Friday, January 18, 2013

Screw Up, Repent, Cash In, Repeat

For Lance Armstrong, redemption starts with talking to Oprah. (OWN photo)

I am so tired of the redemption story.

I’m tired of it because it is a cliché. I’m tired of it because it turns suckers into an awful lot of people. I’m tired of it because it lets way too many people off the hook.

Before you think I’m terribly hard-hearted and cynical, understand that I don’t think redemption is bad. It’s necessary and it’s inspiring, particularly when it truly galvanizes someone’s humanity instead of, say, landing them endorsement deals and a fat contract.

The redemption story, though, is another … well … story. You know how it goes: Athlete/actor/public figure/business person pretty much destroys their life and maybe someone else’s. Then they clean up their life and the world embraces them. Big pay day ensues. Happy ever after. The end.

That’s why I’m so uncomfortable with the Lance Armstrong story these days. Quite frankly, I would have held him in higher regard if he had just kept up with the denials and accusations. But to go on “Oprah” and admit you’re a flawed human being? What a cliché.

This ennui with the redemption story isn’t just about Lance Armstrong, though. For me, it’s the way it’s become just too easy with a fawning public and a culpable media to tell that same old story. Those with a comeback story are placed upon a pantheon that seems hard to reach for those who never screwed up to begin with. Solid, dependable, trustworthy success is just too boring for our culture, and that is truly sad.

In a long journalism career, I’ve done one comeback story that I can recall. And it’s why I’ll never do another one. A former star athlete blew away (literally) his career; this was the 1980s and cocaine was everywhere. Now he was cleaned up and working at a local business and talking to kids about how he’d screwed up his life.

It was only later, when I was older and more cynical, that I realized how perfect that PR was for the business he had now chosen and felt a little squeamish about that. I also got an anonymous call from a very angry woman who had been the victim of some bad stuff this guy had done. She didn’t think it had to be in the story, she just wanted me to know who it was we were trying to make look so good.

I felt bad for her, but it was only later when I actually became the victim of a crime that I realized what these redemption stories must be like to people on the other side of the story. I vowed never to do one again, and so far, I haven’t. Not one like this.

Yet they’re there, everywhere. As the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis is celebrated in these, his final days as a pro, few mention a situation he was involved in years ago in which a two young men were murdered. The men's families remember, though.

The redemption story is but one of many clichés the willing media and the naive public lap up. The problem is, people recognize they need an angle and try to sell themselves in such a way.

I recently got a story pitch from a new business owner wanting me to do a story on his business. I said we’d print some information that the new business opened, but wouldn’t do a full story. “What about a story about a black man opening a business?” was the response. “Did you really have to go there?” I wanted to say.

I also got a story pitch from a PR person wanting me to write article about her CEO client, a woman. The story pitch? About the challenges of a woman working in a man’s world. I wanted to tell the PR person that as a former sports writer, I could probably teach her client a thing or two about working in a man’s world.  I also wanted to ask her who set the time machine back to 1973.

It all reminds me of the great line from “Muriel’s Wedding,” when Muriel follows the cluster of young women on their vacation until they get fed up with her.

“You’ve got no dignity, Muriel,” one of them cruelly says as she walks away.

Dignity. It’s a lost art. Maybe finding a little bit of it is all the redemption we need.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Townie Time

A big clue you might be a townie: Birthday greetings wished to you on the bowling alley's sign.

When you belong in a community, the big things to you are not the things that make the big news. Oh sure, there’s a new strip mall going up and the mayor is running for re-election, but for a lot of people in my town the big deal this month is that a woman named Joan is retiring from the post office.

The friendly faces you see every day are part of what makes a community, no matter what the size of a place. But being bummed the woman at the post office is retiring just drove home one more time the truth that is impossible to ignore: I am a townie.

In many ways, this is no surprise, it’s just been tough to admit. As one who lived in cities my whole adult life until moving back to my hometown 29 years after I left here for college, as one who can wander the streets of London and New York and not get lost, admitting the townie thing can make me a bit sheepish.

Yet it’s been there, since almost the beginning. Like everything else, the first step is acknowledging it. And there have been so many steps along the way, it really should have been obvious. Because you know you are a townie when:

● You still call people “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” usually former teachers and parents of people you went to school with once upon a time.

● You spend way more time than you ever thought you would at the funeral home.

● Someone calls the local coffee shop looking for you.

● You ask an acquaintance if you can come over sometime and look at her house because she lives in a house you spent a lot of time in as a kid and are curious what it looks like now.

● You ask the young cashier at the grocery store what she’s majoring in, and when she says elementary education,  your first thought is, “Oh good, she's such a nice girl.”

● You splurge for a landline and keep a listing in the local phone book because you’re involved in so many things that people of all ages, some who might not be tech-savvy, really do need to be able to find you.

● While out for a walk and wondering what time it is, you look up to see what the bank clock says even though the clock has been gone for 20 years.

● You are introduced to someone and you say, “Oh, I used to babysit you.”

● You are introduced to someone and they say, “Oh, you used to babysit me.”

● You recognize, from a block away, that the woman walking down the street was your third-grade teacher because she is wearing the same style cardigan and scarf as she did when she was your teacher in 1969.

● You have practically memorized the phone number of the strictest teacher you had in grade school because you call her up so often for various community events you are both part of.

● You still miss the A&W.

● You tell a real estate agent, “If the street wasn’t there when I was in high school, I don’t want to live on it.”

● You tell someone “OK” when they suggest a lunch spot that hasn’t had that particular name for about 40 years.

● As soon as the weather turns cold, you start asking the folks at the local meat market when their winter sale is happening.

● You are quite accustomed to people jumping out of their cars and taking pictures of that meat market, because it is called Dick’s Quality Meats.

This list wouldn’t be exclusive to a small town; no doubt people have strong connections in their neighborhoods in cities, too. Indeed, when the grocery store my friends shop at in Des Moines rebuilt elsewhere on its site and rearranged its parking lot, you would have thought their world was turned upside down. Because it kind of was.

As a small-town townie, sure, there are things people you barely know end up knowing about you. It’s weird and it’s wonderful and it’s not for everyone. But the prize is a sense of belonging, the feeling that you’re all kind of in this together.

Well, that and a big meat sale.

This grocery store sold T-shirts last year. They sold out.