Literary Types Always End Up Talking Dirty

Scan7Recently, my best pal saw the movie Howl. Most of the movie is about the obscenity trial of  Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao. Ferlinghetti co-owned City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco. (It’s still there, by the way.) Ferlinghetti was put on trial for obscenity as the publisher of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” Murao was the clerk who sold the book to an uncover police officer. The movie is extremely well done, and especially interesting to me because I actually spent a weekend hanging around with Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky in 1969 when I was 19 years old.

I was attending my first college. St. Francis, and I was president of the student literary society (How did  you become president, my father asked one of my classmates, who happened to be president of our dorm. I came late to a meeting, was his response.) Anyway, we invited Ginsberg, likely at the behest of my wonderful literature professor, Joe Mahoney. Ginsberg was to read poems of William Blake, notably Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The performance, which is not a big part of this story, was wonderful, a dancing, chanting rendition accompanied by finger cymbals.

The day before, 81-sS253TEL._SL1500_I had picked up Ginsberg and Orlovsky, his long-time partner, from the bus station. Their relationship was in itself scandalous, especially at a Catholic school. Making conversation as I drove, I told Ginsberg how much I enjoyed his interview in the current Playboy magazine. He became quite excited and said he had not yet seen it, and did I have it? So I dropped them off at the house where they were staying, drove to the campus, retrieved the magazine and drove back to give it to them.


Ginsberg was delighted, invited me in, and for the next two hours, I got to talk poetry with one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. It was an amazing experience. Kids, don’t let anyone tell you that there is no value in a dirty magazine.

My job the nextScan6 morning was to take Ginsberg to a meeting of the Literary Society, which had been moved to a meeting hall in anticipation of a big crowd. The idea was that students could get to know him, and ask him questions about his literary work. As I recall there were maybe 30-40 people in the room. I seated Allen in the middle of the room and waited for the barrage of questions.  And waited. And waited. The silence was deafening as Ginsberg, with his beard and wild hair faced a roomful of clean-cut Catholic boys (not to mention two nuns). As I wondered what noble sentiment Ginsberg might find to break the uncomfortable silence, he leaped to his feet and shouted:


The rest of the weekend sort of went downhill from there.

Stuart Scott RIP

Like most American males, I have spent a large number of hours over the years watching SportsCenter and other programming on ESPN. So when Stuart Scott died this weekend, it came as a blow. I had no particular connection to him, nor do I put TV broadcasters in my pantheon of heroes. The invention of the catch-phrase boo-yah! is not what I would call an achievement to venerate but then neither is anything I have done. Still, like neighbors, people who are on TV for so many years  become familiar figures and you can’t help feeling like you “know” them somehow. Thus it was with Stuart Scott.

And, of course, we cannot help but feel compassion for someone who dies so young (age 49) and leaves behind two young daughters. So many Americans are touched, often brutally, by cancer. Perhaps that includes your family. It certainly has touched mine. My younger brother, Guy, died of lymphoma (a form of cancer) in 1996 at the age of 41. He died holding my hand and his last words were “I love you.” He too, left behind a daughter, my niece, Madeline, now 25, who will be coming to Florida to visit with me later this month.

None of this is to say anything other than it’s been awfully hard to watch ESPN the last couple of days, and I’m sure that’s true for many of you. RIP Stuart Scott.

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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