2011 Rerun: Remembering My Father on Deer Lodge Day

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Remembering My Father on Deer Lodge Day

As long as I write anything personal on February 17th, it will always include a remembrance of my father.

68 years ago today, my father Nat Engel was a U.S. Merchant Marine radio officer on the S.S. Deer Lodge, at sea on the Indian Ocean. The ship was bombed to smithereens by a German u-boat. Several were killed and he was injured before making it to shore in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. From there, he was hospitalized and sidelined for several months. made lifelong friends, served out his time on other ships, came home, met my mother, raised my sisters and I, and lived a full, interesting and sometimes eccentric 84 years until 2007.

That’s why February 17, 1943 is always special in our family as Deer Lodge Day. I don’t have many examples of my father’s writings of that time except a diary he kept on the following ship, the S.S. Edward Burleson. Here are two passages:

“During the early portion of this outward lap, I came to know the second mate pretty well. I share with him the unhappy distinction of being the only other man on board who’s been sunk by the Germans. He’d been on the Morremac Rey when she was divebombed and sunk off Murmansk, and had the gray hair to prove it. He spoke freely and often of his experience, and knowing what it must have been, I felt for him. But despite his 15 years at sea, he spoke of little else. On the basis of that one trip, he tried to tell Lt. (JG) Ralph Boches how the gun crew should be run, the signalmen how to hoist their flags and me how to take a time tick.” Dad then goes on to say how bored he got with the fellow.

OF HIS LONG WAIT FOR A SHIP IN NEWPORT NEWS: “I won’t plunge into the well-worn theme of servicemen in southern towns. I’ll simply say that despite a three-week stay, my most pungent memory is of a loverly ballad that was beginning to sweep the country, and second best is my short stint as second fiddle to a discharged WAC who was waiting for a paratrooper from Topeka who’d promised to marry her. The song haunted us everywhere, from the jukeboxes in the beerless taverns to the groups of soldiers trying to drown their boredom in a sea of noise. I’ll think of the Hampton roads Port of Embarkation and its canteens and environs (visits to Norfolk included) whenever I hear “Pistol Packin’ Mama”…..

Turn the @##$ Off, Or Change Your Settings!


In addition to being a tragedy, Whitney Houston’s death is lurid and sensational. Naturally the media are all over it. But complaining over the fact that our digital devices are overloaded with this news seems ridiculous.

Peter Vallone is a New York City Councilman who complained on Facebook that the last three NBC New York “breaking news” updates on his phone are about Whitney Houston and, “did i accidentally subscribe to TMZ?? this is NOT breaking news, and frankly i dont care. there are MUCH more important things happening in NYC.”

I agree with Mr. Vallone. But whether he considers reaction to Whitney Houston’s death “breaking” or not, I’m bothered that the councilman is taking time from his presumably busy schedule to respond to this triviality.

Among the councilman’s responsibilities are chairing a hearing on the NYPD’s inconsistent and allegedly negligent handling of traffic enforcement and resulting tragedies. It’s scheduled for 10am tomorrow. As a board member of a New York City bicycle club (shameless plug here), this is an important issue to me. My wife and several friends in the bicycling community will be there.

As a taxpayer, I would want to see Mr. Vallone more focused on the Wednesday hearing than Facebook complaints about how many Whitney Houston news alerts his device is getting. I’d like to think that Mr. Vallone, who seems to ardently defend NYPD actions with consistency, will be prepared to hear other points of view tomorrow.

I didn’t intend to pick on Mr. Vallone exclusively. My point is that everyone in the 21st Century seems to have become addicted to their devices, myself included. Perhaps Mr. Vallone should change his device settings, use his staff to prioritize his time better, or stop paying so much attention to those pesky phone updates. And you know what? Except for the staff part, the same is true of too many of us.

The Only Guy in the Room

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Growing up, I had girl “friends” until I was about 8 or 9. Then, of course, they became icky. I started liking them again around 14.

But by then it was more complicated: the ones I liked didn’t like me back, and the ones who liked me made me scared and running for the hills. With several notable exception, this pattern continued, more or less, until I was about 42.

OK, I’m being facetious, because I’ve always gotten along well with women. Heck, I was raised by women. I have two older sisters and no brothers. My father traveled constantly until I was well into my teens. Yes, he was around, and while my parents had a marriage of equals in many ways, it was clear that child-rearing fell to my mother because she was more suited to it.

As I got older and lived in the big, bad city, women friends were and remain a constant presence in my life. More recently, a whole new realm of male friends (along with established ones) have balanced out my life.

So, why does a guy who’s comfortable around women occasionally feel out of place when he’s among them?

The other day I got off the subway after work and there was a voice mail from my wife. She was at a bar with other new parents, and suggested I join if I had time. I did. There were about a dozen women there with babies. And me. My wife sat at a different part of the table.

At a certain point, she gave me the most pleasurable thing there is to do in life — take over holding my daughter. At the same time, I felt compelled to make conversation with the women at the table. Most of the talk was about nannies and day care. I had some questions and got some very good feedback.

I have to admit I did kind of lose interest when one woman described the circumstances and ritual surrounding her two-month-old son’s briss. Yes, that definitely hits too close to home. It was one of the reasons I was grateful for a girl!

When the group said its goodbyes around 5pm, a few of the women said that next time they’d try to get their husbands to come along. That would be fine, but why do I get the feeling the men would go to one corner and the women to another?

When my wife was pregnant last summer, we agreed to take a two-week vacation in Italy. One of those weeks was a yoga retreat at an 800-year-old farmhouse in Tuscany. The group consisted of 17 women and……me.

Actually, it went pretty well. A bunch of the women complimented me for doing this, saying their husbands wouldn’t come along on a yoga retreat.

On the fifth day, we went into a small town with lots of churches. All day long, three of the women talked non-stop about going to the Prada outlet the next day.

That was it for me; I couldn’t listen to another human voice.

In one of the churches, I sat down for a very long time, held my head down, treasured the silence and wouldn’t look up. My wife asked what was the matter.

“I need a break from all this estrogen,” I said. She understood and a few minutes later we talked about it.

As we were talking, a man to our right started trying to pull open the doors of one of the church’s old wooden cabinets. He was using a pretty fair amount of force. The women he was with admonished him in German to stop doing that.

Not missing a beat, my wife asked, “is that the kind of male energy you’re missing?”

The rest of the trip was great.

Planned Obsolesence Versus At-Birth Pictures

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All those digital devices that we carry have a shelf life of what, 2 years? That’s planned obsolescence. It’s great if you want the latest and coolest. It’s misery if the technology you have is out-of-date. Very frustrating. My learning: always have a backup plan.

When my daughter was born, things happened to quickly that I forgot to grab the camera. I did take her first pictures with my cell phone, but I had never gotten a USB data cable for it. Nor did I have Internet access, being the cheap so-and-so that I am.

Last month I visited a client and showed the pictures of my daughter’s first moments in this world. While people loved the pictures, they laughed at my Sanyo Katana 6600 phone, an electronic device that was released in 2006. In human years, that would make it about 85 years old.

Last month, we signed a new contract with our wireless carrier before we moved. They are very earnest about their ethical convictions, making sure their profits go towards cleaning up the planet, prosecuting corporate felons, ensuring that global human rights violators are accused and that the big money corrupting politics is kept in check.

While all that’s nice, what was more important was my confidence that the existing data would carry over to the upgraded phone I’d be getting. At last we could download those first pictures of our daughter to the computer. Except that the nice people at the wireless carrier told me it can’t. They were very apologetic about it, but the interfaces were just too different.

Of course, with an Internet connection I might try emailing it, or send it to a specific photo site. So I added Internet service.

Unfortunately, neither of those options worked. The nice wireless carrier people spent lots of time with me trying to reconfigure the old phone in various ways to get those photos somewhere safe, but nothing worked. I asked if they could send me a USB data cable for the Sanyo Katana 6600. No, we’re very sorry, we don’t keep those around after a year or two. They suggested I try Sanyo. And really, they were very nice and apologetic about it. They waived our bill for a month.

My next call was Kyocera/Sanyo. When I told technical support what model phone I had, I thought he was snickering. Actually, he was helpful in revealing that Sprint (which provides the minutes to my wireless carrier) installed the software for that model. They might have the USB data cable I need, or I could go to an online provider.

Sprint disavowed installing the software, nor do they sell that USB data cable online or in their stores. They were helpful in one regard, though. They confirmed that I only needed that cable to upload the photos to my computer. No software would be required. That was something of a relief, because the online resources were so unclear.

Next, I checked the Sprint store in downtown Brooklyn. While they didn’t have the data cable, the nice man at the counterpointed to a store across the street that might. That store tried three different cables. None worked.

I found what I was looking for on eBay and successfully bid $15 on it. It should arrive by Tuesday. My new phone arrived today, but I’m not setting it up until after we know that USB data cable works.

So now we wait for a USB data cable that is supposed to fit a Sanyo Katana 6600 phone. Is that a lot to go through for 20 pictures? Yes. But it doesn’t matter, because those pictures are worth a whole lot more than $15.

Is Depression from Grieving a Psychiatric Disorder?


Because life has been so upside-down busy with a newborn baby and buying an apartment, I missed a very interesting article about whether grieving is a psychiatric disorder.

The issue is coming to light because the American Psychiatric Association is considering including it in the first updated D.S.M. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in nearly 20 years. Not coincidentally, there has been an explosive growth of medications to treat the onset of depression.

Please read the article and any related material if you get a chance. There’s good reason for those of us outside the psychiatric community to question the wisdom and implications of such a proposed change.

Every one of us suffers a severe loss in life — the death of a loved one, a divorce or break-up, sudden career ending, etc. Under the new D.S.M. codes, almost all of these life events would be considered viable reasons for a diagnosis of mental disorder.

Aren’t most human beings resilient to suffering loss? And if they’re having a hard time, can’t they get help without being diagnosed with depression?

Good questions, and I don’t have the answer. I can only relate personal experience. In June, it will be 10 years since my mother died of lung cancer. She was my father’s caretaker, so it fell to my sisters, my brother-in-law and I to get him the proper care. During the summer and fall following my mother’s death, I was busy with family matters like getting my father into assisted living. I also made a strong effort to volunteer more and kickstart my social life. I landed a busy contract job that looked like it might become permanent, and pretty soon it was easy to feel like things were getting back to “normal.”

That winter, the contract job ended a month early. With nothing else lined up, I retreated and slipped into despair. Was I depressed? Yes. I saw a psychiatrist, got a diagnosis, medication and started seeing a therapist.

Was it all because of my mother’s death? No. Looking back, I think it had as much to do with an unoccupied mind that’s chemically inclined to focus on the negative as residual sadness over the most devastating loss I’d ever suffered.

One of the doctors quoted in the article who is against the new designation, Allen Frances — who chaired the last D.S.M. revisions in 1993 — said, “what I worry about most is that the revisions will medicalize normality and that millions of people will get psychiatric labels unnecessarily.”

I’m just a layman, but I tend to agree. That’s why the proposed D.S.M. revisions are troubling. It’s fair to question whether grief itself needs a pill. While it makes sense to be more specific when treating emotional disorders, labeling grief as a psychiatric disorder with a diagnostic code might overreach and risk causing people to believe they need medication. When addressing grief, I certainly hope the APA doesn’t undervalue the natural healing factors of time, perspective, a sense of community, and talk therapy too.

Which Candidate Has The Best On-The-Job Experience Now?

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NOTE: This is just one American’s opinion. Everyone else’s point-of-view is welcome.

One key fact has been ignored as the media focus on the very bitter and ugly Republican primaries: just how qualified are Romney, Gingrich, Santorum or Ron Paul to actually be President? What long-term relevant experience do they have?

Does it matter? Probably not. But let’s take a look. Romney served just one term as Massachusetts’ governor from 2002 to 2006. His only “job” since then has been running for President. Yes, Romney’s got an impressive business pedigree (I don’t believe that Bain Capital is all evil), and there’s no question that the Romney family has a long tradition of public service. Still, does he really know how to govern as Leader of the Free World? Not from what I’ve seen. He can’t even lie effectively.

Gingrich? He hasn’t served in public office since 1998, and many of his former Republican colleagues who still run things on Capitol Hill clearly don’t want The Newt back. Santorum? I suppose he’s technically qualified, with more recent relevant experience, but take a look at his viewpoints. They are so out-of-touch with the mainstream that his current surge can’t and won’t last. If you haven’t already, just Google “Santorum,” as advice columnist Dan Savage asks. It’s both disgusting and brilliant. You just know the media and blogosphere will never let it go. As for Ron Paul, I’m sorry but the guy’s still a fringe figure; claiming that he knew nothing about all those racist newsletters with his name on them will never pass the smell test.

Which leaves the incumbent, President Obama. Is he really qualified to be President? Just before the New York State Primaries in April 2008, two very earnest young Obama supporters came to our door seeking our votes. We thanked them for coming by, but said we were Hillary Clinton supporters. They asked why, and we said experience. No matter how you looked at it, Hillary was a key White House adviser for eight years and a U.S. Senator for seven. While Obama was off to an impressive start as a first-term U.S. Senator, in our view he was hardly ready to be President of the United States.

Yet nearly everyone we knew viewed the guy as The One, The Messiah, the idealist who would fix Washington and make everything right that Bush had messed up. Like 53% of Americans who voted that fall, we chose Obama. After all, the prospect of President McCain, or worse yet, Vice President Palin, was completely unpalatable to us.

I’ll be charitable and say that Obama wasn’t ready for the job. The President has proven that he’s both human and a politician. He says what people want to hear. There have been hundreds of mistakes, bad judgements and displays of outright wimpiness. Too often, he’s listened to pollsters and advisers who are more in tune with the political and media zeitgeist than what’s right for the country. By hiring Larry Summers and Little Timmy Geithner to fix the financial meltdown, Obama let the foxes into the henhouse.

In my view, Barack Obama finally showed he was ready to be President about six months ago. After the smack down that he took from House Speaker John Boehner over the budget, he finally started fighting back. He installed a Consumer Protection Bureau chief to protect us from predatory lending when Congress was in recess. Dirty? Yes, but effective. Boehner seems to do a lot of crying and his troops are rebelling. There’s also been healthcare reform that will pay off in future generations, a correct path built towards re-establishing our global leadership, the beginnings of an energy policy, a retreat from wars that have drained us of our most valuable resource — people — and a strong response to terrorism.

History has proven this country will survive anyone as President. Even though that’s true, none of the current GOP candidates offer me any confidence that they can make our economic, energy, environmental or security situation better. Nor do I want to wait as they stumble through on-the-job training, as Obama has.

Yes, Obama’s given a very uneven performance, but I consider him the most ready to be President of the United States. As he ought to be.

Can’t Capture Lightning In A Jar Twice

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In the Nineties, I had a pretty decent career at PR agencies and selling related services. I was very much front-and-center. In the last decade, though, I was happier to stick to the shadows and let the spotlight shine on others.

Still, I missed the action. Four years ago, I made a bad career move; I aggressively pursued a PR agency job without really considering that the sole owner only wanted to do things his way, which is run the place like a factory. After that fiasco, I woke up to the reality that lightning can’t be captured in a jar twice.

One of my Nineties bosses whom I now admire greatly, Steve Cody of Peppercom, writes an honest and occasionally biting Repmanblog (http://www.repmanblog.com/repman/2012/02/agencies-look-for-rising-stars-not-waning-ones.html#comments), which a few days ago dealt with the struggles of Dave Shea, an unemployed 55-year-old advertising copywriter. The full story is in Advertising Age.

The article and Steve’s blog hit home. Just a few days ago, the guy I partner with in selling creative services to small- to mid-sized businesses discussed this. We agreed that unless you are a great salesperson who brings $$$ and strong client relationships to the mix, your talents as a designer, branding guru, writer, media relations pro, etc. are essentially considered commodities, especially after 40.

The same applies in nearly all fields. One day you wake up, and you’re no longer “the kid.” I think the only exceptions are politics or if you rise through the top ranks. Even then, we know that an economic tremor like the last one makes everyone both expensive and expendable.

In this decade, I’ve focused on creating my own projects. Nowadays, when I contract out to agencies and see my contemporaries still looking for the agency to be the Big Daddy and take care of them, I feel fortunate. Even if my immediate economic struggles sometimes seem greater, I know my long-term resourcefulness is stronger.

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