One Thing Leads to Another

Maybe some people lead lives of consistency, in a single, sure trajectory.  In the Navy it’s said that a ship is all about velocity and vector.  It’s the vector I wonder about…perhaps true for a ship but less true for most people.  Certainly less true for me.

I was reminded of this in Commonwealth Books this morning in Boston, where I stopped by to check out the recent arrivals at one of my favorite rare & secondhand bookstores in the city.  Of course I always find something and today was no exception: a memoir by James Laughlin called Byways and written when he was eighty, published after his death.  James Laughlin was both a writer and poet himself but more famously the founder and publisher of New Directions, the imprint of the best of modern literature ever published in America. Scion of a great Pittsburgh steel family he was patrician to the core yet a friend of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth and an entire generation of new writers.  I had lunch with him once at Meadow House in Norfolk, CT on a warm summer afternoon.  I think his cook gave us tuna fish sandwiches.  Being a young editor at a photographic publishing company and he the great man of American literature–he published Ezra Pound’s Cantos–he could have given me anything and I would have thought it the best meal in the world.

This was a period of my life when books and literature were what I knew. I had recently returned from Trinity College, Dublin with a masters degree in Anglo-Irish literature and on the basis of that was hired as the managing editor of Aperture, the nonprofit photographic publishing firm.

During those years I met every great photographer alive, from Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Cole and Brett Weston, Paul Caponigro, Henri Cartier Bresson to a younger generation of photographers such as Lee Friedlander and the great photographer of Gypsies, Josef Koudelka. While at Aperture I also became involved with other small presses of notable fame, chiefly The Jargon Society and the Eakins Press.  With the kind and generous Leslie Katz, publisher of the Eakins Press, I had lunch with Monroe Wheeler in New York, many dinners at Lincoln Kirstein’s amazing house, coffee with Mikal Barishnikov, tea with Father Fly of  James Agee fame, the only man I ever knew who used an ear trumpet.  I had breakfast with Lord Mountbatten, arranging for him to write the introduction to an Aperture book I was editing: Photographs of British India.  Mountbatten had been the last Viceroy.  On another occasion I was sent to the editorial offices at Doubleday to meet with Jackie Onassis.

That vector lost velocity when I went to business school and turned my back on a world I had loved.  After graduation I went to work for Benton & Bowles, then the finest, classic package goods advertising agency in the business.  My first assignment was as the assistant account executive on P&G’s star product Rely Tampons (yes, me) only months before Rely was implicated in Toxic Shock Syndrome and taken off the market.  Baptism by fire. Because P&G had boasted that it had reached 95% of the women target in the country, the FTC made the company run “remedial” advertising to the same 95%.  It cost P&G over $60 million in remedial advertising alone.

When I hear young agency people talk about stress–like nearly all the young women at a tech PR firm I recently worked for–I look at them and think: you have no idea.  The publisher of Aperture had a notoriously bad temper and frequently would make our only woman employee, the lovely Ann Kennedy, cry. When she did he would scream at her “Crying’s not a proper officer tactic. Go home to your playpen and come back when you feel like being a grownup.”  Hardly to be condoned, but the young women at the PR firm–and there were mostly young women–would likely have to have been hospitalized.  They were so naive and vulnerable they couldn’t even deal with listening to someone’s distress.

My vector has diverged many times.  Left turns, cliffs, mountains, clear skies and clouds.  All good in their own way, though often not perceived so at the time.  In every case where something didn’t go my way, a new and usually unexpected pathway opened up.  Trust fate even when it’s hard.

It’s about being open: open to what comes next, to new ideas, new people.  Be open to life.  Sometimes we may feel like Job–2011 has been such a year–but it’s the tests that build us.  Even Steve Jobs had setbacks at Apple and returned to create the company we know today.

It’s in this spirit that I’m building something new.  I hope people, and business, will join me.

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