Grab-Bag

By Lawrence Henry
web posted September 13, 1999

My wife sometimes teases me about the number of women I meet with when I travel for business. I reassured her not long ago that the typical New York businesswoman's average weight is about 185. I think I know why.

Go into almost any office where women dominate the workforce - advertising, corporate communications, and the like - and you'll find a stash of what I call "female executive power food": Peanut M & Ms.

There's nothing like an 800-calorie chocolate jolt to pick up the energy in the slack early afternoon.

It isn't only avoirdupois that handicaps Eastern women. There must be some kind of natural selection at work (sunshine?) that sends the lookers elsewhere. My son Bud and I like to go eat, when we're baching it, at Hooter's. Hooter's serves gigantic hamburgers, big hot dogs, and curly french fries, and they keep refilling your soft drink mug for free. Typical supper costs us two less than $10. The scantily clad waitresses always fuss over Bud, especially since we come early when the crowds are light.

But my wife doesn't have to worry about us guys. The local waitresses wouldn't even make the cut in Dallas or Atlanta or Los Angeles.

* * *

When the U.S. Open tennis tournament rolls around, I get sad - especially for the last 10 years, since I've lived in Massachusetts. Another summer is coming to an end, and the winter comes on like the slamming of a door. I always know the cold has arrived when I find myself doing a load of laundry filled with sweaty golf and tennis shirts - and I'm wearing corduroys and woolens. Here in Boston, it happens that fast. And me being 51, there just aren't that many summers left.

But the Open also makes me reflect on all the good tennis stories no one seems to cover - and on all the trite, obvious stories the TV talking heads do cover. No Open would be complete without, for example, one story on "the men's power game," and how big serves and high-tech rackets have made men's tennis so fast it isn't interesting any more.

I covered a few tennis tournaments in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, at just about the time the ATP Tour struck a deal with IBM to put a "speed gun" on court - a digital readout that showed how fast a player hit his serve. In one post-match press conference, a reporter asked Michael Chang about his serve, and how he was hitting it.

Chang said, "The fastest today was one-oh-seven," as indeed it was. I had watched the match and seen that, too. (The fastest recorded serve nowadays has been hit by Greg Rusedski, at 149 mph. Pete Sampras and other big servers regularly top 125 mph.) The important point: While Chang was
competing, he was also watching the speed of his serve.

Here's the solution to big bang men's tennis: Take the speed gun off the court. In ten-plus years, that speed readout has given top players an in-competition feedback loop, and they've learned to use it to make themselves better. (We amateur athletes would just press and choke -- not these guys.) So lose the IBM gun, and you'll lose quite a lot of speed.

* * *

I just finished going over my old magazine files, and found a story I had written for Music Connection almost 15 years ago. In it, I quoted Bob Merlis, who was then director or promotions for the west coast for Warner Brothers Records. Bob, an old college friend, said, "We can all name people in this business who really aren't very good, who just got where there are through an iron will to get across."

That, in essence, is the value of show business: Truly, the only way to fail is to quit. And if you keep pushing, you discover that aggression works better than competence.

That value has, unfortunately, infused our civic life as a whole. I'll repeat it: Aggression works better than competence. The whole Clinton crew proves that. They really can't do anything but push. They really don't have any ability except aggression. But that's all they need nowadays.

Aggression has pushed competence out of the cultural marketplace, as surely as bad money drives good out of an economy.

In this, as in tennis, perhaps the only solution is to take the "speed gun" for aggression off the court. That would mean abolishing television, and I have little hope of that.

* * *

In one of my freelance writing stints, I used to go into the offices of a giant mutual fund company, where I served as a kind of utility infielder for the advertising staff. While I was there, the company hired a man - at a fancy salary - to serve in the marketing department as a kind of generator of ideas, a "high-level" concept type. The man, a rough-talking, working class Joe, claimed to have been part of a staff of famous Olympic coaches. He had a well-developed personal story about how he had realized he couldn't be in athletics his whole life, and about how he had made a point of getting to know businessmen, mainly during celebrity golf tournaments.

I am almost certain this man was an imposter.

It's a hunch, I admit. But I once found myself employed by an imposter in show business, and, in my show biz imposter, I saw the same well-developed patter, the the same thoroughly worked up persona, and the same objective at the end as for the man at the mutual fund company: money for nothing, basically.

Our society is tremendously wealthy. We're so wealthy that our companies and institutions have gotten fat, sloppy, and lazy - especially in the "soft" professions, like advertising, public relations, sales, corporate communications, training, and so forth, all those areas where it's hard to measure real performance. The result: We're easy targets for cons, and cons don't skip easy targets.

If I were an executive in a big company today, I would employ an undercover policeman with extensive experience in fraud. Or, I sometimes think, I should develop a business around three or four such retired policemen, offering consulting services to big companies. Because I'd put the odds at about 80 per cent that most big companies have at least one phony in their employ - probably in a well-paid position.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and has been extensively published at other fine establishments. We don't know if his wife knows he goes to Hooters.




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