Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fear of failure undermines a man at the top of his game.

Fear of failure undermines a man at the top of his game.

The New York Times carried a story today that resonated with me.

It is the story of a man who, for more than a decade, was the most recognized voice in horse racing.  Tom Durkin called the Triple Crown race thirty times.  He gave it up yesterday, overcome with fear.

I have felt the kind of fear that drove Durkin away from his job.  It is paralyzing, mind-numbing fear that, like an electric shock, runs through the body, locks the jaw and races the heart.

Having achieved the success I coveted early in my career, I sometimes found it difficult to "own" the achievement.  Some voice, deep within my would sneak in to tell me that I did not deserve to be here, at the front of the room, at the top of the company, speaking to and audience who wanted to hear what I had to say.

Not without difficulty, I eventually took possession of my success, and put it in its place.

As cliché as it sounds, I realized that being a father, husband, friend was far more important than anything I did in business.  And that understanding freed me to do my job as best as I could, and enjoy myself in the process. 

Here is Tom Durkin's story as reported by the New York Times.

April 27, 2011

Panic of Final Stretch Stills Voice of Triple Crown

Tom Durkin is no longer studying photos of Uncle Mo, Dialed In or any of the probable contenders to win next month’s Kentucky Derby. He is not packing his binoculars and notebook of more than 2,000 adjectives and phrases, the palette and paints of the track announcer’s craft, for his annual trip to Churchill Downs.

Because for the past decade, The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, as the Derby is known, has been anything but for one of the signature voices of thoroughbred racing.

Instead, the prospect of calling the race has, every year, prompted months of anguish as Durkin tried to muster the serenity to hold it together and conjure an accurate and evocative word picture for the chaos that is 20 horses thundering around an oval for a mile and a quarter. Last year in Louisville, in fact, Durkin was stretched out on a psychiatrist’s couch days before the race undergoing hypnosis in the hope of conquering his performance anxiety.

He has taken medication, tried prayer and breathing exercises, and has read everything and anything about what, for him, has been a paralyzing dread — including how Sir Laurence Olivier developed stage fright in his fifties and often was shoved onto the stage.

“I’ve even, heaven forbid, tried diet and exercise,” said Durkin, a big and gregarious man.

Finally, this week, after calling the Derby 13 times, 9 of them for NBC, Durkin, 60, surrendered. He did not renew his contract as NBC’s announcer of the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, racing’s Triple Crown events. What began with a flush of panic in 1987 as Ferdinand and Alysheba dueled to a photo finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, grew steadily into a debilitating anxiety by 2005.

Though he will continue to call other races, his decision to leave the Triple Crown is no small loss, for Durkin’s mellifluous baritone and vivid narration had, in real time, provided the soundtrack for the history of modern thoroughbred racing. He also called the first 22 runnings of the Breeders’ Cup for NBC.

“It’s something I have dealt with a long, long time and the cumulative effect finally got to me,” Durkin said Wednesday morning by telephone.

“It’s like you’re getting hit on the head with a hammer, and you do everything you can to make it better — you take aspirin and put a bandage on it, but eventually you got to take your head out from beneath the hammer. Life is too short and precious.”

And the job of calling the Derby, it seems, was so mentally taxing that it helped produce Durkin’s greatest career gaffe. In 2009, he missed the eventual Derby winner Mine That Bird — a horse that had gone off at odds greater than 50-to-1 — rushing up the rail in the stretch until the final strides.

“I wish I could get that one back,” Durkin said.

Durkin has soldiered through as many as 2,000 races a year for nearly 34 years but has been tormented by the three Triple Crown races that in total span less than seven minutes.

“Those three races, though, are like being up to bat with a 3-2 count in Game 7 of the World Series,” he said. “I had to get out from underneath the heavy stuff.”

Among the first to reach out to Durkin was Dave Johnson, who was the voice of 24 Derbys dating to Affirmed’s victory in 1978.

“You are the unerasable audio history of a race with a 20-horse field,” Johnson said.

Larry Collmus, who will replace Durkin on the NBC telecast, understands the rigors of racing and is about to experience the heightened expectations of national television. He has called some big races for television — the Florida Derby and the Haskell Invitational — and found the spotlight unnerving.

“We’re not robots,” he said.

Like Durkin, Collmus’s routine is all about “remembering and forgetting and remembering again.”

“We study the colors and silks for the upcoming races and you get anywhere from 6 to 12 names in your head,” said Collmus, who is the announcer at Gulfstream Park in Florida and Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

“Accuracy is paramount; lots of people are invested in the horse,” Collmus said. “You paint a picture until they get to the wire. Then, they are gone out of my head after five seconds, and a new batch goes in.”

Durkin has called the last 30 Triple Crown races and was at his best when Real Quiet in 1998, and then Smarty Jones in 2004, were caught at the wire of the Belmont Stakes and failed to complete a Triple Crown sweep.

“And Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000!” he intoned. “But Birdstone is gonna make him earn it today! The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong away! Birdstone is an unsung threat! They’re coming down to the finish! Can Smarty Jones hold on?! Here comes Birdstone!”

The night before that call, Durkin wanted to be prepared for a transcendent performance. So he took a surveyor’s tap out to the track and measured 31 lengths, Secretariat’s record-setting margin of victory in 1973. He then made a mark on the rail so that if Smarty Jones turned in a record-setting performance he could tell the audience immediately.

Durkin knows that what he is giving up is nothing short of his identity. He will continue to call races at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga through 2015, but he is giving up the opportunity to describe moments like Barbaro soaring to victory in the 2006 Derby or the tragedy of the colt breaking down two weeks later in the Preakness.

“I am a racetrack announcer, it is who I am,” he said. “I call the Kentucky Derby. My profession’s greatest stage, but now that is no longer true.”

It was not an easy decision. In January, he told Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports, that he wanted out of the Derby. Two sleepless days later, Durkin called him back and said he had changed his mind.

Up until three weeks ago, he was studying horses for identifying blazes and stars, watching video of races around the country, and preparing the flash cards he studies right up until the race.

“I was getting ready to chisel in stone what deserved to be chiseled in stone,” he said.
But three weeks ago, as the finishing touches were being put on his contract, Durkin felt the adrenaline and heartache and tension roaring inside.

“I wasn’t up to it,” he said. “It’s a tough professional decision, but a great personal one.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

Meeting an American Icon and not knowing who he was.

Meeting an American icon and not knowing who he was.© Joel Baumwoll
Working as a part-time salesman behind the men's furnishings counter at Bamberger's and M. Epstein's department stores in Morristown, New Jersey was a lot more pleasant than my prior summer jobs cleaning up building scraps at newly constructed homes.  I wore a suit and tie, met lots of girls, and received a 25% employee discount.

I approached each customer as a challenge, figuring out how to sell him or her at least one item they hadn't asked for.  If they came in looking for a shirt, could I sell them two?  If they wanted six pair of socks, could I get them to spring for a scarf?  As I got more practiced, I took bigger risks.  Moving from a shirt to a tie was easy. Going from a sweater to a sports jacket and slacks was a big jump.  More often than not, I would succeed in upping the ante.

Every once in a while I would really connect with a customer. When this happened, it seemed like I could sell them anything.  The older salespeople would stand around and watch whenever someone was on a roll.  This was more than a spectator sport.  We earned a 3% commission on individual sales and a 1% commission on departmental sales over a preset target.
The summer of 1961, I was working in Bambergers, part of the Macy’s group. I found myself alone, close to closing time, when a man walked in to the department accompanied by a white-suited woman.  He walked erratically, with the herky-jerky motion of a person with cerebral palsy.  I watched from the corner of my eye as they approached the men's suits.  No one else was on duty that summer afternoon, so he was my responsibility. 

Hoping they were looking for another department, I asked, "Can I help you?"  "We need to buy a suit," the nurse answered, "for him."  She pointed to her companion who had difficulty standing still.  God, I thought, how am I ever going to measure his sleeves and inseam?  I sized up the man, who was slightly-built and very thin.  "38 regular, I think," I said to them as I steered him to the rack of suits.  "Do you have anything in particular in mind?  I asked.  The nurse answered, "A nice dark suit will do fine." 

I slipped one jacket on for size.  Good guess.  It fit perfectly, except for the sleeves, which would need three inches taken off.  I rolled up the pant legs and led him to a changing room.  He had a strong body odor, which made me uncomfortable.  
After a while he emerged with the pants and jacket on, and I marked legs and sleeves with chalk for the tailor.  Grabbing the pants at the back, I said, "these will need to be taken in," and pinned about two inches of slack at the waist.  The man returned to the changing room.

As we waited, the nurse came over and, in an almost conspiratorial whisper,  said, "Do you know who that is?" 
I hadn’t a clue.
"That's Woody Guthrie, and he's going to get a medal from the President Kennedy."

All at once, I was ashamed of myself. He was an American icon whose songs I knew well. 
He would wear the suit I had sold him when JFK saw him, but I had been reluctant to wait on him. 
He died 1967 of Huntington's chorea, a rare inherited disease of the nervous system.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Maybe the worst job I ever had.

Maybe the worst job I ever had.  ©Joel Baumwoll

Along with fun and games, there are jobs you have to do that have are immensely hard, boring, and interminable all at one time.

These require special effort. It helps to have conquered one or two of these monsters in your early years so the ones that fall in your lap later in life don't seem so bad after all.

Probably the worst job I ever had was given to me when I was eighteen and on summer vacation from my first year in college. I was hard up for money and as driven by hormones as any normal kid that age would be.

My car was survival and cash was essential. The big expense was the weekly drive from northern New Jersey to the Greenwich Village jazz clubs I loved to spend hours in drinking vodka and orange juice and listening to the likes of Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderly.

So when Hank Luther, half of the home building company called Luther and Gottlieb telephoned with work, I jumped (for several years I thought the company name was Lutheran Gottlieb, an odd combination of religions). "Meet me on Valley View Drive at seven tomorrow morning," Hank told me. "I've got a job for you."

I rarely went to bed before four a.m., so a seven o'clock call was tough. But I made it on time, arriving in my '48 Chevy coupe to see Hank's pick up waiting for me in front of a half finished house.

"C'mon," Hank instructed as we walked around the piles of lumber and cinder block to the back of the house. I followed him into the middle of the back yard, which was covered with a hard packed clay and strewn with rock of all sizes. It looked like a moonscape. 

In the center of the yard was an enormous hole. It must have been twenty feet deep and twenty feet across.

Hank pointed at the hole and said "Dry well." He waited for some sign of recognition, which didn't come from me. "Dry well," he repeated. "I need it filled up with stones,” at which point he picked up a rock about six inches across and dropped it into the hole. "Stones at least that big, but not bigger than that one." 

He pointed at a small boulder that looked like a Volkswagen Beetle and must have weighed five hundred pounds. "By the time you're done, the yard will be nice and clean. You can use that wheelbarrow and dolly," he advised me, as though I might think to carry these rocks on my back.

Monday morning I showed up for work, filling the wheelbarrow and dumping the contents in the hole. I started with the rocks closest to the hole, but in a week I was working a sixty-foot radius from the epicenter. Eventually, I was pushing the load from the edges of the property, more than two hundred feet away. It was hot, sweaty work.

The masons, burly black men who drank Ballantine Beer from huge bottles and listened to wonderful blues on a portable radio had fun watching my "skinny white ass hauling rock."

They joked and talked incessantly while they worked and were good company at lunch. I was sad when they finished their work and left me alone at the site. The grim white carpenter who chain-smoked "roll your owns" didn't talk much and cared less about me.

That was the summer of the dry well. At four fifty an hour, I made enough to go to the City every weekend with some left over. 

And no matter how tough a project comes my way, I always remember that huge empty hole and all those rocks.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

True stories of a real Mad Man: How I put my foot in my mouth BIGTIME.

True stories of a real Mad Man: How I put my foot in my mouth BIGTIME. ©Joel Baumwoll

Did you ever have the experience of unknowingly doing or saying something insulting or inappropriate and finding out afterwards that you had committed a gaffe so big it wouldn't fit in the trunk of a Cadillac?

Well, friends, it's a terrible feeling.  Mainly because it's a done deed. The moving finger, as the saying goes, has writ, and neither piety or wit can erase one line....

One of the most pungent gaffes in my career occurred shortly after I arrived at J. Walter Thompson to run the Research and Planning Department.

Kodak was one of Thompson's biggest and bluest chip clients. Kodak commercials were famous for making people moist eyed and bringing lumps to throats all over the country.  Our advertising was Norman Rockwell in 35mm film, and we were proud of it.

George Eversman, the top account man on Kodak, befriended me early in the game.  I liked George.  He was a salt of the earth type; a pipe smoking ex-Marine fighter pilot with movie star good looks, graying temples and an earnest manner.  "Darn" was the strongest thing I ever heard him say.  George was impressed with my ability to make presentations about complex business issues interesting enough to keep an audience from falling asleep.  He invited me to make a presentation to Kodak top management in Rochester.

This was a great opportunity to score some points with this big and powerful client, as well as with George.  The thought that a good performance would not go unmentioned to my boss did not escape me either.

At that time (1973) Kodak was in serious trouble with the FTC.  Like our modern day corporate giant, Microsoft, Kodak dominated its category, the photography market, to the tune of 98%.  Film, paper, developing, amateur cameras all bore the familiar "K" in the yellow box. 

The FTC had their sights set on getting Kodak for some violation of antitrust law.  It was a big fish and some anti-trust lawyer was hot to land it.  One of the most sensitive areas had to do with predatory marketing or business practices designed to keep a competitor from gaining a foothold.  For example, selling film and cameras as a system was a no-no. That would keep other camera makers from making a sale, which would constitute abuse of their market dominance to restrain competition unfairly.

Years of being under the FTC microscope had produced a kind of Orwellian doublespeak in the halls of Kodak.  No one talked of "competition" or of gaining "share of market," rather they spoke of meeting people's needs and offering improved products.  An acronym called SPICE was used as a kind of mantra to keep people from straying into dangerous territory in their memos and documents.  A close as I can remember, SPICE stood for something like Stockholders, Public, Investors, Customers and Employees.  These were the folks that Kodak toiled to keep happy.

Unfortunately I hadn't been told any of this before I marched up in front of Kodak's top brass with an easel full of charts.

With the precision of Von Clauzwitz planning a battle, I had prepared a treatise designed to conquer the world.  Hoping to impress Kodak with the depth of my thinking and insight into their business, I launched into a presentation that talked about competition, share of market, gaining business from competitors, and more. 

As I began, I noticed one man stand and quietly leave the room.  A few minutes later, several more followed.  Taken aback, I plowed gamely ahead, until the polite exits looked like a full-scale evacuation.  

I a few minutes, I had an audience of one--George.

I was dumbfounded!  Had there been some secret signal for a bomb scare or a fire drill that I was unaware of?  I looked beseechingly at George, who sat in front with a pained expression on his handsome face.  

He looked ashen.

Something was seriously wrong.  Hoping against hope that it was a batch of bad scallops from the company cafeteria, I asked George "What's going on?”

"I goofed," he said graciously.  "I should have told you about SPICE and the FTC.  

SPICE?  What the hell is SPICE?  It is a code word for staying clean with the anti-trust division of the FTC.  Oh boy...had I stepped on a land mine.  It was like giving a speech in favor of socialized medicine at an AMA convention!  Oy.

Kodak's executives are not supposed to participate in meetings to discuss competition or share of market.  They don't even use the term "share of market" or the word "competition."  They don't want to be vulnerable to some deposition or subpoena.

As far as we're concerned this meeting never happened."

So much for my gala debut as a marketing star with the Kodak account.

I learned to do my homework more carefully before any other meetings with clients.

We decided it would be best for my partner Sonia to take the lead with Kodak.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Tsunami, the Geisha and a song.

The Tsunami, the Geisha and a song.
(A story by Joel Baumwoll based on the reporting of Norimitsu Onishi and published in The New York Times, April 4, 2011).

The giant wave that destroyed villages in Japan was the fourth that Tsuyako Ito had experienced in her eighty-four years living in the coastal village of Kamaishi.
 According to an article in the New York Times this one was “most frightening.”

Twice in her life, she had been carried to safety from the waves.  The first time when she was six-years old.  This time, her rescuer was a fifty-nine year-old owner of a sake store, Hiroyuki Maruki.  As the floodwaters tore at Ito’s hilltop home, she knew she must run or die.  Her grandmother had told her that a tsunami is “like a wide-open mouth that swallows everything in its path, so that victory comes to those who run away as fast as possible.”
So run, she did.  With regret, because Ito was scheduled to perform that evening at an exclusive hotel restaurant in the 117 year-old ryotei where she began working as a Geisha seventy years ago.  The Times report quotes Setsuko Kanazawa, whose family owns Saiwairo, the ryotei where she performs describing Ito as “a famous beauty, she both danced and played the shamisen, while most geishas were skilled only at playing the shamisen.”
Ito’s dream as a child was to “become a leading geisha in Kamaishi.  Her nephew says that her father, whose small time construction company had ties with the yakuza, supported her ambitions.  He is quoted as saying that her father was said to have told her she was suited for that life.  He added, “I think he did it to guarantee some debts.”
Recovering from her ordeal in a rescue center, Ito was sad that she had been unable to sing that night.  As the Times reports, she was hired to entertain a party of four in honor of a colleague’s transfer from Kamaishi.  Ito reported that she had picked just the right song, one meant to steel young samurai going to their first battle.
“I’d practiced the night before, and after putting my thoughts together, I thought this song would be all right,” she said, explaining that the song told the story of a young samurai on horseback going to his first, long-awaited battle.  “It ended without my singing,” she said. “It’s such a nice song, too.”

But her song was not to be.  As the earth shook, and the giant waves broke through the famous seawall built to withstand the mightiest tsunami, Ito knew enough to run.  But her legs gave out, and she would have perished with 1300 of Kamaishi’s residents had it not been for Mr.  Maruki.
He lifted Ito on his back and carried her to the top of a hill, away from the rushing waters.  “I thought she’d be light, but she was surprisingly heavy,” Mr. Maruki told the Times reporter.  “I wondered at one point what I was going to do.”
Ito had no doubts about her rescuer though, recalling, “feeling the soft warmth of his back.”  Why had Maruki risked his life to come looking for her as walls collapsed and neighbors were swept away?
He explained that he is the president of a group dedicated to preserving an old melody called “Kamaishi Seashore Song.”
“She is the only one who knows how to sing that song,” Mr. Maruki said.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My teenage encounter with road rage. Or..sometimes it's good to have a gun.

My teenage encounter with road rage.  Or... Sometimes it’s good to have a gun.
© Joel Baumwoll

When I was 17 years old, driving was as important a rite of passage as was having sex. Whenever we had nothing better to do, the next best thing was to drive around the lake and see what was "going on."

It was especially dead after Labor day, when the summer folks were back in "the city." I can't count how many times I drove my '48 Chevy coupe around the lake, hoping against hope to stumble into some fantastic party, or get invited home by one of the knock-out mother's helpers, whose locations I had charted as carefully as an artillery-spotter marking enemy gun emplacements.

Smoking Camels and cruising slowly in second gear up and down the hills, around the serpentine curves, my head swiveled left and right, on the lookout for a good time. 

Even today, I vividly recall a girl of sixteen or seventeen who just that summer had moved into a house along the hilly road that climbed past the clubhouse on the way to West Lakeshore Drive.  

She was a dead ringer for Brigitte Bardot!  

I had seen her in a bikini on the beach, taking care of two little kids.  My hormone-driven body vibrated with the thought of taking her on a late night ride to Upper Mountain Avenue.

Pouty lips, tousled blond hair, and a body that made my pulse race. 

Oh the fantasies and schemes that ran around in my head! To meet her, to date her. What was her name? Where was she from?

This particular September afternoon in 1957, I thought I saw her coming out of her house in her swim suit. Like a detective on stakeout, I slowed to watch her.

In the process my car drifted far over the center line. 

At that moment, a chrome-laden '55 Desoto with huge fins came barreling around the curve. Only my cat-like reflexes saves us from a terrible fender bender. Both cars swerved, narrowly avoiding a collision.

"Whew," I thought, "that was close," and drove on looking for a place to turn around so I could resume stalking Brigitte. I worked on my pick-up lines, rehearsing what I would say to her when I walked over to her beach blanket. 

Something smooth like "Hi, you must be new around here."  

I primped my Elvis-style pompadour and lifted my shirt collar.

As I crept toward the nearly empty parking lot of the First beach, I looked in my mirror to see the '55 Desoto roaring up the gravel in a cloud of dust, heading right for me. 

I was about to have my first exposure to what later became known as road-rage.

I figured I couldn't outrun this guy, and the thought of getting into a fist fight didn't thrill me, especially since I didn't know how big he was. 

What to do?

Now, in those days I was enthralled with guns. Especially German lugers and Walther P-38 pistols. 

I had purchased several from a company called "replica guns" that ran ads in the back of the "men's" magazines; the ones usually found in barber shops, that made up a vital part of my kid literature. 

These pistols were said to be “exact replicas,” made from cast steel, with working slides, magazines and hammers. They even came with solid brass cartridges.  Of course, the ad made it clear that these were "replicas" incapable of firing bullets, and were "for collectors only."

It so happened that I had one of these lethal looking replicas in my glove   compartment. 

As the Desoto slid to a stop, flying gravel into my door and window, I saw that this guy was really smoked. Cool as a cucumber, I took the black P-38 out and just held it on my lap pointing at the door.

The guy from the Desoto came tearing across the space between our two cars, his face contorted in rage, yelling something incomprehensible like "gerdfuginkidsdrivebreakyerneck." 

There I am, sitting preternaturally still and cool, kinda like Clint Eastwood did years later, when he said, "Go ahead, make my day."  A cigarette hung from my lips, formed into an insolent smile, practiced many hours in front of a mirror after seeing Marlon Brando in "The Wild One." 

In a frenzy to get to me, Mr. Desoto grabs the door and practically pulls it off the hinges. As the door swung open, he reaches out with his arms, fingers twitching, to grab my neck. 

Suddenly his eyes drop to my lap. He sees the gun.  I sat, unmoving, the Black Beauty flat against my thigh, the barrel pointing at his expansive gut.

He stopped so quickly, he looked like he'd run into a plate glass window. I was fascinated to watch the color drain from his face, like someone turned the color knob on the TV to B&W. 

"Don't get excited" he says, backing away slowly. I hadn't moved a muscle, and watched him walk quickly backward towards his car, his eyes riveted on the barrel of the P-38.

He fishtailed out of the parking lot, and I sat there, sweating and not a little scared.

I will say one thing. Even though I didn't connect with Brigitte, the day wasn't boring.

By the way, I never did meet that girl. Maybe she was just a figment of my imagination.  She lives on in my memory, like Ahab's great while whale.

Never saw the Desoto again either.

Jeez, the stupid things a kid of 17 can do.