Keeping it Real: Remaking Your Narrative in the Pandemic Age

IMG_3311“We are supposed to change, aren’t we? I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago or even 10 months ago. I’m sure you’re not the same person you were as a kid, and you won’t be the same when you retire.

“We are supposed to change. Otherwise what’s the point of living?”

The above passage is a quote from me, or to be more specific, from a character in my upcoming fiction novel (#humblebrag.) But it’s also a message within the context of our lives in 2020, aka, The Year When It Happened.

I talk with clients almost every day about how to plan for the weeks ahead, and how (and when) they should get back to normal, whatever that means. We talk about brand narratives, and purpose, and whether what a brand said it was in the Old World will make any sense in the new one — and whether it should.

Because we are supposed to change. Because one day you’re making cars and the next you’re making ventilators. Because in moments of crisis and desperation, we discover who we truly are.

And if we are more ourselves and more real when times are tough, then why revert when things improve?

If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19 and mandatory quarantines, from Zoom meetings and awkward happy hours, it’s that real is better — in life, and especially in marketing.

Sorry, I digress (happens a lot around this time on whatever day this is.) My point is that your narrative — how you see yourself and how others see you — is likely going to change. I expect it already has, it’s just that you’re so busy trying to cope you haven’t noticed yet. Or maybe you don’t want to admit it, chalking up your new thoughts and feelings to an annoying yet temporary defense mechanism.

But here’s the thing about time: it doesn’t give a shit about your feelings. It moves forward, with or without you. You can try to swim against a current all you want, but eventually it will drag you down.

So don’t let it. Change your narrative and align your story with who you are now. And no matter what, don’t be afraid to be real.

Your LinkedIn profile is a good place to start. For example, the short description under my name used to work for me, but now I’m not so sure.

“Brand Marketer, Digital Strategist, Author.”

Okay, let’s unpack this:

“Brand Marketer” — I think I know what that means, and I expect those in my business think they know what that means, but let’s be honest: it’s so vague and broad that it means absolutely nothing. It’s a buzzword I put in years ago because I thought recruiters would look favorably upon the term. It was an image of myself that I didn’t even see, and still don’t. I’d totally make fun of that guy, and I AM that guy

“Digital Strategist” — Okay, we’re getting closer, but dude (yes I’m talking to myself), why are you describing yourself with a word from the 1970s? True, adding “strategist” to anything automatically makes it super important, but there’s got to be more to who I am and why I do what I do — or maybe not, which is even more depressing

“Author” — This one still works. I can back it up with facts, namely that I’ve written and published books. No bestsellers mind you, and I still need to keep the day job for like, I don’t know, however long forever is, but at least “author” is accurate and a hell of lot better than “storyteller.”

Oh wait, I call myself that as well. But as I say in my bio copy:

I am a storyteller. Yeah, I know — that description falls between super lame and intolerable douchebag. But I can assure you that 1) it’s true, and 2) I am definitely somewhere right in the middle.

See that? I use a tired cliche to define my life’s calling, but I’m self-deprecating about it which, for me, is as real as it gets.

Now to be fair, you may not need to change much of anything. Your narrative might be just fine and that’s okay. Nevertheless, It certainly doesn’t hurt to do a “self-audit” and take a look at yourself through post-pandemic glasses.

Besides, you owe it to yourself to look. And you need not be scared of who looks back.

Because we are supposed to change. Otherwise, what’s the point of living?


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Beginning of the End of Bullshit

s3-news-tmp-123315-bullshit--default--820“Tell a real story. Talk like a goddamn real person…stop all the countless bullshit we marketers create to make us sound more important than we really are.”

I wrote that years ago, long before social media became the behemoth it is today, before the 2016 U.S. elections, before global pandemics sent us into our homes desperate for the same human connections that just days prior we took for granted.

Yet despite the very real health threat we now face, despite the anxiety and fear and uncertainty that scars this nascent 21st century, something good may come out of all this. Something that will last long after we adjust to whatever normal life becomes.

I felt it in this raw, moving video from Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson. I saw it in Dyson’s ingenious creation of ventilators, in U-Haul’s decision to provide free storage to displaced college students, and in LVMH switching from manufacturing perfume to making hand sanitizer:

The end of bullshit.

NOW LET’S BE CLEAR: it’s not like some won’t still try to use bullshit any chance they get.

Bad habits are hard to break after all. I’m sure you’ve received lots of “your safety is our priority” emails from companies that also want you to keep buying stuff even if it means leaving your house (“gee thanks, my dream vacation just got cancelled and I’m afraid I’ll be dead within the month, but good to know I can still get 30 percent off.”)

Or how about this poetic message from Barnes & Noble:

Dear Reader, 

We’re living through turbulent times together. Our booksellers are your neighbors, your friends and family. Your stories are our stories, and we know how resilient our communities are. 


The Booksellers of Barnes and Noble

Yes, oh faithful Booksellers of Barnes & Noble, these are turbulent times. Also there are people dying, millions without jobs and countless others about to go homeless and hungry. But you know how resilient we are, so it’s all good.

Even when some brands actually try to do the right thing, they can’t help but fall back on the bullshit marketing practices of the past.

Popeyes Chicken thought it would help out in this time of crisis by offering its Netflix login credentials to the first 1,000 people who posted photos of themselves eating Popeyes, and then tagging their fun photos with #ThatPasswordFromPopeyes (#ThatsALongStupidHashtag.) Never mind that the promotion’s name, Fried Chicken and Chill, is a slang expression telling people to eat fried chicken and then have sex. Not the worst suggestion anyone has ever made, but still creepy.

The point is the promotion didn’t hurt Popeyes. They wanted the gain without any pain.

There has to be some semblance of sacrifice; not just donations but actions. If we’re in this together, then we actually need to be in this together. For example, Popeyes competitor KFC is providing weekend meals for kids to keep them from going hungry — a relatively simple gesture with real human impact.

Consumers don’t want marketing campaigns, they want empathy. They want brands to care because it’s the right thing to do, not because the brand expects something in return.

They want more CEOs like Delta’s Ed Bastian, who updates his customers without pretentious buzzwords and is honest about the state of the business; who plans to institutionalize new cleaning and safety procedures for the long term, and who puts his employees’ safety and financial security first.

If you need a teleprompter and a script to connect with people, then you don’t know how to connect with people.

MARKETERS CAN’T GO BACK TO THE WAY THINGS WERE. That world no longer exists, and consumers won’t tolerate insincerity anymore.

Even the way people interact with each other has been freed from bullshit. We no longer care that our dogs jump on our laps during a client call, or that our colleagues might discover that our blonde hair is really brown. We are more real in the digital world than we ever were in the physical.

Digital has always been about sociology, not technology; about people and empowerment. The more socially distant we are (or “physically distant” to be more accurate), the more we need to connect – and thanks to digital, we can be a part of it all without being apart from it all. 

Of course bullshit will always be with us in some form; we need evil so we can appreciate the good. Nevertheless, we had a revolution this month, a revealing marketing revelation of epic proportions. It was a coup of the best kind, and a message to all those who would defy the will of the people that their time is over. The world is forever changed, and so is marketing.

And that’s no bullshit.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Other Virus


We see it not just every day but every hour, it seems almost every minute: a quarantine here, a new case there, a sports league stopping play. It’s a disease made for the Internet age, moving at unheard of speeds, each new piece of information coming and going as quickly as an Instagram swipe.

We are puzzled and paralyzed; pained yet numb. We don’t know how to react (shake? fist bump? elbow tap?) because the virus is here, somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. A sneeze could be a death sentence. We are upside down, hanging by chewed-up nails, on an infinite edge with no end in sight.

The infection is spreading. But I’m not talking about COVID-19 — I’m talking about the other virus.


I don’t mean to downplay the severity of the Coronavirus or discount the feelings of many who are justifiably concerned. This is a serious matter and needs to be treated as such.

But there is a difference — a big difference — between concern and fear.

Concern is appropriate and necessary. Concern results in caution, in taking meaningful actions to prevent infection.

Fear, however, results in chaos — in actions that make the situation worse. Fear leads to blame, anxiety, and xenophobia.

Fear is the real pandemic. Not a virus, but all of us.

Confusion and ineptitude from government leaders doesn’t help. Looking for scapegoats doesn’t help. Pretending that things are better than they are not only doesn’t help, it gets people killed.

We don’t have a Coronavirus vaccine yet. But we do have one for fear, and that’s honesty. Truth — not politics — will keep the other virus at bay, and allow us to address the real infection with concern, pragmatism, and empathy.

We didn’t create the atmosphere of fear. But we can damn well stop it.




Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Murder Makes Us Small


Nearly 3,000 people died that day in 2001. But 3,000 means nothing — it’s just a number, far too big to comprehend. It’s a data point, a historical statistic, a question on a multiple-choice test.

3,000 doesn’t have a face or a family. But Michael Armstrong does. So do Patricia Fagan, Alan Kleinberg, Manuel Lopez and Angela Rosario. These are just a fraction of the people behind that number, the individuals who left behind timeless ripples of sorrow and loss.

The 9/11 attacks were big. But remembering the people makes it small — not small in its impact, but small so that we can understand it at a human level.

The same goes for cities, towns, communities. Murder statistics are just that, statistics. They don’t have faces or names. They don’t concern us because they are not human. We may worry about them at a subconscious level, but they are too big for us to have any real impact on our daily lives.

Until the number gets a name.

Until a county of more than 3 million is reduced to one bleeding man on a quiet neighborhood sidewalk. In a place where “that doesn’t happen here.”

Until you hear the name and realize you knew him — not personally, but you know the name and the family, you know the daughter who played volleyball with your own kid. You hear the name and you feel it register in the back of your brain, a pinprick of confusion and recognition, and you feel a sense of loss despite being so far removed.

Because murder, anyone’s murder, makes us small. It connects us and brings us together whether we want to or not. Because names matter.

Names like Herman Sandler and Jennifer Tino, like Yvette Moreno and Steve Morris, and all the other names entombed on the 9/11 Memorial.

And names like David Nakaki, a 62-year-old father who went for a walk on a quiet street in a quiet suburban neighborhood in a quiet slice of picture-perfect Orange County, and never made it back home.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Book I’ll Never Finish


You’re glad it’s done, it’s even hard to believe. An idea on a scrap of paper becomes a few sentences on your Notes app becomes a title page becomes a first chapter becomes more pages and more chapters and on and on until, without warning, you reach The End.

You should feel great — and for a while, you do. You focus on the agents and the synopsis, all the mundane details of launching your innocuous little story into the collective. Accomplishment courses through you like a glorious drug.

But the highly hardly lasts. And coming down is a bitch.

Soon your nemesis is back — that blank page teasing you, taunting you, daring you to christen it with a cogent thought. “So you just wrote 100,000 words and went through three drafts, big fucking deal! What’s next, loser? Or is that all you got?” 

And some people wonder why writers drink (I don’t know any of those people, but I assume they exist.)

But here’s the thing — the blank page isn’t wrong. “Mercy,” the book I just completed, may very well be all I’ve got. The idea well is dry, overflowing instead with work-related flotsam and other life-related “stuff.” Reality is the enemy of imagination.

I’ve felt this way before, right after I finished “Zaria’s Gate” in fact. Then one night I woke up at 2 AM and wrote “Death Row inmate comes back to life after execution,” and well, there went the next two-plus years.

I still wake up at 2 AM, and 3 AM, and sometimes 4 and 5 AM, waiting for the idea to come, but unlike before, inspiration eludes me like a receding tide. It feels just out of reach, as if I could only just stretch far enough I could grab it. It’s a cruel game that the universe is winning.

Everyone has a story, they say. Everyone has a book inside them waiting to come out. I’ve had more than my fair share, so maybe this really is it.

The beginning of the book I’ll never finish.

That is what’s really stopping me, what I’m really afraid of. The book I want to write is the one I don’t want to end. The one about what happens next, where my daughter grows up and raises a family of her own, where my wife and I end every night with a whiskey neat. The book with an infinite number of chapters, of twists and turns, of conflict and resolution and transformation.

You can put yourself inside a story; it’s where I love to hide. But when the only story left is you, then everything is exposed. The fiction of your life evaporates, until all that remains is that damn blank page.

I’m glad “Mercy” is done, and I’ll be happy when it’s out in the world. And if that’s all there is, then so be it.

I may not finish another book — but I have a lot more writing to do.










Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

If The Shoe Fits



Piles and piles of soul-filled skyscrapers, spread high and wide, the colors muted by time. All shapes and sizes, some worn and others barely used. A monument to madness. 

There are images more visceral, like the emaciated men with empty stares, or ever-present dark skies, as if the world really was just black-and-white. And of course there is the incomparable scope of then to now.

There’s a reason you should never invoke the Holocaust in reference to anything else. Because you can’t. That horror stands alone.

But then there are the shoes.

The 7,000 placed on the Capitol lawn to remember children cut down by gun violence. The dozens left behind after a shooting in a mosque. The ones attached to scrambling feet in an El Paso Walmart. 

The hastily strewn pile in a Dayton parking lot.

They are striking images. Shoes, after all, don’t have ethnicity, skin tone or nationality. They don’t have prejudice or bias. The shoes are, in a way, what America is supposed to be — a jumbled mess that still fits together. Each pair very different yet sharing a singular purpose.

The question that dominates after these moments is always the same: Why. And the answers invariably fall short.

But something has changed. Now — after Christchurch, after Pittsburgh, after El Paso and Dayton — there is an answer.

It’s not access to guns or violent video games. It’s not drugs alone, or mental illness alone, or hate alone.

These have always been factors. Mass shootings are hardly a phenomenon of the last few years or even this century.

But 251 mass shootings in 216 days, that’s something different. Because now we’ve given people a new reason, one more deadly than assault weapons or manifestos.

We’ve given them permission.

I’m not saying it’s any one person’s fault. But when suspicion of the “other” is normalized, when virulent rhetoric and racist tropes are sanctioned by those in power — either by their words or their silence — then we are giving permission for the monsters to act. 

I meant what I said about the Holocaust. It stands alone in the annals of hate.

But that was about permission, too. And sometimes the shoe fits.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Fathers Belong in the Picture

19275049_740760406096276_7906547852011281237_nSHE WAS A DARLING LITTLE GIRL in a black and white photo, holding a tiny flower, a face blooming with innocence and wonder.

I picked it up from my desk and walked to the next office, where I thanked my friend and colleague for the shot. “Your daughter is so cute,” I said.

He looked at me funny – not surprising as he did that often, but what he said next was no joke.

“Um, that’s your daughter, not mine.”

I looked again. The photo was from years earlier, when my daughter was about the same age as my friend’s. Not only was it my daughter, but as I looked closer, I realized the picture was taken at my house, in my own backyard.

I blamed my mistake on being tired, stressed. I blamed it on too much travel, too much work – anything but the real reason.

I didn’t remember because I wasn’t there.

I tried to make up for lost time in the ensuing years. I did my best to be at school events and volleyball matches; to be present at home, and not at home without being present. Now that she’s in college I make extra efforts to visit, to be available by phone or text – and to take pictures together more often.

I’m still pretty selfish and self-absorbed. I still too often put work and writing on a pedestal above seeing friends or relaxing with my wife. If I have a free moment, it’s usually spent working on the next book chapter or catching up on SportsCenter.

But at least now I see it – I know what I am and can try to get better. And I no longer use my past as an excuse.

Sure, I didn’t have a dad growing up, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be one. I didn’t have a close family, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make one.

Father’s Day has never been easy. It’s a reminder of loss – of my dad from cancer, of my fatherhood from ignorance. But each year it gets a little better, each year a little more focused on the future than the past.

I wasn’t too late after all. I’m back in the picture, where fathers belong.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Thanks For All the Sugar


I know, you’re thinking “what happens next?” Does she lead the Hora? Sing Hava Nagila at the top of her lungs? Do the Electric Slide?

Well yeah, sure, she pretty much did all that. But that’s not the joke. And neither was Elva Schubert. A comedian at times, perhaps, but never a joke, never a mean spirit, never anything but “Grandma Sugar.”

Because for Elva that was enough. For Grandma Sugar, that was everything.

Here’s how I like to remember Grandma Sugar. First, some context: The night prior to a Bat Mitzvah is the Shabbat or Sabbath service. The Bat Mitzvah girl has to go, and by default so do her parents and siblings. But that’s it.

Other relatives can and do attend, but it’s not required. And if you know anything about Jews, especially Southern California Jews, we don’t go to anything if it’s not required or if you can’t drink until the end. If the synagogue doubled as a club where every night was Totally ’80s Flashback Night, well then I’m calling an Uber right now.  But 75 minutes of praying and a sermon that would wake the dead, though only long enough for the deceased to beg the rabbi to shut-up and let the congregation eat already? No thanks, I’d rather stay home and watch Jimmy Fallon try (here’s a hint, Jimmy — if you laugh at your own jokes, they probably aren’t funny.)

Anyway, despite all this, Grandma Sugar wanted to go. Mind you, this was the night before an all-day event, and she had just flown in from Missouri, but it didn’t matter. She was going and that was that.

You might think she felt obligated, despite our assurances that attending wasn’t necessary. But then you didn’t know Grandma Sugar. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I saw it that night.

Grandma Sugar went because she wanted to experience something new. She wanted to be with her great-granddaughter and share in her accomplishment, to create as many memories as possible. Because a Bat Mitzvah is much more about family than it is about religion, and Elva Schubert was all about family.

I watched my daughter that night but I also watched Elva, beaming and praying and standing and sitting (and standing and sitting, and standing and sitting — Jews, you know what I’m talking about.) I watched her animated conversations with my very Jewish mom and how happy Elva was to meet our friends. I watched in awe as she absorbed every last line of the Shema prayer and swayed to every note of the Cantor’s voice. Grandma Sugar was a sponge that never got wrung out, a soul soaked with the singular pleasure of being in the moment with people you love.

I didn’t get it until recently. I didn’t truly realize it until her last few years, when standing became a chore and talking had turned into a task akin to Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill.

I didn’t understand until near the end, when she was still smiling, still engaged, still as happy to see you as she was when you first walked into her home on Christmas Eve — this odd Jewish kid from Orange County who was marrying her granddaughter, this fish out of water in a Midwest basement who felt all apprehension slip away with a warm embrace and chin snuggled against his neck.

Anyway, as I was saying, an elderly Christian grandma walks into a Bat Mitzvah.

What happens next?

Magic. Love. Joy.

A spirit so full of life you wonder how there could be any oxygen left in the room.

Thanks for all the sugar, Grandma. May your memory be a blessing.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Dollar In My Pocket


I’ll put on a fresh pair of jeans and find a dollar in my pocket. I’ll smile, then sigh with the guilty resignation of a purpose unfulfilled.

I’m not upset that I didn’t spend it. Nor am I happy that I “found” some money. I’m just disappointed.

You see, that dollar wasn’t meant to be spent, at least not by me. It was meant to be given away.

I should explain. From 2007 to 2012 I traveled regularly to San Francisco and stayed at the Hilton Union Square, which is really in the Tenderloin area. The Tenderloin is known for some cool restaurants and clubs and culture and Union Square, but it also has a rather visible homeless population.

Seeing as how I always went to the same places for dinner, taking the same routes (my OCD traveled well), I would see the same homeless people every day. So one night, I decided to put a dollar in my pocket on the way to dinner and give it to a homeless person. I did the same thing on the way back, always trying to give it to someone new.

And I haven’t stopped since.

I mostly go to New York now, but the city doesn’t matter. Wherever I travel, whether for work or pleasure, I always keep a dollar in my pocket and give it away when walking to or from a destination. As you can imagine I’ve made a lot of friends over the years, from James, the war veteran in San Francisco who wore his VA card around his neck, to Leo Gnawa in Washington, D.C., who is always in front of my favorite restaurant ready with a handshake and a smile.

These aren’t faceless or nameless people to me. They are my friends, my reminders of what matters. Some get dollars, some also get meals, but they all get my attention and respect.

Leo got something else, too — a role in my upcoming novel. Homelessness is a sub-plot and thematic thread, and I needed someone like him to be an unlikely hero in the story.

The following excerpt — from a conversation between homeless man Leo Ebbitt and a shelter volunteer — was inspired by something the real Leo told me shortly after we met:

“You gave me a dollar once,” said Leo. “I’m sure you do that for other people too, and I get a lot of dollars and change from folks who I couldn’t pick out from a lineup if you asked me. But you…I remember you because you asked me my name.

“No one ever asks my name. People don’t say anything all. Most of the time they walk by like I’m not even there, like I’m just part of the landscape or background or something. Even when someone does see me and helps me out with some money, they don’t see a person, they just see pity — and then I blink out of existence again. Out of sight, out of mind.

“But you stopped. You gave me dollar, you shook my hand, just like you did a few minutes ago, and you asked me my name. You said, ‘Bless you, Leo, take care of yourself.’ For that moment, and for a long while after, I didn’t feel invisible anymore.”

My track record isn’t perfect. Sometimes I forget the dollar. Sometimes it’s there but I’m on the phone or focused on work or there’s some other distraction and I walk by without stopping. But I still try to stop, look people in the eye and ask them their names. It’s a small dignity to most of us but, as Leo knows, to some it’s a gift. Recognition is the first step toward regaining your humanity.

It’s not about the dollar, the handout. It’s about the people and knowing that each of us, no matter how minor or fleeting the gesture, can make a difference.

Still, I hate finding a dollar in my pocket. A dollar in my pocket is a missed opportunity. It’s a failed attempt.

But it’s also a good reminder that a dollar in my pocket doesn’t do any good staying there.



Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Number in the Dark


The jacket from high school that no longer fits (and stop fooling yourself, it never will.) The “lucky shirt” that has more holes than memories. The empty wine bottle you kept for 20 years because you wanted to remember, but now have no clue what.

The concert ticket stub, the sunglasses you swear you might still use someday, the souvenirs that made perfect sense at the time but now collect dust on the shelf.

We hang onto these and so many other talismans because we believe they connect us to what was. As if the past were a tangible, physical thing — an object you could hold and feel.

We also hang on because we don’t want to forget. Because, deep down, we know we have already forgotten so much and that scares the crap out of us. Memories, once as vibrant as a bright watercolor painting, soon melt and drip off the canvas until our past is nothing more than a few muted streaks. We know there was once a painting but we can no longer see it, no longer touch it. So eventually we forget.

Still we must let go. It’s not healthy to cling to what was or pine for what can never be. The past does us no favors — worse, it can keep us from living in the present and planning for the future. So we need to purge those things that hold us down, keep us back, gather so much dust.

I repeat this to myself as my finger hovers over the glowing screen. Tap “edit,” then “delete contact.” That’s all, just two quick actions and it’s done.

It’s time, I say. It’s now been two years since I called that number. Two years since there was someone to answer. It’s time to stop picking up the phone in the middle of the night and filling the room with its ghosts.

Besides, it’s now 4 am and I’m tired and it’s the third time in a month I’ve done this yet all I do is stare and stare and stare until I turn the phone over again and let the room descend back into blackness.

Tap “edit,” then “delete contact.” Nothing to it.

It’s funny, I had the landline memorized but not the mobile. Didn’t need to, so why bother? I called by her name — we all do that now, call each other by name.

“Hey Siri, call Christine.” Call Thomas, call Kate. Call Home, call Work, call for reservations or for tickets or for appointments.  Give your phone a number once and then forget it.

But now the name is a useless, colorless, lifeless painting. All that’s left is a number in the dark.

Mom Cell.”

“Delete Contact?”

I turn the phone over and let the darkness return.

Sometimes you need to let go. But sometimes all you can do is hold on.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments