On the Russian River

Early morning fog rising though the redwoods on the Russian River.  Twenty-four guys in tents.  Only Thomas is up, preparing breakfast for the group.  We’re amazingly lucky that Thomas, a professional chef and restaurant owner, is along on the trip. He’s dicing potatoes and onions, frying bacon over the coals, slicing mango, whipping eggs, grilling sourdough bread.

It’s still early and some of the guys are sitting at the river’s edge, meditating.  It’s silent.  The morning’s calm and peaceful.  Krishnan rebuilds the fire from the night before; the day begins.

This is a fellowship of men with a common purpose.  Men who have come together from different life journeys.  Each will return to their own paths, connected by bonds of friendship and support.  Some of us are wounded; some are strong.  Some quiet; others full of jokes.  All of us have possibilities yet to be seen.

What does it mean to be part of a group–this group of men here on the Russian River, spending the weekend together for the third time in as many years?  The composition has changed a bit each year, but it’s the same group, enjoying the same fellowship.  Our time together is precious.  It’s larger than each of us on own own.  We sit around a campfire and tell stories, stories about ourselves, our secrets and pain, happy times, passions, our hopes, fears and dreams.

It’s early evening on the river.  Steelheads jump, flashing their silver bodies for just a moment, caught in the corner of my eye.  Dan casts his line into the cold dark water, slowing pulling in the line, a few tiny nibbles bobbing the fly.  Mike and Patrick try their hand.  No one catches anything, but that’s okay.  It’s a moment out of our everyday lives as the light fades into near darkness.  This is serenity–what we ask for and rarely experience.  The weekend is serene.  We don’t want to change anything.

Shall our blood fail?  Or shall it come to be

The blood of paradise?  And shall the earth

Seem all of paradise that we shall know?

The sky will be much friendlier then than now,

A part of labor and a part of pain,

And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning

The night air is cold.  I put on all my layers.  Tommy is roasting marshmallows, making s’mores.  He constructed a six-piece stick to move dessert along.  We’re twelve years old again.  It’s summer camp in the Adirondacks.  Everyone laughs–our jokes maybe a little more off color than years ago.  Our mood settles down, grows quieter.  More stories unfold.  Facing the fire we’re warm and glowing; behind it’s cold and dark.  There are stars in the sky, never seen in the city.  We listen and learn things about each other we never knew.  We grow closer.

Night ends and each of us make our way back to our tents.  No one stays up.  We’re not a rowdy bunch.

I’ve looked forward to this camping trip for a year.  It’s been a year since our last one.  At the last minute we had to scramble to find an alternative site, our booked accommodation having given up our space to a reggae festival. –of all events!  Rob called around and found the perfect campground, only a few miles away.  More perfect than Guerneville.  No panic; everyone found their way to Duncans Mills.  The weekend was more than saved.

I want to hold this time for another year.  Longer if I can.  There’ll be bumps and setbacks and many crossroads along the way.  But I want this time of fellowship to hold true, stay close to me.  I want to be reminded that this kind of peace and happiness is real.  It really does exist.  Is it bigger than my heartbreak?  When I was suffering at the beginning, I asked my therapist if the pain would ever go away.  He answered, “No.  But you will grow bigger.”

This is bigger.  Being with these guys, finding friendship and connection around the fire, walking in the redwood forests, knowing the river is flowing behind us, is bliss.  It’s bigger than I am, than any of us.

Sunday morning we have another stupendous breakfast, break camp, head home to San Francisco and the lives we left only two days ago.  I traveled up and back with Darren, as I’ve done the past two years. It seems to have become a tradition and we vow to repeat the ride again next year.  We talk about how grateful we are to be part of this group of men, to have had this weekend all together.

I can’t predict where I’ll be in a year.  It’s hard enough to predict tomorrow.  Maybe I’ll be lucky and make it.  I hope so.  I could be run over by a bus.  It happens in San Francisco!  I’ve flown over three million miles–two million on American alone, earning upgrades for life–and I wonder on which flight my number will be up.  I’ve had some close calls.  It’s not a thought that frightens me.  I’ve experienced worse.

Thank you guys for being there, helping me find this happiness.  I hope I’ve helped, too.  See you Wednesday.

The Land of Might-Have-Been

There’s a song by Ivor Novello called “The Land of Might-Have- Been.”  It begins:

Somewhere there’s another land

Different from the world below,

Far more mercifully planned

Than the cruel place we know.

Innocence and peace are there—

All is good that is desired.

Faces there are always fair;

Love grows never old nor tired.

Life has many might-have-beens, what-ifs, left turns and right turns, regrets, promises kept and promises broken.  There’s wisdom gained in hindsight that’s so often cold comfort for opportunities lost.  If we’re lucky we learn and move on.  Sometimes we get mired in painful nostalgia. It’s the human condition. It’s what pays the salaries of therapists.

When we’re able to take all our might-have-beens and call them milestones we gain a new freedom.  I’m reminded of a watercolor teacher who would say when my picture was hopelessly muddled, “I think it’s time to start a new one.”  When I declared a watery mistake, she would say, “No, it’s a new direction.”

Oh were love as simple as this!


We shall never find that lovely

Land of might-have-been.

I can never be your king nor

You can be my queen.

Days may pass and years may pass

And seas may lie between—

Shall we ever find that lovely

Land of might-have-been?


Where I find relief from all the might-have-beens is in friends and my sons.  My boys are all the joy I hope to have in my life.  Relationships that brought me happiness for a time, ended.  Friends endure, too.  It’s a deep pleasure having friends that go back more than thirty years.  And new friends point to an enriched and enlarged future.  I don’t seek the attainment of any personal legend outside of these truths.

I’ve spent the past month away from home, working with colleagues who are friends, staying with David and Sam, seeing my grandson Max, spending weekends with my longest-time friends, meeting many new people, traveling to old haunts and new territory.  I’ve been in Manhattan, the Upper Hudson Valley, Boston and its North Shore, and Vermont.  It’s been a month of richness for which I’m very grateful.  I’m a lucky guy.

What I find in fellowship is a power—a life force—that’s greater than myself alone.  I find this, too, in all the natural world: mountains and summer meadows, the sea, the rocky coasts of Maine, the sun yellowed hills of Northern California.  What we know the best we grow to love.  Once, when Adam and I were skiing in Zermatt, high in the Alps under the shadow of the Matterhorn, we looked out across the stupendous white vista and Adam remarked, “It’s not as beautiful as Camp Dudley,” situated on its quiet peninsula between the Adirondacks to the West and looking across Lake Champlain to the White Mountains of Vermont on the East.  It’s one kind of heaven.

I have my own heavens, grounded on the Earth, in the here and now.  Bowdoin College in Maine, where I’ve asked to have my ashes scattered under the Pines.  Tassajara, where I once found an unknown happiness.  Midwood, where hospitality, grace and friendship reside.  Howth, where I lived for a year on the edge of Dublin Bay, alone, in a large old Georgian house.  The jagged top of Montserrat.  The Victorian countryside.  The country roads out of Sewickley in Western Pennsylvania where my teenage friends and I learned to drive fast and formed bonds for life.



Why should she give her bounty to the dead?

What is divinity if it can come

Only in silent shadows and dreams?

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning


I’ve always separated work from what I’ve regarded as “real life.”  This has been a mistake.  The problem was all the might-have-beens, those what-ifs.  What if I had become a college English professor, as was once my dream?  What if I had never gone to business school?  What if I had never taken up a career in advertising?  What if I had never moved abroad? What if I had never married my college sweetheart?  What if I had never risked love?

Yet, everything I have, everything I know, everything that makes me the man I am, is the result of what I did in the face of all these what-ifs.  I made choices, many of which I regretted.  But that, too, is a mistake in perception.  All pleasure and all pain came from those choices.  My sons came from a fateful choice that when viewed from that result can only be seen as the best choice in my life, regardless of other personal consequences.  My decision to take a left turn and pursue a career in business instead of teaching gave me an international life I would never otherwise have had, working and living in Spain, Singapore, Australia, France, Japan and traveling everywhere in between.  Advertising has provided friendships and exposure to a wide variety of industries, brands, consumers and creativity. (It’s also helped to develop forbearance and fortitude in the face of instability, setbacks and wacko personalities.)  Had I never risked the lightening bolt of love I would never have known what true love is; nor true heartbreak.  All pleasure and all pain.

This is beginning to feel like an obituary.  My friend Roz Savage, the ocean rower, tells a story of how she took stock of her life and made a decision to change it.  Out of Oxford, and working unfulfilled as a management consultant in London, she sat down and wrote two obituaries: one based on the life she was living and one based on the life she dreamed of.  She chose her dream and changed everything.

Change comes from choice and circumstances.  Sometimes life tosses us an unexpected curve ball and we are forced to make choices.  Sometimes we chose our dreams, as Roz did.  Sometimes we make choices that we know, in our hearts, will only lead to grief—but we make them anyway.  Sometimes we plan our choices.  Sometimes we trust what fate brings.  There are no guarantees.

Choice can be hard and it can be light and free. If I focus on today—doing the best I can just today, one day at a time—I can free myself from worrying about outcomes and all the might-have-beens.  It’s a worthy goal.


When do you say enough is enough?  When do you tell a client that their marketing strategy is wrong?  When do you oppose fraudulent copy testing?  When do you say, “your advertising will fail?”

In today’s economic environment, the answer is Not Frequently.  To challenge a client’s thinking is to risk the business.  The probable outcome of not objecting, unfortunately, is often the same.  Either take a stand and risk the business early, or see results not live up to client expectations and risk the business latter.

This is the situation I’m in today.  A client whose revenue is important to our agency is making countless bad decisions.  New management has changed strategic direction away from a successful retail approach to a vision of aspiration and grandeur inconsistent with the category, the product line and the way consumers purchase the prosaic products in question.

I’m a strong proponent of high level branding, integrated across all aspects of product development, design, marketing, advertising and social media.  Apple of course is the poster child, though very difficult if not impossible to replicate. (In branding courses I teach I dissuade students from discussing Apple until the last class because it’s such a red herring.)

Many clients don’t know what brand advertising looks like.  They ask for it, but when they see it they shy away in favor of a hybrid product-sell mishmash. They ask for “emotional connection” and then insist on long sequences of product demonstration. They ask talented copy writers to compose inspirational scripts and then cut all the poetry out, replacing it with copy no consumer could comprehend. The client I’m talking about guilelessly commented on the use of a word in a TV ad, “We’ve never used that word before. It might stand out.”

Then, discredited copy testing methodologies are employed to guide and “fix” the advertising.  The wrong things are tested.  Often even the findings are ignored in favor of personal opinion.

There was once a time when agencies said No.  Clients were often resigned.  Sometimes the agency was simply arrogant; other times right.  Years ago at DDB, Keith Reinhard offered clients “guaranteed results.”  Based on client objectives, if the agency had free reign to create the best advertising, without client interference, the agency guaranteed defined results.  If those results were not achieved, the agency would pay back all production and media expense.  To the best of my knowledge, no client ever accepted the deal.

It comes down to personal integrity and courage.  Bill Bernbach wrote, “More and more I have come to the conclusion that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.”

Principles don’t pay the rent, but a life lived by principles might be worth living.

So when is enough enough?