thirties.  There is no sign that she’s upset, perhaps simply resigned to the idea that I rarely arrive when due.  In fact, there is little sign of anything at all expect three cigarette butts in an ashtray, her Bloody Mary emptied except for the pink ice and a lonely stalk of celery.

“Been waiting long?”

She tilts her head, “Ten minutes?”

I take the seat across from her.  For the briefest moment we are silent, staring, smiling.

“So, he didn’t stand you up.”  It takes the waiter to break the moment.  I shoot him a nasty glance and he shrugs an apology, perhaps with a wink.  Rather than give him an unnecessary explanation, I order two Bloody Marys.  He hands me a menu.

Before I can speak she asks my question, “So how are you?”  Sometimes I suspect I speak too freely, too fast and foolishly.  I want to tell her everything that has happened to me no matter how petty or insignificant.  I want to tell her where I eat, who I see, what I do each hour, and what I don’t do.  The world is doing me well right now.   I want her to know that at this moment I feel as though I control it.  But I don’t know where to begin.

“I’m good.”

“Really?”  She is unconvinced.  We’ve talked too often and for too long.  Our conversations usually begin over a problem, hers or mine.  I’m a bit embarrassed that there’s not some searing tragedy-in-the-making that requires her counsel.

“Actually,” I say, “I’m great.  New York is a dream.  It’s not real.  Not yet.”  I can feel myself lifting up as I speak, and I’m afraid I may actually stand and waltz about the room.  “I’m having more fun, doing more, working more, and enjoying everything.  I can’t believe I didn’t do this earlier.

“I’ve got a huge expense account.  I eat in fine restaurants.  And next month, they’re sending me to Paris for four days.  Paris!”

I feel a smirk coming.  “All the fine restaurants?” she says with a knowing smile.

I smile back, “Every single one.  Hey, I’m enjoying this life.  I like dressing in expensive suits, eating in expensive restaurants and tipping moderately well.  I can go to the theater or a club – or both.  I can spend weekends in the mountains or at the beach.  If I see something I want, I can buy it.  If I see a woman I like…”

“You can buy it.”

“I ask her out.  And she goes!”

Her smile tightens and her eyes move past mine and look out the window behind me.  I think I’ve said too much.

“How’s Jenny?”

She doesn’t expect the  question, but it brings her back to the table.  Slowly, she begins to tell me the troubles or raising her daughter now that she’s alone.  The eight-year-old girl doesn’t understand her father’s infrequent visits and why it is longer between each time she sees him.  Jenny doesn’t know that it was her mother’s idea to leave, but neither Mom nor Dad has offered to tell her the specifics of the change.  Now, it’s as if he’s abandoned any responsibility toward the girl.  Just as her mother abandoned him.

“But Jenny has become my salvation,” she says to me and her eyes come back to life.  It is her time to be buoyed by enthusiasm.  “Two weeks ago, I took her to the opera.  She could have cared less about the music, but was possessed by the costumes and the sets.”

In time, she tells me of her new job, how she has less and less time with her daughter, but how much more she is enjoying those times.

We talk about our lives.  We talk of our dreams.  I think we talk of just about everything on our minds.

___________

Labor Day weekend is cooler than most I remember.  It may be the city, or the job, or a man’s fading dream of summer.  It may just be fading dreams.

I can’t recall being alone on Labor Day.  There were always family gatherings, beach parties or romantic picnics in the park.

This year it feels better to be alone.   I figure it will be good practice.  What better than a beer, a few hamburgers and a Sunday afternoon on the apartment roof.  I settle in.

The sun is warm enough and the beer is strong enough that I’m soon dozing in a longue chair recently retrieved from a nearby sidewalk.  It is only the sound of the traffic and the playground across the street that keeps me from falling into a deep sleep.  I think I hear my name, but decide to ignore it.  I learned a long time ago that more times than not, when someone called my name, it usually wasn’t me they were calling.

When the shout includes “Hey, are you up there?”  I decide to investigate.  Fortunately, the roof allows a clear view of the front stoop if one leans over, just shy of falling off.  Unfortunately, the beer and sun makes me nearly do that.  Below, I see two faces staring up with panicked expressions as they assume I am about to plummet down on them.

“We didn’t think you were home,” she shouts up to me.  “Jenny made me wait.  She said you were probably up on the roof.”  I greet them at the apartment door with an empty trash bag in my hand.  They made it up the stairs faster than I could gather the trash and beer bottles decorating the place.

She’s radiant.  Her age refuses to show.

“Hello?”  She tilts her head and smiles.  Then her expression changes to embarrassment.  “We came at a bad time, didn’t we?  We should have called.”

“No! No, not at all.”  I’m lost in looking at her.  Conversation is not coming easy.  Nor are manners.  “Come in.”   As I turn I see the mess I hadn’t cleaned up.  No!

“Let’s go up to the roof.  It’s too nice a day.”  On the roof, I’m the only mess to deal with.

I grab two beers and a soda for Jenny despite her request for something stronger and her mother’s negative reaction.  We head up the dingy stairway to the patch of sunlight squeezing between the concrete around us.  I do my best to dust off two beaten plastic chairs and set them next to my rescued lounge.   Jenny doesn’t sit, but wanders to a corner of the roof, leaning over the edge of the building and staring into the city while we sit and talk.  She is now as tall as her mother and most certainly a mirror of the woman I know, twenty-some years younger.

“She’s sixteen,” she says.

“About half my age,” I say, making an inconvienent attempt at a joke.  “She’s beautiful.  She’s grown since I last saw her, what some 3 or 4 years ago.”

“Six.  Six years.”

We are running the risk of sinking into small talk.  I try to think of what I really want to say.

“What the hell are you doing here?!”

She’s older, certainly.  But she isn’t her age, and looks much as I remember her from what I know are too many missing years.  Our weekend brunches became more infrequent from year to year until our meetings were replaced by occasional phone calls then little more than notes in Christmas cards.  The day’s light breeze catches her auburn hair and brushes it into her face.  She pushes it back, making the gesture part of something she is saying, but I don’t hear it.  Only once does the sun betray the slightest touches of silver that are creeping in.  The sun is hitting her square in the face and she squints, exposing the thinnest of lines around her eyes.  When she smiles, perfectly straight lines are drawn from corners of her mouth toward her chin.

“We decided to spend a girls’ weekend in New York,” she explains.  “See some people, shop, see a show.  Jenny asked about you.  She thinks she wants to be an actress or a model…”

“She’s pretty enough.”

“Thank you.  I thought it was time she saw some of the mean streets of the city, see if this is what she really wants. Her father is here.  He says he’ll help her.”

Her eyes return to me and her look turns from one of loving concern to concern.

“How are you?”

“Alright,” I lie.

“You’ve lost weight.”

I smile.  “Stress.”

“How’s your work?” she asks.  But she somehow knows.

“I’ll find something.”

For the briefest moment, we are silent.

“Pam?”

“I haven’t seen her in over a month.”

I won’t look at her.  She stands and walks behind me.  I jerk away as she touches my head.

“I’m OK,” I protest. “I am!”

I reach to push her hand away and feel a ring on her finger.

“Been shopping, I see.”

She laughs.  She tells me she married last fall.  She’s happy and I’m glad.  But Jenny has not taken to her step-father.  That’s part of the reason for the trip to New York – girl-time.  And Jenny wanted to see her father who has been trying to come back into her life.

Our talk turns to reminiscing. We talk about old times, good times, even if time has painted prettier, simpler versions of those times.  We remember only the good times.

Jenny looks restless.

“We should go,” she suggests.

I walk them down to the street.

“It’s been too long,” I say and she agrees.  Jenny is by the curb kicking at some trash, a contradiction of innocent child and beautiful woman.

She looks at me, concerned.

“I’ll be OK.”

She reaches up and cups my cheek, like a mother does a child.  She stares at me most deeply, and then leans in kissing me goodbye on the cheek.  I decline an invitation to dinner, inventing a previous commitment that doesn’t exist.

” That’s a shame. It’s a birthday dinner,” she smiles.  They walk toward the corner.

Who’s birthday?” I call out.  “Jenny’s? Your’s!”

She looks back over her shoulder with a smile.

“How old are you?”

“Younger than I look, older than I feel,” she smiles.

They vanish around the corner.

 ___________

The summer when I was 10 or 11 years old, I fell in love.   I bought a plastic ring on the boardwalk that looked like a cigar band and gave it to my heart’s desire.  It was a bold gesture for someone my age, even bolder because she said she had a boyfriend back home.  But I knew the girl always stayed with the guy who gave her a ring.  I was playing for keeps.

She said it was cute and she was delighted to have a new boyfriend like me, but we had to keep it secret so her ‘other’ boyfriend wouldn’t find out.  She didn’t understand that I expected her to give him up.  I let her keep the ring, hoping it would help her change her mind.

Later that day, I saw her with some other girls.  She had something in her hand and they were all laughing.  When they saw me, she snapped her hand closed and they stopped laughing.  They had to be laughing about me.

I resolved never to fall in love with an older woman again.  After all, she was fourteen.

 ___________

 I’m not much of a stage door Johnny.  I hate meeting celebrities because I’m always at a loss for words.  It doesn’t make any sense, I know.  They are people just like me.  But they are somehow different.

Then again, tonight is different.  This isn’t a star.  This is a friend.  Still, I don’t have the nerve to go inside.  I’ll wait with the small crowd on the street.

I don’t like standing here amidst fans and paparazzi.  I’m uncomfortable and feeling foolish.  I decide I’ll pretend I am waiting for a bus.  I’m waiting for a friend who is overdue.

The city smells of the beginning of spring while the last of winter holds on.  What little snow remains is dirty and hard.  The last few days have melted most of the winter away until only small patches remain as spring approaches.

I don’t see the door open, only the flash of cameras and the scurry of fans.  All around people are calling “Jennifer.  Jennifer”.

“Jenny!”  I call out as others look at me.

The crowd, which has grown larger, pushes me away.

“Jenny!” I shout.  “Over here!”

She turns to me, smiles, but I don’t think she sees me.   More cameras flash.   In another burst of light, she is running to me, throwing her arms around me.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“I saw the show,” I say casually.

She hugs me tight as more cameras click and flash.  “Put your arms around me,” she whispers.  “They’ll think we’re lovers.”

I hear a voice ask “Who is that?”  There is no answer.

She pulls me through the crowd and down the street to an unmarked doorway.  “You have time to buy me a drink, don’t you?” she asks.  “You do owe me a beer.”

We walk up the back stairs of the club and are given a table in the corner next to a silent fireplace.  Outside the window, tourists and theater-goers wander by.  She tells me I am looking more handsome than ever since my hair turned grey.  I tell her she is more beautiful since her hair went blonde.  She tilts her head and smiles.

I don’t ask, but she tells me she is worried for her mother.

“She’s not sick or anything, she’s just not doing well,” she explains.  “She’s all alone. I asked her to come stay with me for a while, but she doesn’t want to come to the city.  I don’t know.  I think she’s just not happy anymore.”  Her eyes fill.  I think mine do too.

“Quiet,” I say, handing her a napkin.  “Take your time.”

For a moment, we are silent.

Her hand moves, almost unseen, to brush her hair from her eyes or perhaps to catch a tear.  I’m looking at her, but I don’t see her.  I see a wrinkle in the corner of her young eyes.  A shadow crosses the corner of her mouth and runs straight down toward her chin.  She forces a smile.  She reaches and touches my hand and I feel her fingers entwine with mine.  She speaks.

“Were you and Mom lovers?”

My smile is tight-lipped, “No.”

“That’s a shame.”

___________

 The sand is fine, tiny specks.  You can’t grasp it or hold it.  It slips through your fingers no matter how much you want to keep it.  When the wind blows, it stings your skin.

I’ve fallen across a castle, or more precisely a former sand castle ravaged by the high tide.  She continues to run across the beach and is maybe twenty yards away before she turns and sees that I am down.

She taunts me.  “Get up.  Hurry up or you’ll never catch me!”  She waves my hat above her head, the object that started this chase.

I reach for something to pull myself up, but find nothing but sand.  It’s in my mouth.  She continues to call to me, running backwards, goading me until she sees I’m up and continuing the race.  She turns and runs faster away.

After a burst of speed that surprises me, I catch her, tackle her and we fall into the sand at the edge of the water.  We are laughing, covered in sand sticking to our wet and warm bodies.  A couple walks by, looking down on us with a smile or distain.  I’m not sure.  I don’t care.

She wipes the sand off my lips with her finger.  Then leans down and kisses me.

“I think we should have an affair,” she says.

“As soon as I catch my breath,” I say.

“I don’t think I can wait that long.”  She laughs as she starts to get to her feet.  But I pull her back to the sand and surf and we kiss.  And kiss again.

That is the extent of our affair.

 ___________

 “When do you go back,” she asks.

“I’ve got time.  There are trains every hour, so there’s no rush,” I say.  “But I don’t want to get back to late.  I have a full day tomorrow.”

“Fine restaurant?”

“The finest,” I reply.  “It’s part of the job.”

She laughs.  I feel good when I make her laugh.

The waiter clears our dishes and I order two more Bloody Marys despite her meager objection.  We have so much more to talk about and we’ve said so much already.  I invite her to visit me in New York.  “Bring Jenny,” I insist.

She says she’ll come as soon as her life settles down a bit.  Maybe she’ll bring Jenny.  Maybe she’ll come alone.

“But you will visit?”

“Definitely”, she says.

“Promise?”

“Don’t be childish,” she says tilting her head.

I take her hand and we are silent, smiling.  Neither seems sure of what to say.  When start to speak, she sits up in her chair, looking past me out the window.

“Look,” she says.  “It’s snowing!  When did that start?”

The streets and sidewalks outside the restaurant are covered with the thinnest veil of white, an opaque glaze that makes the little country village sparkle in the combination of snowfall and twilight.  It is a glimpse of a magic moment that one has but an instant to capture.  One tries hard to memorize the sight and the feeling it evokes, because you know as it passes it will never be like this again.  In another minute the sun will be gone, the snow may stop falling.   The moment will be gone.

All I can think to say is “sometimes, I wish I could talk to you forever.”

We sit in silence and the waiter brings the check.

by John Rice

circa 1988

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Re-Inventing Me (A Personal Note)

An open letter to friends, associates…and any other interested parites who may stumble upon this.

This is unlike any of my previous blogs and posts.  This is personal.

You may find this awkward, uncomfortable or inappropriate, for which I apologize.  But if you read on, and understand my request, I hope you will assist me in the journey I am undertaking:

The re-invention of me.

Sparing the detail for now, suffice to say that what I am doing professionally, and by extension, personally, is not working.  Time for change.

Or to invoke the too-often-used Einstein quote of insanity being the definition of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, I need to be doing things in different ways.  In fact, I probably need to be doing different things.

And, I could use some assistance in discovering and realizing those things.

Right now, I’m out of ideas.

Would you assist me?

Everything, and I do mean everything, is up for review.

Up for review?  My work, location, goals, haircut, and anything else that can be changed – and changed for the better.

My request – what I need right now, are some guides and advisors for this journey – and fellow travelers if any want to join me.   What I hope to accomplish with this post (and perhaps others of this ilk to follow) is to initiate a conversation – which may at times seem foolish, frivolous, ridiculous, but never ponderous or overly-serious.

Yet, to me this is quite serious.

This is not about sympathy or charity.  This is about changing – changing me.   On its face, this is about work, which it most certainly is.  It’s about paying the bills.  But it’s also about rediscovering good reasons to hit the floor in the morning other than fear and trepidation.

Ultimately it is about self-esteem and hoping to rekindle or re-ignite the talents and passions that once defined me.

I’ve posted this on my blog site to encourage any and all comments (and subsequent comments on others’ comments).   I also welcome personal conversations via email (jrice@komediagroup.com or ricevideo@aol.com), LinkedIn or Facebook.  Or give me a call.

As I said in a recent status: “It’s time to re-invent me…cause this ‘me’ ain’t working.”

Wanna help?

John Rice

January 17, 2012

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2012: In the Time of Our Lives

What’s that oft-quoted Confucius line: “May you live in interesting times?”

Oh, we do.  We do.

By some accounts, the phrase is considered a curse.  To my mind, it is reality – hard and fast.

We do live in ‘interesting’ times.  One of wars, floods, crises (natural and man-made), of Gingrich, Romney and Obama, of international economic roller coasters, of Justin Beiber, of a new Korean Supreme Leader, of Occupiers, – and the Kardashians.  (And much more.)

Interesting indeed.

And now we turn our attention, to the turn of the calendar and a champagne toast to a ‘New’ year.

Best I can tell there is no great argument for why we flip our calendars on January 1st.   There is no religious, astronomical or other influence that demands that this day mark the beginning of a new year, a new endeavor (and other countries and cultures have their own dates marking this new beginning).

But who are we to argue with Dick Clark and the crystal ball in Times Square, and the fireworks, parties and touching embraces and/or awkward kisses that come as we welcome our New Year.  It is New.  It is the conclusion of one circle around the sun (per Jimmy Buffett), and the beginning of another 365 days.

It is a chance for new beginnings.  It is an opportunity for change.  It is, for some reason, a reason for resolutions.  Lose weight, quit smoking, change jobs, find love, find something.

Something.

I often reflect back to William Saroyan’s ‘Time of Your Life’, a play written in 1939 (which was awarded the Pulitzer) that I was introduced to during my college years in the 1970s – those passionate, idealistic, hopeful and framing years of my life, perhaps of yours too.

The play opens (in print, and in performance programs but never spoken on stage) with an amazing, insightful and concise statement that has come to mean more to me each and every year that has passed:

 “In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed.

“Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart.

“Be the inferior of no man, or of any men be superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. Have no shame in being kindly and gentle but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret.

“In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”

In these ‘times of our lives’, these ‘interesting times’, I wish you everything that Saroyan asked of us.  I ask no more of myself.  I ask no less of you.

We may not be able to affect, change or impact many of the things that will grab the coming year’s headlines (be they of natural, economic, political, or personal impact).

As we celebrate and acknowledge the passing of one calendar year into the next, I wish all a Happy New Year.  I sincerely hope the Mayan calendar is wrong and we will return here after another 365-day-circle-around-the-sun to exchange our next greetings of goodwill and good wishes.   And to know how we each have made this New Year better than the year which is passing.

 “Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed.”

 Happy New Year.

Let’s make it a good one!

John Rice – 12/31/2011

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