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An Open Letter to Professor Stephen Ambrose: Did you Plagiarize or just Forget?

Dear Professor Ambrose,

I can’t imagine what the last two weeks have been like for you and your family. You’ve been crouching in a hail of hateful words like “fraud,” “plagiarist” and “vampire,” mortar shells reminiscent of the battles you describe so vividly. Since January 4, when Weekly Standard reporter Fred Barnes alleged that you copied whole passages from other historians for Wild Blue, your book on WWII fighter pilots, your integrity has been called into question by your academic peers, veterans and the salivating punditry. Several more of your books have been held under the microscope, even as they have continued to sell.

You know all this, and my thoughts are probably little more than another howl in the chaos. Nonetheless, I believe that many of your accusers sympathize with your crimes more than they say. Outrage at this wrongdoing seems to have come in two parts: moralizing on the inherent evils of plagiarism, followed closely by how you, drunk with success, brought this upon yourself. Both are correct and yet miss the point, a point a little too true to admit out loud.

Our most basic common link — you, I, historians, journalists and students — is that we are all writers. We arrange words in order to bring about larger ideas and greater understanding. We use them, as you have done magnificently, to tell stories. These stories are often the result of physical and mental toil, research (and all of that word’s resonances) and the slow boil of ideas and narratives in our head. We journalists, with our relentless deadlines, rarely have that luxury, although our minds still insist that we do. We’re wired to discover, assemble and then tell out loud. The work on a story largely comes from those first two steps and when the writing begins, we know our story backwards and forwards because we’ve told it to ourselves a hundred times. I often find it changing during the writing, which is when it becomes my favorite part of the process. Other times, I’m already done with the story by then and inscribing it feels like a bother.

I fear this may have been what happened to you, Professor Ambrose, when you decided to import another writer’s words and pass them off as your own. I too labored in the salt mines of historical research for a few years and have an idea of how easily a passage can get misplaced, wrongly quoted, lost in the mass of findings that must support these endeavors. In your case, hard evidence has surfaced that it happened too many times to be dismissed as an accident, even though that’s what you called it.

You’ve made your apologies and your peers have accepted them. They both admire and envy you, as both a champion of historical memory and bestseller machine. Few academics have a gift for narrative like yours, one that can press a scholarly book into the hands of a general audience. But those who do pay their respects to the writing process. Edmund Morris, who in interviews, calls himself a writer first, a historian second, laces his hefty presidential biographies with several narrative styles. Following a stroke, historian William Manchester no longer has the strength to complete the final volume of his massively popular Winston Churchill biography. Not being able to write, he says, makes him weep.

I don’t see the same commitment in you. The production of your books is legendary in its efficiency, with your five grown children all employed as researchers and teams of assistants running about. You’re incorporated as Ambrose & Ambrose, Inc. Steven Spielberg produces films based on your work. You’ve finished eight books in five years. Even your editors tell you to slow down. Yet the record is oddly silent when it comes to your writing, your rituals, tendencies or preferred style. Maybe journalists just haven’t asked or they’ve assumed that copying is a habit you got into early on as some of the evidence would indicate. Me, I’m left with the sense that there’s no room on the production floor of Ambrose & Ambrose for composing a book from scratch, that writing is a task that can gradually be outsourced, one paragraph at a time.

I hope this isn’t true, Professor Ambrose. I admire the zeal you’ve shown in making our nation’s military history exciting and accessible. My guess is that while your respect amongst your colleagues may suffer, your popularity will not. Few of your millions of fans care much about footnotes and correct attribution styles. But I’m just another writer, one who walks away from this incident feeling as though something has been lost. Writers write, the hackneyed saying goes. Sitting down at the proverbial desk may not the adrenaline rush of another project rolling into production but it’s what makes us who we are. Regard that as disposable and where are we? In the trenches of the battle of the mind, defenseless without our imaginations.


Kevin Smokler


Eulogy for an Uncle: My Uncle Barry (1909-2001)


I’m avoiding writing this, this eulogy if you will. I’ve got a few other pieces that need finishing and my energy needs to be targeted toward getting everything ready.

Then something happened. And now it’s harder than I thought to do this.

On Wednesday afternoon, my uncle, Barry Jeffery, died at the age of 92. My youngest brother Daniel had been with him at the hospital in Florida and told me.

I found out after midnight that my uncle said dying didn’t scare him, that he had no regrets about his life and that it meant a lot to him that we had talked on the phone the day before. Even though he couldn’t hear me through the whir of the oxygen mask over his face, I had told him that I loved him and that I hoped to be something like him someday.

Daniel, who seems to be on top of every situation, couldn’t speak. I hung up the phone, then looked at myself in the mirror while I cried.

My Uncle Barry recognized his time had come. In his letters and phone calls from the past few years, he talked about spending his days painting, writing, and shuttling back and forth to “various doctors. You know how it is.”

He always ended by laughing



Last week, his aorta started collapsing in on itself and his lungs filled with blood. He took excellent care of himself, still swam laps well into his 80s. But his body was imploding, one vital piece at a time.

Already  in his early 70s when we became friends, he gave me a silver dollar for cleaning the leaves off the bottom of his pool. The net measured twice the length of my eight-year old frame so he held the handle.

He wrote letters to newspapers on current events throughout his retirement, winning several awards from the Florida Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald. He painted western scenes and vignettes inspired by the cowboy movies he loved as a boy. He and my brother were very close and the two would link up in Decemebr and discuss politics and world events for hours. Daniel got Barry an AOL account and before long, my 90-year old uncle had a pen pal, a 25-year old graduate student in Japan.

Barry knew he didn’t have much time. He had a lot to do before then.

Daniel and I talked several times this week in preparation for the eulogy he would give at Barry’s funeral. Our uncle was a dreamer, saw himself as a cowboy, an English gentleman and a clear-eyed witness to history. But he spent most of his life in the textile business, paying bills, raising kids. He loved heated conversation even as a person with few friends and an inherently solitary disposition.

He saw his end but lived as though it would never come.

Who we Were

When you meet someone in the twilight of their life, you have all snapshots and no captions. You have their memories, once removed, after their kids are grown, after they’ve made most of their big decisions. If you’re lucky, you get to see them do what they’ve always wanted. But you also have to be resigned to the mystery, the seeming contradictions. You weren’t there to see them become who they became.

According to our Aunt Teddy, Barry saw us as his adopted grandsons, a relationship Daniel took seriously and I probably didn’t. Barry would Instant Message me while at work and I’d put him off. I’d send him pieces of my writing when he asked and I resented that he didn’t understand my sarcastic tone or my “Gen-X-isms.” I neglected to email him back because I felt like I’d spend most of the letter explaining myself.

In my early 20s then, I barely knew myself. I didn’t have to time to justify it to some old guy. Even when my Aunt Teddy told me , that I should send him an email, I didn’t write him. He understood work had most of my attention.

“You’re a businessman now,” she said. I didn’t think I would run out of time.

I felt some of that this week. My Uncle was gone and I, too busy to grieve, two major deadlines on Thursday, a trip away for the weekend, a relaunch in less than two weeks. Twice this week, I looked up and realized too late to call Teddy, to tell her how sad this made me, that I could and would be present for her if she needed me.

Does working for myself, molding this dream from fresh clay, mean this? That sometimes being human has to wait until my schedule frees up? I didn’t go to Florida this winter because of work. I almost didn’t see them both last year but I made a stop, grudgingly, on the way back home, dragging my old friend Justin along.

What is the matter with me?

I still didn’t know when I sat in front of my window and prayed for the soul of my Uncle Barry, that he now dwelled somewhere with more time on his hands, where it didn’t hurt to breathe and where I would see him again someday.




Moving into my professional life, I will have to create, produce, manage and decide, faster and with more conviction than I’ve ever had. It scares me every time I think about it. But I’m going to continue on here and dedicate the next chapter of this story to my late Uncle Barry.

He taught me that people can know you through your dreams and desires, and that sharing them without expectation or judgement means sharing your joy. That it’s not in competition with the rest of your life, but perhaps the most enriching part of it.

That we often have more time than we think.


Top 5 Books I Read in 2017:

This year I read 31 books. Bear in mind I don’t often read new books. So I won’t say then this is my “Top 5 of 2017” but instead my…

Top 5 Books Read in 2017

(which I’ve written in reverse order)

5. The March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Ayon & Nate Powell (2017).

A three-volume graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis. Starts with his youth in Alabama to his work as a young man in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.

You’d have to work to muff this story. Simply put, John Lewis has led one of the great lives of the 20th Century. But here, he and his collaborators have done something, in stark, almost-wordless black & white–bold, epic and beautiful.

This book won the National Book Award in 2017 for Young People’s Literature.

With good reason.


4. The Odd Woman & The City by Vivian Gornick. (2015)

I only know Ms. Gornick’s name and her legendary standing as a critic and intellectual of the Second Wave Feminist movement. Then I picked up this short memoir/essay collection, released in 2015. Now I know a little of how sure and effortless her prose is, how conversationally perfect. Now I know how she seems, despite being pointed at times, like a marvelous traveling companion.

This book anchors itself to her late-in-life friendship with a man named Leonard. Her own relationship with New York City having grown up there nearly 80 years ago and gone to school there in the early Eisenhower era follows right behind.

Read if you simply love a writer at the very top of her game even after being at it for a good 40 years.


3. Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello (2017)

One of my favorite writers’ new essay collection about famous animals throughout human history (including Jumbo the Elephant and the Starlings that colonized America). This fast little compendium plays funny, sweet, sad and ridiculously smart.

It’s fair to say that if you love animals, you’d missing out not to read this book. Afterwards, you’ll will never see them the same way again.


2. Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (2005)

A short, indispensable essay collection that should be required reading by anyone who considers themselves politically left-of-center. Rebecca Solnit simply argues that to be progressive and to be cynical means living a stupid self-defeating contradiction. To be politically conscious and humorless makes an argument against being politically conscious in the first place.

The first must-read book of these insane political times.

And finally…

The Best Book I Read in 2017


1. Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009)

A mediation on both the color blue and having your heart broken this is the kind of book where you say “OMG!” on every 3rd page. Maggie Nelson is so smart, so gifted and so good at what she does that I immediately spent the rest of the year binging on her books, one after the other, in a spirit of reading ecstasy and joy.



Something I’ve been trying out: “Reading Tri-Laterally”

To explain:

Lately I’ve been trying to read more than one book at a time, picking them up depending on my mood. And while my problem in the past has been losing track of what characters, which story, belonged where, this time it’s been working. Also, I don’t get confused if, among those multiple books, one is a novel, the other nonfiction, the third a poetry collection and so forth.

This means you may feel like you’re never going to finish a book and get to some future read you’ve been dying to get to. But what ends up happening is you finish your three books all about the same time, which then feels like your birthday because you get to restock three books at once.

Try it!


Half-Baked Preliminary Thoughts on Molly Ringwald’s New Yorker Essay, The Breakfast Club and #MeToo



Because many of you asked what I thought about Molly Ringwald’s recent essay in The New Yorker.

1. Ms. Ringwald is absolutely right. Movies endure not just b/c they meant something to us way back then but b/c they should allow for rigorous re-examination as our culture evolves. Great movies hold up to that examination, not by seeming contemporary (which is impossible) but by constantly engaging us as we change, even though they don’t.

2. It is not “political correctness” to re-evaluate a work of art in contemporary context. It is perhaps myopic to say it shouldn’t ever be seen again because of what it said when it was made and how it isn’t cool to say that now. But Ms. Ringwald isn’t arguing for censorship. She’s arguing for not letting nostalgia gum up the rigor of our intellect.

3. Nostalgia is, by definition, a failed enterprise: A wish for what is no longer presumes a) we can turn back time and b) nothing should have changed between then and now. Both are impossible. There’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly on things from the past. Bear in mind that the best of those things (like, for example, The Breakfast Club) are still remembered not just because of what they were then but how they continue to speak to us now.

4. John Hughes made great movies not in spite of being a flawed person but because he was a flawed person. The remarkable thing about genius is that it happens in human beings who are by definition good at some things and not others. If they are in fact, geniuses and the things they create are too, then they invite that rigor of examination not shy away from it. Dude, Where’s My Car deflates like a leaky balloon upon examination. Huck Finn, The Age of Innocence, James Brown Live at the Apollo and The Breakfast Club are so good and complicated and magnificent and frustrating in so many ways that they are gifts that keep on giving. And we look away from the full extant of those gifts, if we ignore that Mark Twain was a genius but a terrible businessman which probably hurt how much we know of is work, that Edith Wharton was a genius but an unapologetic snob that probably made her output less rangy than the true scope of her genius, that James Brown was a genius who was a terrible boss and lost a young Bootsy Collins as a bassist because of it and imagine what Mr. Brown’s music COULD have been like and that John Hughes was a genius who had great difficulty emotionally reaching beyond whom he was as a teenager and examine what could have been had he been able to write and direct movies not about the suburban midwest?

5. “Imagine if” always comes with examination of genius. Bad movies/books/songs/tv shows you cannot even summon the energy to do that.

6. I promise you, no one, not Molly Ringwald or Criterion or I or anyone else who wishes to have lively conversation about your favorite movie from childhood, is trying to ruin your childhood. We are in fact trying to acknowledge that we all grow up and change and we STILL have the opportunity to have ongoing evolved, long term relationships with the pop culture of the past. That, in fact the needlessly linear narrative of pop culture as new–>passe–>forgotten–>kitsch–>reboot is a diet of junk food and culture is meant to be a feast.

7. The evening I read this Molly Ringwald essay, I also saw Night Ranger in concert. And 35 years after their heyday, they were fantastic. Which led me to watch a ton of concert footage of theirs and to the one, every video had at least a dozen comments talking about what Night Ranger does is over, musically and will never be again, despite what I had seen with my own eyes the night before, they fact that I could watch 35 years of the band’s history for free, the fact that armed with a Spotify subscription and a web browser, I could summon Night Ranger and 25 bands like them across four decades of popular music with a few keystrokes and search terms.

I submit if you spend a bunch of your time talking about how “over” something is, you are really not talking about “it” being over but you. You’re sad because that band/movie/book reminds you a special time in life from long ago. Fine. If you want to be done having special times with art and pop culture, be my guest. That strikes me as an entirely avoidable self-inflicted cloud of depression you have decided to stand under without an umbrella. Show a little backbone, take two steps to the left and come out in the sunshine where the rest of us live.

8. I am deeply thankful to Ms. Ringwald for saying from her unique point of view better than what I tried to say in Brat Pack America that nostalgia often keeps us from further discussion, further engagement, from having marriages instead of flings with art and culture we love That living there is a wasteful and potentially dangerous enterprise. And we owe to our kids and nieces and nephews and our mentees and our young friends who we wish to share it wish to keep talking.


Half-Baked Preliminary Thoughts on Ready, Player One. The Movie


1. I had great fun watching this movie. I would have even if 80s pop culture weren’t my subject/passion. It’s paced beautifully, it looks great, the CGI is tremendous fun and the acting is adequate enough to not get in the way of that other stuff. The pop culture signifiers are whipped cream, not the sundae.

2. It’s about 60% true to the novel which is about average for Steven Spielberg. Remember the novel Jurassic Park was practically a dystopia with John Hammond as a maniacal billionaire (not kindly old Richard Attenborough) and at the end of the novel The Color Purple, the main character ends up befriending her abuser. Spielberg’s adaptations of well known novels are usually departures in at least one significant way.

3. The novel’s pop culture references are exclusive to the 1980s including extended sequences about the pioneering text adventure video game called Zork and the 1983 classic War Games. The movie has a very loose interpretation of “the past” pop culture-wise. It references Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Shining (1980), Nightmare on Elm St. (1984), Say Anything (1989), and The Iron Giant (1999) a span of 22 years and 3 distinct eras (maybe more) in pop culture.

4. There’s some good stuff here about who owns the future, about net neutrality and about how we spend our time but with and away from screens.

5. The movie’s politics overall though are on shakier ground. For most of the story, the protagonist wants to win a contest so he can rule a virtual world and get a lot of money for it, a hard ask for sympathy and relatability. Also, it is never in doubt that the protagonist is the most skilled player of the game and yet the movie still saddles him with a “we are the rebellion and must fight” speech. Rebellions are about power imbalance. If you are clearly the best in the field of battle, you don’t get to call yourself “a rebel”. LeBron James is not a rebel no matter how well or poorly the Cleveland Cavs do. And maybe I’m making too much of this but people with great power talking about what rebels they are feels a little Trump-y in its delusion to me.

6. Part of my problem with #5 may be that I think one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest weaknesses as a storyteller is how he handles villains: Villainous roles in Spielberg movies either do nothing for the actors who play them (see Paul Freeman who played Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark) or take remarkable actors and render them unmemorable (Remember the legendary Max Von Sydow as the villain in Minority Report? Neither do I). The latter happens in Ready Player One where the usually terrific Ben Mendehlson is written and performed as a laundry pile of tics and motivations that ultimately mean nothing. It’s hard to feel like the good v. evil struggle at the center of RP1 means anything when the villains motives are being dictated by the CGI and plot rather than the character.

7. There really isn’t much for the actors to do in this movie overall which is too bad, because between Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendohlson and Mark Rylance, it’s a fine bunch.

8. Mark Rylance plays the deceased creator (not a spoiler. It’s revealed in the movie’s prologue) of the movie’s virtual world beautifully, as a sad brilliant man who never wanted to grow up and therefore never really lived and died of a broken heart because of it.

9. I hope I am not the only one who fears Lena Waithe is stuck here playing the magical black best friend.

10. I wonder if this is the end of our current 80s pop culture revival (see Stranger Things, Atomic Blonde, Red Oaks, GLOW, The Americans and I could go on like this). Historically when a genre or a time makes reference to itself being riffed upon, it’s over (See what happened to the 80s teen movie when Heathers became the first satire of the 80s teen movie. John Hughes never came to play again). And although RP1 is being talked about as a zenith of our 80s pop revival, its pop currency of “the past” is vaguer, looser, blobbier. Are we still in an 80s pop revival if everything from Saturday Night Fever to the Iron Giant counts too?


Pop Hacks! Make your Creativity and Others Work For You

The following is from my semi-regular newsletter The Smoke(ler) Signal

— Ritualize creativity. Far and away the first reason I hear from students and my own head for why creative endeavors don’t happen is “I can’t find the time. I’d like to write/draw/paint/record more but practical shit always get my attention first.”

Solution:  Pair creativity with practical shit. I’ll take a few notes after parking my car. I take a few photos while running a stupid errand. I sketch or doodle for about 90 seconds before morning meditation.

Creativity happens regularly when it feels regular. If it’s workaday, like brushing your teeth, it will happen as often as you brush your teeth. If it must be special and mind blowing and a great communion with the muse every single time, well how often does “mind blowing” happen?

Read long and short. I’m in the middle of reading a mammoth book right now and while it’s magnificent, it’s also dense, slow and the size of an adult raccoon. Which means I can usually do about 5 pages a day before collapsing from reader’s exhaustion then gazing with lust at the stack of shorter, more fun books that taunt me from the nightstand.

I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time reader. But in this set of special circumstances, I’ve taken to reading my mammoth book and a shorter, fun book at the same time, I get to read the fun one after I’ve finished 5 pages of Gigantor. Candy after broccoli.

Apple Trailers. You wanna know what movies are coming out, even to just add them to your Netflix Queue? Apple Trailers updates every Monday. I watch 15 minutes of trailers on Monday before getting to work and feel like Roger Ebert. And no, I don’t find trailers spoil the movie for me. Usually all I remember from the trailer is the decision to see the movie or not.

— Music Discovery: Ancestors and Descendants. The AllMusic database is Wikipedia about musicians before Wikipedia existed. More importantly, each artist page (here’s Prince) has a section that lists that artists’ main influences and whom they influence, their parents and their children, musically speaking.

If you find yourself having a hard time discovering new music, start here. Pick 3 of your favorite artists, see who influenced them and who they inspired. You won’t be straying too far from what you already like, musically speaking but you will also have kicked out the back door and gone outside. Which is a great start.

The Creative Ramp. Every creative endeavor that seems hard has easier, quicker pieces to it–playing scales on a musical instrument, warming up your voice to sing, taking notes to write. Always start with that simple stuff. Because trying out camera lenses or comparing paint colors is easy, right? It’s photo spreads and finished novels that seem hard because they require several staircases to ascend.

Don’t try and broad jump to the top step. Begin with a slow, gentle ramp. then turn and look behind you. You’ll be further up than you think.


How to Use “Best of” the year Lists

Cribbed from my monthly newsletter The Smoke Signal, your guide to consuming pop culture smarter. 

December is the month of Best of 2015 lists, all 7 million of them. It can be crazy intimating which ones to pay attention to, how much and what to do with the three dozen, “ohh I missed that’s” these lists are meant to stir up. So this issue’s Pop! Hacks! will be all about how to make Best of Lists work for you. 




 NPR Music’s Best of The Year coverage is both thorough, varied and beautifully organized, by genrecurator, by song or album. Their website also has an app which will play their favorite songs of the year in random order. Let it run for a half hour while returning emails and see what new music you discover. Rule of thumb (ear?): Look to discover 2-4 new artists, half in your favorite genres, half in genres you  know less well. If you’re music skews toward one genre, focus there. I usually take 30 seconds and crosscheck the artists I discover with the Village Voice’s legendary Pazz & Jop poll, just to see if I’m being an over-40 white guy cliche’ and swallowing whatever NPR hands me.

Once you’ve found 2-4 new artists you like, stop looking. Explore the other work of those artists on the  streaming music service of your choice. Make new friends not new music you say hello to in the hallway.    

Sit-down meals not snacking. 
If reading 2015’s “big books everyone talked about” is your priority, the New York Times Notable Books of the Year coverage will more than suffice. Again, 3-5 titles that stir your interest. More than that and by the time you finish them, it’ll be March and 2016 bookish temptations will already be clawing at the front door. 

For a more personal  take, Maris Kreizman, who runs publishing projects over at Kickstarter does a magnificent Best Books list that I return to year after year.  

Drilling into genres, the NPR Book Concierge does a great job overall. Paste Magazine usually picks a few categories to dig into each year with great flair. The AV Club’s best of coverage of comics and graphic novels is as dependable as an old friend. The folks at Book Riot do both great 30,000- foot Best-of-Every- Book-You-Can-Imagine reporting and strong by-genre lists as well. I also dig these Best Books by Women lists over at LitHub

Tempting here to just wait and see what gets nominated for your Oscars or Golden Globes’s and catch up on films you missed. Don’t. Award nominations too often focus on movies released after Thanksgiving and whose studios spend a king’s ransom on publicity campaigns. Instead of catching up on great movies, you’ll be wasting time catching up on 2015’s Best Movies at Stuffing the Ballet Box. 
Instead, make a quick trip through Rotten Tomatoes Top 100 movies of 2015 or Roger’s annual  Four Star Reviews feature. Focus on movies you’ve heard of but didn’t get a chance to see. Then for films you haven’t heard of but would like to try, watch their trailer on Apple Trailers.
If you like something, add it to your queue of record (Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, a legal pad) immediately to remember it.  


RIP Maya Angelou: A Eulogy for The Pulse of Morning

“Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.”

I was on the Washington Mall that clear January in 1992, 19 years old, having voted in my first election the November before, when Dr. Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for the inauguration of President Clinton. I will never forget that day, standing there in the freezing cold, with my mother and youngest brother, seeing a speck of a tall African-American woman in the distance speak of the new president and the America we all came from and was dawning that morning.

I thought of how my mother had marched for civil rights and the rights of women, how my father had welcomed the black friends of my brothers and I to our Passover Seder table then insisted on hearing about their families, their traditions and how my late grandfather, at risk of reprisal, loss of business and professional standing, had given good paying jobs and no interest loans to the African-American men who worked on his construction crews, simply because it was the right thing to do.

And I looked at that tall woman in the distance, whose voice and words rolls from the steps of our capitol, like thunder rolling down the mountains. I knew that woman’s personal history meant she had every reason and cause to be bitter and disgusted with the country of her birth, the country that broke its promise to her and generations like her.

And I heard her say it was our country, all of us, and at its root was not the promise to get it right the first time, to try and do it better next time, with year, each election, each generation. That to be an American was to believe, fundamentally, that from night always came morning.

I will miss you, Maya Angelou. You were the guiding spirit of one of my proudest days as an American.


10 Things I Learned at SXSW 2012:


I’ve been attending the South by Southwest Interactive Festival as an attendee since 2000, a speaker since 2003 and an advisory board member since 2005. Since 2008 I have hosted Fray Café, a storytelling event on the Sunday evening of the conference. Fray Café has been at SXSWi as long as I have.

In that same span of time, South by Southwest Interactive has grown from a few thousand attendees to nearly 25,000 in 2012. In 2011, it surpassed SXSW Music, the organization’s oldest and signature festival, in numbers of badge holders. What was once a conference occupying 1/2 of one floor of the newly-built Austin Convention Center, now includes 15 “campuses” all over the city. Many of the friends I first made at SXSW no longer attend as doing do is too expensive, too focused on “making it” rather than making anything in particular, no longer relevant or all these reasons combined.

About 500x that many attendees have never known SXSW outside of what it is now–Huge corporate-sponsored parties, companies and products getting “discovered” that week in Austin, long lines at everything and a breathless sighting of Pete Cashmore. Their experience is no better or worse than mine, just different.

Every year when I return home, I take stock of what I learned in an essay called 10 Things I Learned at SXSW (previous years: 201120082007, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002). This year’s version is below.

10 Things I Learned at SXSW 2012:

1. Justifying it.  I have a book due in June. And a lot left to write. That needs to be my focus right now and a week of staying out late and eating migas three times a day in Austin is a distraction. A lovely one, but still. Plus neither my wife (a conference speaker this year) nor I have a full time employer to whom we can pass along the cost of attending. That cost could buy you a very nice vacation or set you back until mid-July.

So how to justify the expense and time of going? Moneywise we got lucky and made cutbacks where we could. Timewise I borrowed a card from attending more businessy, less “bring-on-the-migas!” conferences (like this one).

I booked breakfast meetings. I went over the the speaker’s list and then my social media rolls about 3 weeks ahead of time to see if there was anyone in Austin who I had a) communicated with virtually but never met or b) met in a business context but would like to get to know socially. Know some of these people better might benefit me professionally someday. Making new friends is always a benefit on multiple levels.

Since I’m almost 40, I don’t stay out as late as I did at my first few SXSW’s. So it’s easier to get up in time for breakfast and grab coffee and toast with someone before morning sessions begin. About 1-3 of those meetings in the morning and I felt ok spending the remainder of the day screwing off.

Meetings also have a cosmic momentum of their own. At nearly every meeting this year, I would get a couple of text messages from someone else asking if I had a moment to meet. This isn’t because I’m Mr. Superstar or something. I think you put that energy out and the universe can sense it.

2. Panels.  This strategy felt ok with me because, the more I attended throught the week, the more I felt like panels (with few exceptions) were a waste of time. It wasn’t lack of content but way way too much content to keep straight and sort. Hundreds of sessions, talks, conversations and panels means an attendee either a) spends several hours pre-conference deciding what they’d like to see knowing full well they’ll get to maybe 20% of it  b) plays it safe and only goes to panels squarely in their area of interest or c) plays it equally safe and only attends sessions put on by famous people. The last option means waiting in long lines, punting on other sessions in order to wait in long lines and running the very real risk of being crowded out of the room anyway.

Those options all kinda suck. SXSW has hit a point when the attendee must either be uptight, myopic or a star fucker to derive benefit from conference sessions. The solution lies in certain tweets user experience, something South by Southwest, for all its talent firepower, has never been  that good at.

What if somehow the conference could take a list of interests and preferences you supply and spit back a list of sessions you’d probably like? And what if you could tweak that list based on what what hotel you’re staying at, where you’d like to eat lunch and how much time you’d like to walk between sessions?

That’s probably harder than I’m making it out to be. But if anyone has access to the talent for it, it’s this conference. Or they could confer their blessing/assistance upon or Plancast or some other company that has already built most of the technical infrastructure for such a thing.

And even though I’ve said it a thousand times, a clear, systematic approach to recording and podcasting sessions would go a long way towards solving this problem. SXSW has largely rolled out recordings unannounced, haphazardly, and buried-deeply-in-its-site-1996-hide-and-go-seek-for-the-user fashion.

If I knew what was being recorded, how and when I could get it, I could make smarter decisions about what panels to see now and what to wait and catch up on at home.

If I’ve paid for a conference badge already, what’s the harm?

3. Annoyance. SXSW Hassle is now an annual ritual. Every September I try to reserve a hotel room for and am asked to surrender my right lung for the right not to sleep on the street during the festival. I then find myself saying “1000s of dollars, 2 hour waits for lunch and endless jostling by hordes of strangers because my friends can no longer afford to attend. This is the last year I will submit to this nonsense, SXSW! Good day to you sir!”

And every year I come back and it’s not as bad as I thought. The crowds and inflated prices are now a fact of life. I can be mad at them or I can not go. Thus far I have still managed to spend time with the people that matter to me, make a few new friends and attend and produce events that make SXSW so special to me. The Red Eyed Fly, home of Fray Cafe for the last 8 years, gives us the room at very favorable terms. Ditto the site of my last-night-of-SXSW dinner, a 9-year tradition. And my friends old and new still manage to find enough places to eat, have coffee or meet up that haven’t been so totally overrun as to make them unbearable.

4. Must Haves. As a result,this year was the first time I put it to words my list of Must Haves. There may very well come a day when not enough of my friends can afford to attend or venues can’t afford to cut us a break or I can’t spare the time or the money or the headspace anymore. At that point, South by Southwest and I will have lived out our meaningful life together and will part as friends. I take things a year at a time. Minus Fray Cafe and 20×2, a critical mass of friends and the opportunity to make 3-6 more, SXSW will not have enough for me to return. That hasn’t happened quite yet.

5. Fragility. I would be an idiot to not to keep in mind how fragile this all is, how easily jobs or kids or the economy or the passage of time can keep anyone or all of these wonderful things from happening. And how that is no one’s fault. South by Southwest is wonderful but it is not life. It is a ship-in-bottle-sized version of the spirit we want our lives to have–inspiring, loyal, supported and real. But to get angry when life interferes, when someone must stop going or can’t go this year or a venue closes, or new people show up or an event is simply not possible is yelling into your own pocket, an angry, myopic, silly waste of energy.

SXSW is a growing/evolving thing as we are. The challenge is to accept that, move with it and STILL make it special.

6. Newcomers. “Every year is someone’s first SXSW” my wise friend James McNally said, which I take to mean “Don’t be the schmuck moving the goalposts and saying ‘everything was awesome when I first got here. But now that YOU’RE HERE it’s not anymore.”

Put another way, to an entire generation of attendees, South by Southwest is about loud parties and waiting in line, and seeking out venture money and free beer. And they would look at my friends, with our out-of-the-way gatherings, and paying our own way and say “Why?”

They are entitled. They’re entitled to have the experience be anything they want it to be. As am I. It’s pretty easy to stay out of each other’s way and no one is hurting anyone else just by being there.

7. Newcomers Part II. New comers are inspiring. They remind me that South by Southwest is an experience that can give over and over, to diferent people, at different times in life. And there are always more looking for the rewards I have found from it.

In the weeks leading up to SXSW, I heard from at least a half-dozen acquaintences that they were coming for the first time. I invited them to everything I could, advised where appropriate and tried to meet individually with as many of them as I could. I can say that now most, if not all, are friends.

That’s the beauty of that second week in Austin. You get to know each other quick. And yet it feels 100% real and usually endures.

8. Breaks. On at least 3 occassions, I took a long walk with an old friend I’d run into on the streets of Austin. I was probably missing a panel or a free taco or a spotting of Sean Parker but whatever. Those things will happen if they are meant to. Time with an old friend in this midst of that chaos is a precious gift. And a needed repose when you are no longer the 25 year-old adventurer I was my first year at the conference.

9. Shoring up. Footnote to #5. Just because certain things are fragile doesn’t mean we should be content with them staying that way. So after I turn my book in this summer, I’ll be putting in some hours to make sure the parts of SXSW I care out have solid home bases and enduring legacies.

10. Take off and go. I crossed the half-way point of my book right before we arrived in Austin. I’ve a ton to do before my June deadline. SXSW was both a break from it (I didn’t write while there) but also a reminder, a reminder that I am excited by the path I am on, incredibly lucky and grateful that I still get to do this each spring and feel as though my relationship with it gets different but better with time.

SXSW and I are in the long game for now. There are many adventures left to be had.