For The Man Who Has Everything

With the holidays coming up, I will face a problem (admittedly, a first world problem) that I face every Father’s Day, every birthday, and every Christmas — not to mention in some business situations. And that is when people ask me what they can give me for a gift.

I start out with the usual really-a-gift-is-not-necessary, but the fact is that people enjoy giving gifts (I know I do!). It’s useful in this context to have a hobby like playing golf or collecting wine. Both of which I did much more often in days of yore. People send you a nice bottle or a dozen golf balls, and everyone is happy.

Just to make things more difficult and annoying, I am the type of guy who, if I want something, I go buy it. So, the trick is to find something I would like, but not enough to buy it for myself. It’s a challenge — and not one that my friends and family appreciate.

gift-cardsThe result is gift cards. Lots of gift cards. Tons of gift cards. A shower of gift cards. Some of them are quite substantial. One is for $200, another for $400. There’s only one small problem. I never use them. I know there are places that will buy them from me, but that seems incredibly crass. Likewise with re-gifting them. And so they pile up, my secret stash, gifts for the man who has everything.

Marketing Lessons From Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson

In my company’s coaching program, one of the key concepts is that people listen with their eyes. According to the studies I have seen, about 80 percent of what we perceive through the senses is visual. Lawyers, who tend to be, by nature and training, more likely to try to convey their ideas through speech and logic, are often resistant to the concept. “What should matter,” they tell me, “is what a good lawyer I am.” And I tell them, that’s like going into a singles bar and saying “What should matter is what a good person I am.”

I won’t repeat all I have to say on this subject. I first published an article about it ten years ago, and although my thinking has evolved, my opinion hasn’t changed.

I found myself thinking about this over the past week, as the scandal involving NFL players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson came to a boil.

Rice (of the Baltimore Ravens) is the player who cold-cocked his wife (then fiancée) in an Atlantic City casino elevator, then dragged her unconscious into the hall. The incident was investigated. Rice admitted to the NFL commissioner that he hit his wife (as if we couldn’t figure that out). The NFL gave him a two-game suspension. The public was appropriately outraged at the leniency of the sentence, and the ante was upped to four games. Then the scandal-mongering website/television show TMZ bribed someone in the casino and got its hands on the video tape of what actually happened in that elevator. (There’s a whole ‘nother issue about why the NFL never saw that tape, leading to the inescapable conclusion that they didn’t want to.)

The elevator tape is appalling. A 250-pound heavily muscled football player delivers a staggering left hook to a petite woman, whose head bounces off the elevator handrail before she falls to the floor unconscious — as in, out cold.

My instantaneous reaction was that Rice was very lucky he didn’t kill her, because that punch surely could have done so.

It was horrifying.

But was it any more horrifying than it was in July, when Rice admitted to hitting his now-wife, and dragging her unconscious out of the elevator?

Yes, it was, because we could see it. And the visual sense overwhelms all others, including common sense.

This incident was followed in the headlines by the news about Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, accused of abusing his 4-year-old son by “whooping” him with a “switch” or as Keith Olberman more accurately put it: “beating a 4-year-old child with a tree branch.”

At first we heard stories of cultural differences and how different parents have different philosophies about corporal punishment. Then we saw the photos of the little boy, the marks all over his body (including his scrotum) and the defensive wounds on his hands.

We respond viscerally to what we see, for good or for ill. As Malcolm Gladwell argued in his book Blink, we form a visual impression in the first few seconds of any encounter, and once we do so, it is extremely difficult to change.

Call it, with some grim irony, a marketing lesson from Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. What people see is going to be more important than what they hear, or read, or think.

Now put them both in jail, where they belong.

I hate Atticus Finch

I hate Atticus Finch.

I know, I know. I can’t really hate Atticus Finch. First of all, he’s not real, he’s just a character in To Kill A Mockingbird. Second, he’s a noble character — a paragon, really. A lawyer who fights against racism in a small southern town in the 1930s. A widower trying to bring up a couple of kids on his own.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

– Atticus Finch

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

He was played in the movies by Gregory Freakin’ Peck, for god’s sake. As played by Peck, Atticus Finch was voted the greatest hero of American film by the American Film Institute. He has a goddam postage stamp!

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 (Photo credit: mystuart)

Daniel Baldwin and Isabella Hoffman named their son Atticus. So did Summer Phoenix and Casey Affleck.

How could I hate Atticus Finch?

Because I work in the world of legal marketing, and in that world, everything is named Atticus.

There’s Atticus coaching, Atticus Digital Marketing, Atticus Rainmakers, Atticus Marketing in the U.K., Atticus Business Consulting, Atticus Management, Atticus Atticus Atticus. One of my friends in the business named his new firm Atticus and must have gotten a whole collection of cease-and-desist letters since he subsequently changed the name of his firm to Mockingbird Marketing (couldn’t get too far from Atticus).

I remember in Albert Brooks’s comedy album (if you are under age 30, feel free to contact me to find out what an “album” is) Comedy Minus One, he talks about what it’s like to visit San Antonio, Texas:

Alamo Rent-a-Car; Alamo Car Wash; Alamo Laundry (in by nine, out by five); Alamo Motel (hourly daytime rates); Alamo Diner (you’ll remember the Alamo); Alamo Quick Print; and on and on until you want to puke up the word “Alamo.”

My question to lawyers is: don’t you guys and gals have any other heroes? What about Abraham Lincoln Marketing? Or Clarence Darrow Coaching Program? Or the She-Hulk? Thomas Moore? Matisse? Julio Iglesias? Robert Kennedy? Gloria Allred? Alger Hiss? Nelson Mandela? Fidel Castro? Gandhi?


Anybody — but Atticus Finch.

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It’s a Different World

So, my grandfather came off the boat from Sicily. I still have relatives there (in and around Messina) and I can recognize and speak a fair amount of Sicilian dialect, mostly because my father would use it playfully with me when I was little. The Italian word for money is “soldi” while the Sicilian dialect is “zodi,” My father would say to me, in a comic Italian accent (think Disney cartoon) “You want-a some jingle-a-zodi?” Which meant, simply, do you want some jingle-money? The spare change in my dad’s pocket was a coveted prize and I always answered in the affirmative.

Naturally, with this kind of background, when I reached around five years old, I was dispatched to Sunday School and the nuns. The nuns were an interesting bunch, prone to asking me questions like, “When the communists come and tie you to a stake in the town square and get ready to rip your tongue out…will you renounce Jesus?” I assured them that I certainly would not, but suffered weeks, if not years, of nightmares thereafter.

Which is why my idea of Sicilian nuns did not, up ’til now, include the likes of this:

The Beatles: It Was 50 Years Ago Today

My brother Bruce called tonight. When you are close enough to someone for long enough, you know what they’re thinking. I saw his number on the Caller ID, picked up the phone and said “Yes, I have it on.” I knew he was calling about the CBS Special “The Night That Changed America” (Referring to the first time The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show). He immediately replied, “You have to write a blog post about going to see them in person.”

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arrivi...

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many people my age, I have vivid memories of sitting cross-legged on the floor of my parents’ den, watching a B&W TV as The Beatles were introduced. I had started reading about them in late 1963 — mostly about how hysterical girls in England threw “jelly babies” (whatever they were) at the band.

And, also like others, I was completely captivated. Soon the walls of my bedroom were covered with news clippings about The Beatles and I stopped getting haircuts, a development that did not please my father, whose ideas of masculinity mostly centered around Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart, and most certainly not on wearing your hair like a girl. Later, in my 20s, my girlfriend Judy Whittingham, told me she started every single diary entry with “I love The Beatles!”

OK, I could go on, but here’s where my story is unlike most of my contemporaries. I saw The Beatles in concert, on Thursday night, August 18, 1966 at Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston.

I had a privileged childhood. My family had a beach house where I would spend every summer. One of my summer pals at the beach was Richie. And Richie’s uncle owned Tyson Ticket, the top agency in Boston. So Richie got the precious ducats for us. We were sitting in the third row with the Kennedy kids. The opening acts were The Cyrcle (“Red Rubber Ball”) and the vastly underrated Barry and The Remains (whom I knew a little bit from all their gigs at The Surf Nantasket). The screaming that began when The Beatles hit the stage felt like you had just stuck your head in a jet engine. Nonetheless, it was a great experience, and I’m certainly proud to say that I saw the Beatles in concert. I saw the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary; and Ike and Tina Turner; and Bruce Springsteen seven times; but I can always stop a conversation of musical reminisce by mentioning that I saw The Beatles. Not so bad, huh?

Eleven days later, The Beatles played in San Francisco. It was the last live public concert they would ever give.

You can’t go to the concert I attended, but if you’d like to get a ticket, you can still get one eBay for $650.


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Letting Go…Or Not

I am a person who is not very good at letting go. I have never succeeded at “letting go” of my departed family members or lost loves, and I am currently having a problem letting go of the family dog, who is clearly on his way out of this world.

I understand that it is healthier — emotionally, spiritually, even physically — to “let go”, to move on, to make a new start. And yet, sometimes I see people who seem to recover far too quickly for my taste. Their spouse passes away and two weeks later, they’re dating. Or a situation seen all too often my clients, who are elder law attorneys: A parent dies and the kids are in the house dividing up the property before the corpse has been removed. It is unseemly, to say the very least. At worst, it’s disgusting.

And then, this past week, a man named Rocky Abalsamo died at age 97. Nothing famous about him. Just a guy. A guy who missed his wife and had a hard time letting go.

It feels just like yesterday that I thought tomorrow will soon be today

On Wednesday, Nov. 20, my younger brother Bruce turns 60.

This doesn’t seem possible to either of us (add it to the steadily growing list of things that don’t seem possible to me) and I can assure you that at Saturday night’s celebration, we will each do our best to prove that it is possible to reach your 60s without having achieved a maturity level beyond the age of 16.

My brother is an extraordinary designer and artist, and I offer the following portfolio as evidence:

He has designed museums, airports, Disney pavilions, restaurants, homes — you name it. Lately, he seems to do more hotels than anything else. Maybe it’s because of the cash.

Bruce Merenda

Bruce Merenda

We have a lot in common. We share the entrepreneurial gene inherited from our dad. We share a creative disposition. Leave us alone in a room for an hour and I’m sure we’d come out with something frightening. We share grief, having lost our beloved brother, Guy. (It probably can’t be explained, but for Bruce and me, there will always be an empty chair at the table.)

And we’re different too, of course. He expresses his creativity visually, while I ply my trade with the written word. Socially he tends to like being among lots of people (middle child syndrome) and I tend to be solitary.

In the Merenda family mythology, I am “the smart one” and he is “the good-looking one.” I know that he is both smart and good-looking, but the mythology amuses my employees who answer the phone only to hear Bruce say, “This is the good-looking one, calling for the smart one.”

In addition to his many gifts, my little brother Bruce is something of a character. When we went out to play golf, he would show up on the first tee (usually in front of a group of bleary-eyed men, clutching their Styrofoam cups of coffee, waiting anxiously to begin their Saturday morning rounds) in fuchsia shorts, a pink shirt, and a baseball cap with wings (a la Mercury), take a viscous but ineffective swipe at his teed-up golf ball and fall to the ground clutching his back.

When we would go out together in clubs, he was fond of confronting large, drunk, hostile men and telling them that his brother over there was “a killer” who would “kick your ass.” Sometimes he would threaten to do so himself, obliging me to explain to the offended party that my little brother’s furlough from the asylum was just for the day, and it was time for us to get him back.

In 1986 we spent a few weeks together tooling around Europe. I have vague memories of dancing on the bar at Harry’s in Paris (sank roo doe noo) ; watching the chorus line at the Crazy Horse; going to a “private club” called “Le Baron” (editor’s note: no other information about this visit is available, other than to say that yes, a certain type of girl will take American Express traveler’s checks); running up an offensive bill at the Hotel Negresco on the promenade in Nice; flying down the German autobahn at 140 miles-per-hour (and being passed by various Porsches and BMWs); and walking through the Englischer Garten in Munich only to discover that we were the only people in the park with any clothes on.

I am not sure that Europe has completely recovered from this visit.

But lest I tell all the funny stories and you get the wrong impression, let me show you another side of Bruce. I belong to a Facebook group comprised of people who grew up in Winchester, MA in a certain era. About a month ago, I had an inquiry from a woman named Kathy Durante. She asked if I had a cousin or brother named Bruce. I told her that indeed I did, and posted his current photo.

It turned out that some 45 years ago, Kathy and Bruce had been in the same junior high school art class. They had been given an overnight assignment, and the art teacher criticized Kathy’s project for not following instructions and going outside the lines. Bruce took on the art teacher, defending Kathy’s project and telling the teacher that real artists don’t stay inside the lines.

Here is Kathy’s response to the photo I posted on Facebook: That’s him! He stood up for me in mrs. hatchel’s art class at Lynch. Never forgot it. no peer had ever stood up for me like that especially to the teacher. I’m glad he’s doing well. Thanks for posting the pic.

Bruce had never told me the story, and barely remembered it himself. My brother is a brilliant artist, a terrific businessman, a fun guy, and has the character to stick up for those who can’t stick up for themselves, even in the face of authority.

Not bad, huh?

Oh, and he’s the good-looking one.

Happy birthday, Brucie. Your smarter older brother loves you.



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When I Was Twenty-One

I spoke to my best friend Michael the other day about my son, Max.

“Max’s birthday is Monday,” I remarked.

“Wow,” he said. “He must be what, eight or nine by now.”

Right. No, wait. He’s going to be… twenty-one. A man. Able to sign a contract. Able to buy a drink. No longer, according to the government, my little boy.

“That’s not possible,” Michael said.

And I agree, it’s not. Except it is.

I remember when he was three and used to put his arms around my neck and call me daddy. Now he’s taller than me, has a deep voice and a beard and calls me “Dude.”

Yesterday he caught me gazing at him in that adoring way — the way I have always stared at him, with a big smile pasted across my face.

Max“Why are you smiling at me like that?” he asked.

“I’m smiling like that because you look like me,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he replied. “That’s why I’m not smiling.”

And so I thought of that night (3 a.m.) twenty-one years ago and all the emotions that you might imagine. But I also thought of Sept. 13, 1971, some 42 years ago, when I turned 21.

I had elected to go out to dinner with my father and Marshall Kincaid, a family friend, my dad’s age. We went to the Top of the Hub restaurant in Boston, one of those restaurants at the top of a skyscraper with breathtaking city views.

On the way in, we listened on the car radio as it pumped out news about the Attica prison riot.

I had asked for a special gift for my 21st. It was a boxed set of records (they were vinyl, also called LPs…oh, never mind): the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas on 14 discs played by Daniel Barenboim. Angel Records. The cost was something over $50, which my father thought was outrageous. (According to the inflation calendar, that would be $279.59 in today’s currency.)

My son asked for the following books and video games as birthday presents: the Human Division by John Scalzi; a couple of graphic novels by Jason (apparently no last name); and the Bandai Namco Mobil Suit Gundam Extreme Vs. for PS3 (if you have no idea what this is, don’t worry, no one over the age of 30 does). Now walking in my father’s shoes, I can tell you that the fact that this video game is only available from Japan and costs about $75 gave me pause. However, compared to my father, I got off cheap.

And, even though the medium hardly exists anymore, you might be wondering what happened to the birthday present from 42 years ago. Wonder no longer:



MILOfest: I Wouldn’t Miss It

One of the pleasures of my job is that I speak at legal conferences around the country. I say “pleasures” because I am flattered to be asked, I get out of the office for a few days, I often get new clients, and, after all, who doesn’t like to hear themselves talk?

(Well, not everyone. I once made SmartMarketing events manager Sarah Marshall co-present with me. That was a couple of years ago, and I don’t think she has forgiven me yet.)

Anyway, I go to a fair amount of conferences. I enjoy them all, although it must be noted that lawyers are generally a conservative lot and the conferences tend to be pretty serious with lots of education on legal matters. Or, as one of my friends said, “I’d rather shoot myself.”

However, I have to say that there is one conference that is the opposite of these other events, and that I would not miss: That’s MILOfest, an annual event for attorneys who use Macs (Apple MacIntosh computers) in their law offices. (Thus Macs In the Law Office — MILO.)

If I may climb into Mr. Peabody’s way-back machine for a moment and revert to my 1960s self, I will tell you that MILOfest is a gas.

victorIt’s run by (full-disclosure) one of our clients, Victor Medina, estate planning attorney par excellence from Pennington, New Jersey, and noted Mac authority. By “noted” I mean that he speaks at big legal tech events internationally.

It is, I think, indisputable that Mac users tend to be a little “different” and I am quite sure that lawyers who use Macs fit into this category. If you come to this conference, which is in a couple of weeks at Disney World in Orlando, you are going to learn a lot, you are going to laugh at lot, you’re going to make new friends, and return with some super-valuable new tools for your practice. There will be an array of exhibitors showing off the latest stuff that Mac geeks love. You will also get to hear me speak about the elements of a killer website, but come anyway.


Get all the details here: