Thursday, January 8, 2009

February 2005: One Year Anniversary

It is hard to believe that I am beginning the second year of this e-letter project. As I have commented before, this venture has surpassed all expectations. It has been a great way to keep in touch with friends and family. I am amazed by the feedback I get with each letter.

I have written about all kinds of subjects from health and fitness to terrorism and religion. I have shared warm memories of my great uncle Rouben and reminisced about Armenian picnics and Woodstock. About ten of you write me with each issue, about five to ten more write me if a particular topic tickled them on one hand or touched a nerve on the other.

I think the January 2005 issue reflecting on the Winter Survival Camp-Out was the most popular. I received several phone calls and a lot more e-mail on that piece, all of it positive.

People ask when I find the time to write and how I choose my topics. I thought I would use this first anniversary e-letter to address these queries.

e-Mailing List: The mailing list started out at around sixty-something. It is now up to 146 and growing. Most additions came from people on the list asking me to add another person or two. I did have one person ask to be taken off the list. She expected more somehow. I am not sure exactly what more she expected. Better grammar, syntax, language? Certainly, I can improve in this regard, but I think she wanted more depth in terms of content. Well, what can I say except to quote the famous cartoon old salt and philosopher, Popeye the Sailor, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”

When the distribution list gets to 800,000+ I will hire an editor and take on advertisers… sorry, but at that point, say the year 2043 according to A.C. Nielson projections, it will just be about the business!

e-Letter Length: The first e-letter last year was the shortest. It was only 930 words. The longest was the last, the January 2005 e-Letter, which weighed in at a hefty 3,310 words!
Being, among other things a statistician, I am compelled to report that the average word length was 2,279 words. The standard deviation was 556.5 words (whatever this means).

Where do I write?: One of my favorite places to write is sitting at my kitchen table. This usually means that it is a Weekend morning. The days I like the best is when the sun is pouring in, the espresso is steaming, and I am in a rush to finish my writing and get out on my bike. Often the TV is on, primarily to play havoc with my concentration. Usually, I watch CBS Sunday Morning or ESPN Classic. I write, I watch, and I write some more.

On most weekend mornings, ESPN Classic re-runs versions of their biography series: Sports Century. I learn something every time I watch these shows. They provide a perspective that is only afforded by the passing of time and more often than not, the passing of the athlete being profiled.

CBS Sunday Morning is a great TV news magazine. They chose stories that are off the beaten path of most news shows and take a little more time to cover the story in more depth.
But lest you think I am sophisticated in my TV tastes, just know one thing. I watch CNN, C-Span, and CBS Sunday Morning only after flipping around to ensure that the Stooges are not on. The Stooges always take precedence. I will forsake the news for an Abbott and Costello or a Marx Brothers movie, but the Stooges always take precedence. It must have taken me four hours to write one page on December 31 when AMC was running a Three Stooges Marathon.

During the workweek, I have to differentiate if I am commuting to my office or whether I am traveling. If I am commuting, I like to take an early train and hole up at a Starbucks one block from my office. I think this is one of the top three Starbucks in Manhattan. You have to wait up to fifteen minutes to pay a premium for a cup of coffee and you have to wait even longer to get a seat. Yet, in the first hour of the morning, there is no wait for coffee and plenty of seats.

When I am traveling, it is hard to establish a routine. I will certainly write on the airplane coming and going. That is a no-brainer and an excellent way to pass the time on an airplane. Otherwise, during a trip, it is tough to establish a set time to write. Sometimes, I will write first thing in the morning, others just before turning in, or more often than not I take five minutes here and there during the day, between meetings.

How do I write?: I handwrite a page each day. I used to hate handwriting and thought that word processors were the greatest thing in the world of letters. I used to hate to write drafts and again the word processor was heaven sent. You type, you cut and paste, and voila, soon it is done, no drafts, just the finished version. This works well for short pieces. Now I find handwriting the only way to go. I write and overwrite a topic. I will write the same thing a few times with different twists. I then take the daily entries and type parts of them into the finished letter. I even print the typed draft and mark it up some more. It is amazing, however, that typos still make it through this process!

In school, right through college, I used to struggle to write at any length. I would struggle to make 500 words the standard length of a collegiate essay. In the typewriter world of ancient times, I would play with the spacing and margins to try to get another page out of my 493 word essays. I read somewhere that Victor Hugo used to write a large number of words or pages per day. I read somewhere else that for each printed sentence, most authors write ten. Yuck! No wonder writes were reclusive and eccentric. Now having written a page a day for almost three years, I see the value in this. I am writing drafting, writing, and re-writing… who woulda thunk.

What kind of Pen do I Use?: I write with ball point pens. I have several pens of varying degrees of quality. I guess I collect them. About half of my pens are gifts from various corporate events and the rest I have bought. I have two Watermans, several Cross pens, a Mont Blanc, a Marquis by Waterford, a Tiffany, a Rotring, a Monteverde, a Retro1951 and a couple of Lamys. More and more pens are standardizing on Parker and now even Cross refills. This makes sense as it frees the pen makers to focus their R&D on the design of the body which is really what differentiates one pen from another. The cheapest Bic, PaperMate, Pentels and Zebras write nicely, but I prefer a finer instrument. I like thicker more hefty pens these days.

My weapon of choice is a rather hefty Caran D’Ache, the best pen you have never heard of. These Swiss made beauties are no where near as ubiquitous as Mont Blancs, Cross or other marks most people tote. I first got a Caran D’Ache from a potential Japanese supplier at the end of their sales pitch. I had never heard of the brand and surprised to see it was Swiss made and not Japanese. Everything else I had ever received from the Japanese, whose culture it is to present token gifts to business partners at every major meeting, was always Japanese made and usually a product of their one of the companies in their conglomerate.

I did not think any more of it. The pen had a simple presentation that looked more like an inexpensive mechanical pencil than a pen. I set it aside. Yet, within a few months, it was the pen I was using exclusively. I loved writing with it. It was smooth, fluid, the lines were consistent and solid, and it never ever clotted or clumped. Like the old Bic slogan, it wrote first time, every time. One day as I was walking by a landmark New York pen store, I stopped in and asked the salesperson about the obscure brand. He simply said, “The Caran D’Ache refill is arguably the best writing ball point in the world.” I agreed. I now own several. We never did business with that Japanese company but I owe them for turning me on to Caran D’Ache.

Why not use a Really nice Fountain Pen?: I know a fellow, Dan Ciampa, he has written several Management books, focused on Manufacturing and Quality. He told me that he hand writes all of his books. He uses a fountain pen; a very fine fountain pen. While I am sure that is a great writing experience, I could not do it. Fountain pens are too much to fuss with on two fronts.

First, I do not want to carry around and change the ink cartridges as often as one needs to. I change ball point refills once every year or two. Secondly, I do not like any pens with separate caps and bodies. I like the click or twist pens that can easily be opened or closed with one hand.
I used to work with a lady that collects fine fountain pens. She would save up and spends hundreds and even thousands of dollars for a vintage pen, or what has become a recent trend, really expensive fountain pens made just for collectors. Amazingly, she never used the pens. They are to have and to show. She keeps them in really nice display cabinets specially made and sold for pen collectors. They are part of her décor. I thought it would have been understandable and considerably cooler if she used these pens to write notes and cards to her friends and family on very fine personalized stationary. But no, she buys the pens to have and to look at.

Here is an example of a daily page, February 20, 2005: How do I pick what to write about each day?: On most days, I have no idea what to write about. Sometimes I come up with a great idea and much less often, I even remember the idea when I sit down to write. Current events will often lead me to a topic like the recent Iraqi elections, rain and mudslides in Southern California, or just something wonderful, or horrible, happening to someone I know.

Other times it is just something I read in the newspaper or hear on the radio. Nothing special, just something that catches my interest. Today is a great example of this. It was a cold sunny day under a cloudless blue sky and I had a 7 am car to La Guardia to catch a plane to Miami for our Division Finance meeting. I left early to enjoy an afternoon of Florida warmth before the kick-off dinner.

In the car on the way to the airport, I was thumbing through the Sunday New York Times. On page one of the Business section I saw a photo of what was clearly a private enterprise missile used to launch satellites. I was surprised in reading that the article was about cremation. It seems that cremation has increased in popularity to the point where 28% of Americans are choosing this option. Cremation only costs $1,000 compared to the average cost of $6,500 for a traditional funeral. The article reported that people were looking for unique things to do with their ashes. At the same time, the funeral industry was looking to offer more interesting cremation options in order to recover some of their lost revenue. Voila! You can now pay $5,300 to have seven grams of your ashes or those of a loved one or beloved pet rocketed into an earthly orbit. If that seems too much money, you can opt for the one gram option which is bargain priced at $999.

Other options included having your ashes be used as filler for pyrotechnics. For the several thousand dollar fee, your friends and family can gather and toast your memory with champagne while watching a fireworks show that scatters your toasted ashes in the heavens.

The one that really got my attention was a Chicago based company who would compress your ashes into a yellow synthetic diamond. This was a most pricey option. It would cost your estate $2,500 to turn you into a quarter carat ring and a lofty $14,000 for one just under a carat. You could become your own family heirloom. There are risks, however. One of your descendants could decide to pawn you if they were to become financially strapped. Or, on the other hand, they might like the jewelry you so much, they might decide to be buried with it and you would end up right where you paid all that money to avoid!

Upon getting on the plane, I read another article, this one in the American Airlines magazine on memory. The premise of the article was, as I have often written and said upon taking on this daily writing exercise, “use it or lose it.” The article quoted scientists and medicos who explained that neurons and synapses that are not will disconnect. “The mind gets rusty and capacity fades with our practice” according to Alan S. Brown, Professor of Psychology at SMU. Write on, right on!

Thanks to all of you for a great first year!


    This company will make a crystal ball like paperweight out of your ashes.

    This company presses your ashes into a vinyl record.

    This company will create a pod of your ashes that when buried will grow into a tree.