Making Your Intelligent Content Smarter

“When I first started writing this song, it was supposed to be about the future. But it took me seven years to finish it. So at best, it’s about the present.

I’m sure Jeane Dixon has days like that too.”

The above quote a introduction by  John Prine, one my favorite musicians, for  his song “Living in the Future.”

I can identify with Prine. I feel as though I have been writing this particular  blog post for about 15 years.  Ever since I first grasped the idea of component content management systems.

Admittedly, it took me quite some time to see the value of creating content as reusable chunks, rather than as whole documents. My “aha!” moment occurred when  a client provided me with her company’s  “about us”  boilerplate  for an RFP I was writing. I noticed  that one of the founder’s names was incorrect in the text that I had been provided.  My project team proofed the content and made several changes.  It was pasted into the RFP.

I had received the boilerplate info from an IT manager, who had received it from an HR contact.  Given the company’s size and international presence, there were very likely numerous instances of incorrect boilerplate info in magazines, web sites and official documents. It didn’t take much of a logical leap to realize that there was incorrect and inconsistent content chunks  all over the organization. Suddenly, the concept of single-source, component-level intelligent, content management moved  from esoteric to something that seemed like a smart thing to do.

I immediately started musing how these XML-based  frameworks for dynamic  text content could be integrated with  digital asset management systems (caution: DAM jokes ahead) that were rooted in delivery of rich media. It seemed that smart content could be made even smarter. I was convinced that this was the future of publishing content.

I’m still convinced that’s the future, I wish the future would hurry up and get here.

In The Beginning There Was Prepress..

I have been making digital content for a long time, since the previous millennium in fact. I started working in print when desktop technologies were just making  inroads into prepress and publishing.  Like just about everybody else, I started working with Web content in the  1990’s. All along, as I was surrounded by people who made stuff, I was interested in systems that would prevent people from losing the stuff they made.

In 2000, I finished up a DAM  project (DAM was still print-centric) and joined my first ” ‘content’ management” project. During the era, content management was normally referring to Web content management. Essentially, there was an interface to make HTML  pages and a means to add Web-ready graphics (72-DPI, jpg, .gif or .png files).

There  are very clear physics-based difference between  print and Web content, but they are primarily related to the resolution (DPI) and color model (RGB vs CMYK) of images.

It frustrated me (and still does)  that print and web were thought of as separate things, with separate  editorial, design and production workflows. Furthermore, it has long frustrated me that organizations spent such large volumes of money on software and implementation of these (largely unnecessarily IMHO) separate platforms.

The AcronyMs

I promise that I won’t go into an extended  jag about acronym reduction here, (mostly because I’ve done that before) but there  are numerous  “….Management….”   acronyms to offer confusion to organizations that just want to make their stuff. Here are a few:

  • DM (document management)
  • WCM (web content management)
  • DAM (digital asset management)
  • LCM (learning content management)
  • (I could go on, but I think the point has been made)

A Place For Your Stuff

You shouldn’t fixate on the acronyms. They are all managing content All you want is a place for your stuff. While every organization has some unique needs the core requirements for all “stuff” management systems could be described as  these:

  • To make stuff
  • To be able to find stuff
  • To share stuff
  • To prevent stuff from being shared with those who aren’t allowed to see your stuff.
  • To reuse stuff that is already made so it can be used to create new stuff (that can be found,  shared and protected)

If your content (aka “stuff”)  adds organizational value, it’s a “Digital Asset” If not, then it’s  a digital liability.  It’s much like that line in the George Carlin routine  “A Place For My Stuff”: “Have your ever notice how everybody else’s stuff is crap, but your crap is stuff.” (note the Carlin video has a some raw language,,,,because it’s Carlin).

Trouble In Paradise

Anybody who has been making content for a while, will know how much easier it is to make content than it was before the desktop publishing technologies surfaced in the 1980’s. I don’t think anybody wants to return to the days of pounding out text on an IBM Selectric typewriter or  running photos through  a waxing machine so they can be pasted on a composed page.

Now, we can make stuff really fast without risk of getting waxy fingers.  But what is the downside?

Well,  digital technologies allow us to make mistakes faster then ever, and you can copy your mistakes faster than ever. The Internet allows us to share our mistakes with more people than ever. 

If you can’t find previously created content, it’s easy enough to recreate it. However, then you have to repeat your entire creation and QA cycle. You’ve placed your organization at risk because there are now two versions of the same content that might not be identical. Furthermore, while the retrieval of existing content should take only seconds, or a few minutes,  recreating the content may take hours or weeks.

If you don’t know exactly where the content needs to be stored, it’s easy  to put it in a lot places on the server, or e-mail to a gaggle of your colleagues.  Do your think  you will be able to remember all the places  where you put (or sent)  all that stuff, a month from now. In a year from now?

In the absence of organizational governance, the creation of content might have become just a  little TOO  easy.

Stuff Inside of Stuff
In any organization, it’s  possible to get a handle on the all the “stuff” files.  It’s a wee bit trickier when you have “stuff inside of stuff.” For example, if you have a chunk of content (such as your organizational “boilerplate”) that has been copied and pasted into  scads of Word and InDesign documents as well as into  multiple areas on your corporate Web site and intranet portals, then finding and updating that content will be extremely difficult.

For example, if your organization has a new CEO, are you going be able find all the occurrences of your boilerplate to put her name in place of her successor?

The truth will set your free; however multiple versions of the truth will set you back.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If the thought of making a small change in dozens of places throughout your organization’s content  has made your pulse quicken, it’s probably time to consider a unified content strategy and how you make your stuff. Thankfully, there are people who can help you do that.

For decades, technical communicators have been creating content as stand-alone, discoverable,  reusable modules, rather than as whole documents. This framework is known as “intelligent content.”  

Intelligent content is  (finally) starting to make inroads into other types of content outside of technical communications, thanks to the efforts of people like Anne Rockley and Charles Cooper, who coauthored this book. I certainly recommend the  book for anybody who is, will be, or even wants to be engaged in a content strategy project.

Lately, I’ve been pondering how organizations might make intelligent content even a bit smarter by incorporating  best practices of image-repurposing into an intelligent content framework. I’ll be collecting  my thoughts on such things in a post entitled “Pure Substance.”

I’ll publish that in the future and  I’ll make sure that the future hurries up and gets here.


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Strong Goals & Flexible Means: What Would Dick Fosbury Do?

People in my professional circles  have most likely heard me reference the book “Teaching Every Student In the Digital Age.”  The book is about the Universal Design for Learning, an educational framework that was developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology.

I might not have mentioned the book  by name in discussions about content strategy or IT, but I’ve likely referred  certainly referred to its teachings. Specifically, people have likely   heard me reference the lesson to be learned  from a long-retired  track and field star.

I don’t recommend the book to everybody. It is a good book, but I know its contents are not relevant to everybody. I also recognize that most people are up their nostrils in a backlog of unread books, so it’s unlikely that it will read.

However, I do point most people to a specific chapter in the book because I think it is relevant to just about everybody: “Using UDL To Set Clear Goals” The key take-away in the chapter: avoid merging your goals with specific methods. This point is illustrated with the example of the “Fosbury Flop.

As the chapter states, the goal is not to jump high with a specific jumping method.  The goal is to jump high. In order to achieve the goal, the jumper will chose the most-appropriate method.

Since  watching the 1972 Summer Olympics as a kid,  I have been a track and field fan.   The mere mention of “Dick Fosbury” guaranteed a heightened level of engagement from me. For those of you that are also fans of the sport, and for of you that are not, I recommend investing a couple of minutes viewing this video regarding Fosbury’s revolutionary high jump technique.

1968 was a good year for jumping. At  Olympics in Mexico City,  Bob Beamon, of the United States won the long jump with a preternatural leap of 29 ft. 2 1/2 in. (8.9 meters). In a sport where mere fractions of an inch separate the winner from the runners up, he broke the existing world record  by nearly two feet. His jump was so far beyond  what was considered attainable at the time, the jump exceeded the capacity of the electronic measuring tape.

Beamon was one of the favorites to win the event. He won it, by a lot. It is one of the most famous moments in sports, but it was moment.

US teammate, Dick Fosbury turned the high jump world upside down, by turning himself upside down.  Unlike Beamon, he  was not expected to win the event, but he did. His then-experimental technique is now the standard approach to the high jump. Fosbury started a revolution.

In the video above, Fosbury describes his focus on the goal (to jump as high as possible), and how his technique evolved to allow him to reach his maximum jumping height. His key to his success:  his goal was firm and his method was flexible (that and a  lifetime of practice).

When you start  coupling your goals with methods (software platforms…)  you are going to put artificial constraints that will make achieving your goals more difficult. Furthermore, you are going to fuel dissension among potential collaborative partners.

Your (teaching, marketing, user-adoption…) goals should be rigid, but not so much that they can’t be revised when appropriate. The means to achieve these goals should be flexible and should, as much as possible, allow for your  learners (or customers, or your corporate intranet’s users), the autonomy to choose how they achieve these goals.

I’ve written before, on extending the principles of UDL into contexts outside of the classroom. My opinion (be it ever-so humble) is that similar strategy should be incorporated into all forms of communication. A fair question to ask when developing your content strategy, is, “What would Dick Fosbury do?”


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Avoiding a “Comcastic” Cloud Experience

It’s a reasonable assumption that your current cloud-based provider(s) might not always fit your organizational needs. While many services will trip all over themselves to get your “stuff” into their infrastructure, it’s a safe bet that few will offer a clear path to an exit if that time should come. Leaving a cloud-service might prove to  be an absolutely Comcastic experience for you.

Ending a relationship with a magazine publisher is fairly easy. Eventually the bothersome phone calls and direct mail pleas (“come back now and will give you 30% off your annual subscription and a tote bag”) will stop. And you’ll be free.

Breaking up with a cable TV provider is a little more difficult.  The retention reps seem to be  lot more voracious than in  most consumer spaces. You can find all sorts of articles and recorded phone conversations between customers and “Big Cable) retention reps (who I should point out are, for the most part, only doing their job).

There were a series of recorded calls in particular that got a lot of exposure and that  led to the neologism “Comcastic.” to describe a particularly awful experience with customer service.

While  it is an unpleasant experience to  terminate a cable TV (Internet)  subscription, the fact is a provider has comparatively little leverage over a customer who is committed to leaving.

With a cloud-computing provider that is not the case. They have YOUR stuff: your spreadsheets, your marketing images, your CAD drawings… If your newly appointed-CFO or recently promoted IT Director wants to bring the services back inside, you might experience some friction trying to get your stuff  back.

You may have experienced something like this Facebook if you tried to get your personal stuff several years ago. When Facebook was pretty much unopposed in the social media space, one of the many knocks against it was that a user could not easily retrieve the photos, notes and videos that it put on to their FaceBook site. Thus, it was difficult to breakup with Facebook.

Google had made several attempts at a Facebook killer over the years to little avail. In 2011, they launched Google Plus (G+) which bore a curious resemblance to Facebook, it seemed the result of “If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Look Just Like Them.” Though G+ did offer some valuable  features that Facebook didn’t including the Hangouts (video conferencing) and of course strong integration with Google Apps.

Google Plus also  offered a way to leave Google Plus. Users could export everything that they had put onto Google Plus and they use it as a backup, or to take with them. Google called this feature “Data Liberation.” It was pretty well received. It was not  too long after that Facebook provided users with the same feature. The market forces had spoken.

Organizations, large and small should address “data liberation” procedures with prospective vendors before entering into a contract. Turn-around times, professional services and storage-media costs should be addressed in the RFP.

You should clearly articulate your expectations for how our “stuff” (content types) and your stuff’s corresponding metadata descriptors will be provided to you if you should need to remove your stuff from the vendor’s infrastructure.  If they can’t provide assurance that would provide you all your content and metadata in a format (XML, CSV, etc.) that you can use, then you should look harder at some of the other RFP respondents.


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The “S” Word In My Festus Years

I’m breathless.

Not because I have made multiple ascents of the stairs cleaning my house today, but it’s because for the first time in  several years that people want  to have professional conversations without mention (or little mention)  of the “S” word: SharePoint.

Last week, I had a job interview in which the discussions were focused on my experience in: marketing, design, digital asset management, and staff leadership. Among the people I met, the talk  about SharePoint probably totaled less than 90 seconds.

Several weeks prior, I had a rather robust conversation with a prospective client about creation of a unified content strategy, whereby they might move away from creating whole documents in favor of an “intelligent content,” (modular, reusable, single-sourced). The SharePoint talk was negligible.

Other conversations have ensued about my long-standing vision of true end-to-end content management via the integration of  component content management systems (CCMS)  with digital asset management (DAM) platforms.

I’m breathless because the world has come to realize that I AM NOT A SHAREPOINT GUY!!!!

Except…… that in early 2007, after 20 years of working with Mac clients and admin. experience in AppleShare and Solaris systems, I was hired by a Microsoft parter (as Clark Kent would say, “What the…?” ). During my time with that company I installed and configured SharePoint, I branded SharePoint sites, I trained end users and administrators in Sharepoint, I provided operational support to SharePoint portals……

In the years that have ensued  I have  worked quite a bit with SharePoint doing site branding, SharePoint administration and user training. I’m currently working on a SharePoint project as a content architect.

< Heavy sigh > I guess I’m a  SharePoint guy. Even my Word Cloud thinks so:

Scott Smith's Resume Word Cloud

Yes, I do SharePoint. However I’ve done other things, I am doing other things, I am prepared to do other things.

At a mixer event a few weeks ago, I was recognized by a recruiter who sat at the table and said, “Hi Scott, I remember you as the SharePoint guy.” This must be how Ken Curtis felt.

Most readers probably  don’t even know who Ken Curtis is. However,  many people of a certain age ( habitual TV Land viewers) know who Festus Hagan is.

One of my favorite TV shows as a kid was Gunsmoke, which for many years was the longest-running entertainment series on television (it’s since been lapped by The Simpsons and others). The  stories fascinated me. I don’t know if there was anything special about the writing, but because it ran for so many years, I became very well-acquainted with the characters.

During the era I watched the show, the deputy was “Festus” a  bumpkin sidekick to Marshall Dillon (James Arness). From the opening credits I know  Festus  was played by Ken Curtis but didn’t know anything about the actor. I vaguely remember him appearing on variety shows, etc., but always in character, and in “uniform” (unshaven and slovenly dressed in cowboy hat and vest). Most of his post-Gunsmoke roles did not seem to deviate too far from the Festus character.

He seemed more entwined with a character he portrayed than any other performer. More than Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), more than Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker),   more than Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell)…

However, Ken Curtis had a rather successful career as an actor and as a singer well before being cast as Festus. He was once  the lead vocalist in the Sons of the Pioneers (a singing group that was founded by Roy Rogers). During that time, he also  performed as the  lead singer in The Tommy Dorsey Band, where he replaced a fella named Frank Sinatra.

I don’t how he felt about being known as Festus for the rest of his life. I recognize that my current SharePoint-centric period probably won’t be lifelong,  though I’m currently living in my “Festus” years; where I’m being identified by one role that I’ve performed.

I don’t mind being labeled a SharePoint guy. I just ask that it be recognized  that while I have worked in some SharePoint contexts I have worked in numerous SharePoint-free contexts, and the prospect of doing so again makes me breathless.

And remember that Festus is Ken Curtis, an actor who played many roles and had some mad singing skills:

Posted in Advertising, CM, DAM. ECM..., Digital Asset Management, Invisible Fist, SharePoint | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A Content Marketing Rock Star (Or Pop Star)

I have been seeing an increased use of the term “content marketing” and pondering how I can describe how it’s differentiated  from “marketing” (without adjectives).

The Content Marketing Institute defines it this way:

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

That provided definition to that could easily be communicated, the next step was to provide a good example. There is no other choice than C. W. McCall.

I was a teenager when the song “Convoy”  came out. I was starting to explore Led Zepplin, AeroSmith  and David Bowie, to the extent that one can in a house with no turntable, or FM radio. However, most of my exposure was to Top 40 songs of the day.   “Convoy” stormed onto the airwaves and seemed to always be on. It was rather catchy, but its was so  over-the-top: with  talk of thousands of truckers, barreling down the highway at 100-mph-hour speeds, while scoffing at regulatory agencies, the police and the National Guard. Almost immediately it found its way into my “guilty pleasure” category.

But, this  song sold a lot of citizens band (CB) radios, and in turn, that sold of 45s (that was was how we listened to songs back then.)   of this song, quite the virtuous cycle that content marketing pros probably dream of.

I’d often heard that the performer McCall (a pseudonym)  was a  marketing executive for a CB radio company and that song was intended to sell CBs. I haven’t been able to substantiate that claim, but I did find out that he worked as an art director in ad agencies, so it’s not out of  the realm of possibility.

C. W. McCall was either  Miles Davis  of Content Marketing, or perhaps its foremost  one-hit-wonder.

Perhaps every organization should include a chart-topping song in the marketing mix. How hard could it be?

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Uh…About That Banner….

OK, it ain’t pretty, but it’s mine. And it’s just an iteration.

I had been pondering, mulling, deliberating,… about updating my site for some time. I like the theme, well enough, but it’s commonly used in the WordPress community. I had updated some of the style sheets a long time ago, but couldn’t accomplish any sort of graphical treatment. There seemed to be too many obstacles to what I had in mind.

Last week, I realized that my deliberation (OK pathological dithering) about my site’s look and feel was keeping me from updating my blogs. I have several fractionally-written blog post waiting to completed and published. However every time I went to update content, I had this sinking feeling about my failure to pull offa visual update and was reluctant to write/edit any further.

A few days ago I saw a derivation of the British WWII  motivational poster-turned meme. This one said, “Keep Calm and Iterate.”

That led me to thinking through  an iterative approach to my banner update. Naturally, I downloaded a copy of GIMP and then tore up my undershirt.

I had the idea of expressing the  “invisible fist” in the style that would be a tribute to Claude Raines (and H. G. Wells for that matter). Though each attempt at such was met with obstacles.

Two of my obstacles to which I’d previously surrendered: my inability to find white cloth bandages and the fact that my older edition of Photoshop no longer worked since I upgraded my operating system a while back.

The undershirt sliced nicely into some bandage-size strips, though the Kirkland brand was a little on the thick side. Doesn’t matter it’s just an iteration, right?  I wrapped my hand and snapped a few photos on my kitchen counter.

Another thing I have been dithering about was whether to make the plunge into Adobe’s Creative Cloud so that I could have Photoshop. Though I just don’t feel that I create enough of that type of content to justify the expense. Truth be told, it seemed a little on the buggy side when I demoed it a few months ago.

GIMP (a free and open source Photoshop alternative,  gave me enough of an image-editor that I could accomplish a few simple tasks: a clipping path, some freehand touchup, motion blur and a fog effect. Like my preview of the Creative Cloud it seemed a little buggy, but I prefer my buggy tools to be free rather than $50/month.

I didn’t really like my product in the end, but hell, it was a product.  I made into a banner and added it to my site, because it’s just an iteration, right. The fact that it’s out in public, I think I am infinitely more likely  to try to make it better.

Now back to writing, editing and hopefully publishing a backlog of blogs.


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Six Christmases

My holiday memories are dominated by my six Christmases in Westord, Mass –my parents’ hometown. We only ended up there because of some twists of fate.

My father planned to retire from the Navy in the mid 1960’s and the intent was to move to Florida at that time. However, in one week my brother and mother were both hospitalized with critical illnesses, thus my father re-enlisted. Eventually he retired and we moved to Westford only because my uncle had a house to rent us.

In Westford, I lived within a few miles of my father’s family, and few dozen miles of my mother’s family. And there were snow-covered maples and evergreens, the way that sitcoms and holiday cartoons suggested that Christmas was meant to be.

Without those family hospitalizations my holiday memories would be of Christmas in a ranch house with a grassy ground and a palm tree in the front yard (a nightmare holiday scenario that was eventually realized when we moved to the Orlando area when I was a teenager).

Is it wrong that every holiday season, that I am grateful for my mother’s blood clot and my brother’s ruptured appendix?

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Job Creator

I never envisioned a future where I would live in a house where pots were never dirtied, but I was certain that I would one day achieve a “paperless” newspaper. I longed for that time, when I could reduce my clutter by just a bit.

I used to love the ritual of  spreading out the morning paper (The Gainesville Sun, The Tallahassee Democrat, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune) on my table next to my first cup of coffee and poring over the local and national headlines. When I lived in DC, then Chicago, there was the added bliss of being able to read the entire paper on the Metro, or CTA as I commuted into work.

In recent years the paper seemed to have  become more of burden due to its ability to contribute  clutter to my home. Perhaps that is a sign that I have reached curmudgeon-hood.

We moved to Grand Rapids 15 years ago. This city is  roughly the size of Gainesville or Tallahassee, but one the things that made it feel small to me was that the local paper was delivered in the afternoon rather than in the morning. Much like when I was growing up and lived in towns where “The Lowell Sun” was delivered by a “paper boy” at around 4 pm. It was usually a kid that went to school with my older sister, later they were kids that went to school with me. I always knew their names.

For a time in Grand Rapids we had an actual “paper boy.” A kid about 11  that actually biked from house to house for his deliveries. And we knew his name: Cortez. I liked that feeling of knowing the paper boy, if only for the nostalgic feeling.

Job Creator

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of different people–kids, adults, groups of people–delivering the daily copies of  The Grand Rapids Press. I am not sure if they are related to, or even acquainted with Cortez (who’s probably in his mid-20’s now), but they have always been reliable, and though we don’t see them all that often, they are always friendly.

A couple of years ago, The Press changed its model due to decline in subscriptions. It was announced that the home deliveries would be cut back to Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

An electronic edition would be available seven days a week. There was an option–with a slight discount– to forgo home delivery altogether. I was ecstatic at the idea of going paperless and the opportunity to reduce my  clutter. This seemed like a no-brainer.

Then I began think about the folks who deliver the Press. They were taking a big hit from the forced reduction from seven delivery days to three.

Despite my decades-long ambition to go paperless, and all the merits of digital content (scalable, searchable and NO CLUTTER) I chose to go  with the thrice-weekly deliveries on the possibility that I might help to preserve some jobs.

Now that the digital edition is available, I found that I rarely read the paper copy.  The hard copies get put other uses: cleaning windows, etc. but they aren’t actually read that often.

Recently, my wife and I have been making some efforts to reduce costs. A few weeks ago we cut our cable TV service and few other recurring bills. I looked at the option of cutting out the home delivery of the Press.

Last week I was seriously considering this when I happened to walk out to my car just as the Press delivery crew pulled up to my driveway. They were in a minivan with the side door open. There was a driver and two other people, one handing bundled newspaper copies  to an elderly man sitting in the back seat.

He pulled his arm back to toss it on my lawn and I yelled, “I’m open.”

This man, with a resemblance to Morgan Freeman, and a voice to match, called back “Oh, I’m going to have to get out the car for that.”  He did.  Then he struck a Joe Montana throwing pose and hurled the paper to me.  It was a pretty accurate throw, but I contorted my body to make it look like a difficult catch.

I shouted “Yes!” and performed a celebratory touchdown dance.

He hollered “Sweet catch, boss. The Lions had better pay you some good money this year. I’ll see you Thursday.” (Don’t tell me that you’ll get that kind of customer experience with your iPad.)

“Boss?” I thought. “No, I’m merely a job creator.” And in this case happy to pay for something that I don’t really need.






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Windy Smitty

On this day, the first day of Summer, I can’t help but reflect on a decision I made in my past. At an age, when I felt invincible. 

If nothing else, let my story serve as a reminder on the importance of bicycle safety. I have to live with my poor choice, it’s not too late for you to save yourselves.

It was on, or around the Summer Solstice in 1994 that I decided to hop on my bike while my head was still sopping wet from the shower. The weather was gorgeous, and I couldn’t wait to get out the door.

I shot a fleeting glance at my bike helmet and chose to leave it on the bookcase. That was a decision that would alter my life forever.

I was heading to Jackson Park, about 9 miles to the south, when I stopped at the Lincoln Park Zoo to use the bathroom. I saw my reflection in the mirror, my hair was no longer wet, thanks to the wind-whipping along Lake Michigan. I drizzled some water on my mane hoping it would lie down a bit.

I walked my bike around the Zoo alternately looking at animals, and the Chicago skyline.

A group of workers inched up behind me in a golf cart. One said, “Excuse me, sir can we get around you?”

I moved over to the right and he had enough room to pass, and said, “Thank you, sir have a great day.”

Before I could respond he added, “Nice Michael Douglas hair, you got there.”

Then his workmate contributed, “Man, you got yourself a Michael Douglas chin, too.”

A third man said, “He sure does. He’s got the hair and the damn chin, too. How are those Streets of San Francisco treating you my friend?”

They chortled as I hopped on my bike. The second man spoke again: “Say hi to Karl Malden.”

“Michael Douglas Hair.” Twenty years later, their words, these caustic words still haunt me. How could anybody be so cruel?

Don’t let this happen to you or your children, please wear a bike helmet.

For God’s sake, protect your hair!

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My Favorite Things

It was a wickedly cold morning just like this when I walked a few blocks from my Ravenswood apartment, and was fortunate that there was a 145 bus, idling in the lot, awaiting its departure time. I don’t remember what was ahead for me at work that day, but my job at the time rather tedious–making truck parts fliers for a ad agency–so it wasn’t that different than the day before.

The driver saw me shivering outside and was kind enough to let me in before his run though it was technically against CTA policy.

As I sat down he offered this sinister warning: “You can stay on this bus as long as you don’t tell anybody what you’re about see or hear.” Then “You got that?”

I nodded then put proceeded to unfold my copy of The Chicago Tribune.

With that he pulled a hard plastic case from the floor to his lap. When he opened the case and started to assemble its components, I saw the glistening of the metallic shaft he had in his hand.

I screamed with every fiber of my being, “My God, he has a flute!!!!”

Then he glanced over his should placed his piece near his lips and played “Take Five” and then “My Favorite Things.”

My winter morning commutes are rarely that appealing nowadays. Now they begin with scraping ice from the windows and many days digging out after being plowed in. There’s never a walk through the brisk cold, with some chance encounters with neighbors, or strangers, or a bit of window-shopping. Those things all put a spring in my step, at least until I began the bone-dissolving work of staring at line-art rendering of spark plugs, oil filters, and mud flaps.

Though at the particular morning, the unexpected jazz performance set the tone my entire day. It wasn’t just the music, it was the serendipity. I wish there were a way that I could plan serendipitous events. They would involve more flutes and fewer cars.

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