Searls writes down what I’ve been thinking and predicting for the past couple of years: the mounting backlash by consumers and regulators against tracking technology is going to blow up the existing Adtech market and cause a whole lot of pain for tracking-based advertising models.
“Adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it cares about eyeballs more than media, and it causes negative associations with brands. Consider this: perhaps a $trillion or more has been spent on adtech, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it. (Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian, is required reading on this.)”
On May 6th, I joined the firm of Sitrick And Company as a Member of the Firm (e.g. “partner”) and the first Head of its new Boston office at One Post Office Square. I’m going to build a global tech practice for the firm as well as advise its clients in New England and the Boston area.
Mike Sitrick, the founder of the firm, has been the leading crisis communications specialist in the country for more than 30 years and advises a blue ribbon of corporate and celebrity clients out of the firm’s headquarters in Los Angeles. The firm also has offices in San Francisco, Denver, Washington, DC and New York City.
Sitrick is home to a roster of former national and local business reporters with the likes of Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Bloomberg on their resumes. One of them, my former Forbes colleague Seth Lubove, recommended me as the guy to build up the firm’s tech practice. So thanks to Seth, here I am.
Crisis communications is a fascinating and often misunderstood specialty in the public relations world and Sitrick is the acknowledged black belt at it. In January his second book — The Fixer — was published by Regenery, and in it he lays out a simple ten rule framework for how to weather those adrenaline-filled moments of sheer panic hat come to every organization on occasion. Most telling is his contrarian approach to working with the media. Where many PR firms and internal PR teams take an adversarial stance in their relations with the press, Sitrick prides itself on working closely with the media to get its clients’ version of a controversy out there rather than hide behind the stonewall of “no comment.”
I can look back at several key points in my career when I felt the most energized and empowered, and nearly all of them were associated with some form of crisis or breaking news. Working a crime scene or fire as a cub reporter at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. Saving a colleague choking on a roast beef sub in the Tribune’s newsroom with a Heimlich. The Shattered Glass scoop my team at Forbes.com broke open in 1998.
Calming down pissed-off customers flooding the Better Business Bureau and social media with complaints over delayed computer shipments at Lenovo.
2017 was enlivened by some challenging crisis work at my former job – running PR at Acquia — and I quickly realized my attention and productivity both soar when things go wrong and hit the proverbial fan. So as I parted ways with Acquia, the one thing I wanted to do was more crisis work — either at my own agency (codenamed “Dumpsterfire”) or with an established one where I could learn.
The chance to work with and learn from Mike Sitrick sold me and so here I am.
A press release went out this morning. Here’s a link to it.
Sitrick And Company Opens Boston Office
David Churbuck, Founder and Editor of Forbes.com, former Chief Content Officer of McKinsey and VP of Digital Marketing for Lenovo, Named Head of Boston Office and Member of the Firm
LOS ANGELES, May 11, 2018 /PRNewswire/ — Sitrick And Company, internationally recognized as one of the top strategic and crisis communications firms in the nation, today announced that it has opened a Boston office. The firm now has offices in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Denver and Washington, DC.
Simultaneously, the firm announced it has named David Churbuck, founder and former Editor of Forbes.com and former Chief Content Officer of McKinsey & Company’s TomorrowLab, as Head of the Boston Office and a Member of the Firm.
Mr. Churbuck, an award-winning tech journalist and digital marketing communications executive, brings 20 years of journalism experience and 10 years of corporate experience to the position.
In addition to founding and serving as Editor in Chief of Forbes.com, Mr. Churbuck served as Senior Technology Editor and New England Bureau Chief at Forbes. While he led Forbes.com, the site exposed the New Republic scandal chronicled in the 2003 film Shattered Glass. While Senior Technology Editor at Forbes, the magazine won awards for his cover story about digital forgery, and his early coverage of the Internet.
Mr. Churbuck served as Vice-President of Global Digital Marketing at Lenovo from 2005 through 2010, where he won awards for Lenovo’s pioneering athlete blogging campaign – Voice of the Summer Games — during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He also served as a founding partner of Eastman Advisors, a digital strategy firm in New York City, advising clients in the entertainment, art and luxury goods sectors on their ecommerce, social media and digital marketing strategies.
Prior to joining Sitrick and Company, Mr. Churbuck was VP of Corporate Marketing at Acquia, a Boston-based SaaS provider of open source content management solutions to Global 2000 clients.
A native Cape Codder, Mr. Churbuck holds a bachelor’s degree in American History from Yale University.
Mr. Churbuck joins a roster of reporters and editors from such publications as The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg News, NBC and CBS Television.
Michael Sitrick, the firm’s founder, Chairman and CEO said that he has long eyed Boston as a market that could benefit from the firm’s unique set of skills, but had not found the right person to run that office.
“David fills that need,” he said.
“I speak for everyone at the firm when I say we are very thrilled to have David join our team,” Mr. Sitrick said. “His knowledge and expertise in the media, financial, and technology sectors, as well as in digital and social media will further enhance our ability to serve our clients. It takes a certain combination of judgment and skill to succeed in this business and I am confident David has both.”
Mr. Churbuck added, “It’s an honor to join a firm with a reputation as outstanding as Sitrick And Company’s. The opportunity to work with Mike Sitrick and his team is compelling. Their reputation for achieving results for clients is well known. Mike and I share the opinion that there is significant opportunity to bring a new level of value to clients in the technology sector, not only in Boston but worldwide. I am very excited to join the firm and look forward to helping our clients achieve their goals.”
Sitrick And Company is internationally recognized as one of the top strategic communications firms in the country. Based in Los Angeles with offices in New York, San Francisco, Denver and Washington, D.C., Sitrick And Company was founded nearly 30 years ago and is recognized as one of the nation’s top strategic public relations firms. Best known for its work advising clients during crises and other sensitive matters, the firm has a successful business in corporate, financial and transactional communications, as well. It has advised well over 1,000 public and private companies, organizations and individuals on myriad issues. It was acquired as a wholly-owned subsidiary by Resources Connection, Inc. (NASDAQ: RECN) in November 2009.
I have a nice collection of books and over the past two weeks I’ve winnowed down their numbers by dragging 20 black contractor bags to the Boys Club book trailer at the Barnstable Dump. I may have given myself a hernia in the process, as all of those books were upstairs, scattered between five book cases, and had to be Santa Claus carried downstairs and out the door over my shoulder.
I lightened the load on the old house’s bones and perhaps even slowed its sagging into the sand, but no one was happier to see the black bags of books leave forever than my wife Daphne, who asked me multiple times “what’s wrong with a Kindle?”
A lot is wrong with a Kindle. All those sad “books” locked away on a little plastic rectangle have nothing to compare with the impressive ranks on actual shelves of Shelby Foote’s trilogy of the American Civil War, Gibbons’ massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which I also listened to via Audible during endless car commutes from the Cape to NYC), a signed three-volume hardcover set of John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium trilogy, a full shelf of Pynchon, all of O’Brian’s Master & Commander series, and treasures dating back to college.
Friends and house guests can’t spend a pensive moment on a rainy day looking for a good book on the Kindle in my briefcase. I can’t excitedly press a masterpiece sitting on a device into their hands knowing it won’t come back, but still feel glad to give them the chance to experience what I had when I read the book for the first time.
What sits on a person’s book shelves may say more about a person than their Match.com profile or their Meyers Briggs score. Who hasn’t cocked their head to the side and spent a few minutes scanning book spines to get a sense of their host and their interests? When I was in college I was invited to dinner by my advisor John Hersey. His home on Humphrey Street in New Haven was packed solid with books, more than I had ever seen before or since. My read on him? People who write books own a lot of books.
My shelves — prior to the Great Reshelving of 2018 — would have told a browser that their owner catalogued according to the laws of entropy. Nothing was grouped correctly. Proust was hanging out with James Ellroy. Ancient software manuals sucked up precious space. Flimsy IKEA bookshelves had cracked and collapsed to reveal they were nothing more than corrugated cardboard encased in vinyl. Stacks of books lay under beds collecting dust bunnies. Torn paperbacks with no covers competed with first editions, great poetry, and irreplaceable yearbooks and family photo albums.
Being the nerd I am I went online to look for some guidance on how to most efficiently purge my collection and reorganize it across multiple bookshelves in separate rooms. Should I use the Dewey Decimal System? I did work in a library in college and the Cotuit Library is right across the street and I kind of know the DDS. Was there an amazing book app that would scan ISBN numbers and help me keep track of my lending? One lifehacking tip advised organizing books by the color of their spines the way teenagers sometimes organize their apps on their phones by the color of the icons.
In the end I went topical. Fiction and poetry are being shelved alphabetically in the main book case along with the best of my maritime history and fiction. Paperback fiction (in decent shape) went on the uppermost shelf that is conveniently paperback sized. Ancient history and literature — Herodotus through Runciman — went into a bedroom along with more marine titles, mountain climbing, survival stories, philosophy, and coffee table art books. The guest room got more beach reading and popular stuff like Stephen King, along with all the local flora and fauna and Cape Cod specific titles.
First came the purge and the purge intensified. In a moment I would ponder as book in my hand and make a quick assessment. Was it a duplicate and if so, was it superior to the other edition? Do I need three hardcover copies of Harry Potter and the Lost Prince of the Planet Xerox? Was it out of date, e.g. some business book about “Agile Lean 6 Sigma Teams?” that wasn’t relevant anymore to anybody and probably was that way the day it was published? Into the trash with it. Was it a one-off read that would probably never get picked up and read again? e.g. anything by James Patterson? Into the trash.
My criteria for disposal grew more weening the more weeding out I did. Sometimes I’d find a title so heinous I’d cringe that it even came into the house, let alone found space to molder in.
Once the purge was completed and five back-bending trips to the recycling center lightened the house by several tons, I started shuttling the survivors to their new homes. In the process I was able to dispose of one dilapidated IKEA bookcase and multiple temporary shelves in various bedrooms. I removed about 100 feet of shelving by the time I finished, and what remains has plenty of room for more books. All photo albums and yearbooks are in a set of shelves inside of a closet used to store old electronics and other detritus.
The most satisfying part of the Great Reshelving was the reunification of so many scattered titles and the discovery that my favorite authors are Don DeLillo, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Hannah, Joan Didion, John McPhee, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy. I’m really into Byzantine History (especially the fall of Constantinople), the naval history of the Civil War, whaling, American small boat design, shipwrecks, mountain climbing, and English romantic poets.
As for apps, yes there are book apps that purport to make life easy, but in the end I just did it by the seat of my pants the old fashioned way.
I’ve been into non-currency applications of the blockchain thanks to Dries Buytaert’s thoughts about using it to reward contributors to open source projects, and Steven Johnson’s excellent article about blockchain, cryptocurrencies, ICOs, the Bitcoin Bubble and Etherium in the New York Times Sunday Magazine last January.
I signed up for po.et, received a Frost token and API URL; downloaded the WordPress plugin, uploaded the zip file to my account on WordPress.com and filled out the plugin’s settings with my name and the Frost settings.
I can stick a badge like this one:
Verified on Po.et
April 18th 2018, 13:29
into my posts by adding “” to each post. What’s the big whoop? It’s essentially stamping a piece of my work with my Po.et token so it can be verified as my work and not an impostor’s nor a thief’s. I believe I can audit my work for it’s use (or abuse), use it on photos, audio… and maybe incorporate a payment system in the future.
Po.et has one of the best self-descriptions I’ve seen from a tech company in a long time:
Po.et is a tool that allows publishers to timestamp their digital works. Po.et uses blockchain technology in order to create digital “fingerprints” that can mathematically prove an article hasn’t been altered or tampered with.
Theroux is one of my favorite writers of fiction and acerbic travel. His 1978 novel Picture Palace is set on the Cape, and he’s had a summer place here since the mid-70s. “It is my home, so it is in my dreams,” he writes, “a landscape of my unconscious mind, perhaps my mind’s only landscape.”
I just finished smearing cream cheese all over today’s New York Time’s front page story about how the U.K. company Cambridge Analytica filched 50 million Facebook accounts to fuel its data profiling engine for the Trump campaign and other Republican races over the past few years. It was spellbinding and infuriating at the same time, making for my best outraged breakfast in weeks.
Data services like Cambridge Analytica aren’t new, they’re usually just another pollster with a black box algorithm and some intimations that they have a pipeline to the source of the good data that others don’t. At the 2010 CES I was pitched hard by two companies who shall go unnamed but who both claimed to have full data feeds from either Google, Facebook’s “social graph” and a full record of every tweet ever twitted. They were selling their services to digital marketers such as myself to drive campaign development, media planning, and Big Data voodoo psychographic persona profiling. The one that said they had a full database of every tweet ever sent was applying some cockamamie sentiment analysis that could determine the difference between a teenager calling a Toyota Corolla “a sick ride” and a pissed off commuter calling the same car “a sick POS.” Another made it sound like they were kinda, sorta a Google portfolio company with Google investments and permission to get really deep into the good stuff. Neither of those two companies made a shred of sense so I begged off and went back to my sore feet and sense of wonder by the porn stars trying to crash the hospitality lounge Lenovo set up in the Bellagio across from the AVN Awards.
I walked away feeling very creeped out by those early social analysis firms’ claims of having a “special” relationship with the Big Three in social networking and search. For all I know they were only scraping profiles and copying tweets, and I doubt any of them had a true backdoor into Google’s search records John Battelle wrote presciently in 2003 prior to publishing his book about Google, “The Search” — that Sergey and Larry have long been sitting on the world’s most exhaustive “database of intentions” but don’t pimp it out because, well, because Google’s motto is “don’t be Evil.”
Andy Kessler told me in 1995 as I was figuring out the business plan for Forbes.com that the true currency of the Internet wasn’t goiing to be cash based — purchases, subscriptions, etc. — but informational. I wasn’t sharp enough to fully grok his point, but in essence he correctly called that true source of value coming from information as users like you and me were persuaded to part with our personal details in exchange for some free value.
Dries Buytaert, who invented the open source CMS, Drupal, also called it a couple years ago when he said there was no way for a content brand like the New York Times to beat the power of the Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft profile given the immense amount of data they were accumulated on their users’ activities.
“Traditional retailers like RadioShack and Barnes & Noble were great “content platforms”; they have millions of products on shelves across thousands of physical stores. Amazon disrupted them by moving online, and Amazon was able to build an even better content platform with many more products. In addition, the internet enabled the creation of “user platforms”. Amazon is a great user platform as it knows the interests of the 250 million customers it has on file; it uses that customer information to recommend products to buy. Amazon built a great content and user platform.”
To read this morning, with a mouthful of bagel , that a Cambridge Analytica researcher was able to weasel Facebook into handing over the intimate details of 50 million people by fibbing and claiming the data was for an academic study would be jaw dropping were it not for Facebook’s unbroken record of ham-fisted actions and policies regarding its users’ data, the same reason I avoid it like the network despite its ubiquity.
“Get over it, you have no privacy” may be the cynical creed of this brave new world, but I have to imagine, given the throbbing tenor of the headlines (today’s Times story checks off all the good keywords of the current news cycle including “Robert Mueller” “Donald Trump” “Julian Assange” “Steve Bannion” and of course the world’s foremost kleptocratic state:, “Russia“) and on the back of Equifax screwing the pooch last summer by forgetting to patch its Apache code, that we’re getting closer to the big pullback in Internet confidence by the consumers of the world that was predicted by the World Economic Forum and the McKinsey Global Institute over five years ago.
It’s shaping up to be a banner year for a privacy revolt. Cambridge Analytica is heading to the mattresses just the EU’s new consumer privacy regulations — GDPR — is going into effect. The EU has a record of passing the most stringent consumer privacy regulations and any company with global reach is going to have to snap to and toe the line or face a lot of flights to Strasbourg or The Hague to face the music. After all, half of Europe lived in a snoop state with the Stasi listening into everything, so when their government tells Google an individual has a right to be forgotten, you can bet that person is going to be forgotten or Google isn’t going to sell many ads in Germany or France.
I’ll make some far fetched and wishful predictions that a few things could happen:
Digital marketers are going to think long and hard before asking for a prospect or customer to share personal information. Database marketing is going to get some serious scrutiny from their general counsel and Chief Risk Officer. The entire martech stack is getting a full colonoscopy right now before GDPR kicks in less than six weeks from today.
Companies in the martech and data analytics space are going to fall all over themselves to sell those same marketers some sort of “put the consumer in control” tools so data pigs with their first, second and third party data can begin to look like white hats. I can write the taglines now: “Earn Customer Trust By Putting Them Control of Their Data.”
Forget Big Data, the next market is going to be for tools that let consumers own and manage their info, so they can be in control of their data. The only people to do so will be tin foil hat-types like my step father who used to call Microsoft tech support because he thought they were responsible for scam spam from the Prince of Cameroon who needed his banking details to save his country’s treasury.
Say hello to the beginnings of the “Big Reverse.” You know — “when banks compete for your business you win?” The dream of killing advertising and marketing and turning the tables so when I need a new car I can somehow let all the dealers know I’m looking for a really sick SUV with 5 mpg and get bids back like Buddy Cianci with snowplowing contracts in Providence.
Digital and Tivo killed interruption-based/ shotgun marketing. Digital came along and the best the marketing world could come up with were ignorant retargeting ads that chase us around to buy the shoes we bought the time they planted a tracking cookie under our bumpers to follow us around like total creeps. If that’s the best they can do with my shoe size, credit card number, my time zone, gender, and penchant for pictures of squirrels eating pizza, then they are cavemen with stone axes claiming to be “data-driven” marketers.
The ineptitude of the hundreds of corporations and governments who have had to issues contrite “oops, we lost your social security number, here’s a free credit report” statements are going to have to face up to a new world where hoovering up birthdays and zipcodes and astrological signs isn’t permitted, and the Cluetrain-driven vision of Doc Searls and Project VRM is going to become the new normal very very soon.
Say goodbye to lead gen and the interrupted afternoons when “Business Development Representatives” will cold call you because you were naive enough to share your actual name and phone number in exchange for a white paper on “Harnessing Machine Learning to Drive Customer Digital Experience Delight“
Winter is coming for the data-pigs of the world. The conspiracy theorists and preppers are going to take Cambridge Analytica, the Illuminati, Rootin’ Tootin Putin and the Barnum & Trump White House look like The Rapture. Breach a few more Equifaxes, Targets, and Ashley Madisons and people, even the “sheeple” are going to get wise to the fact that it’s not just their browser history that could embarrass them into pulling the plug.
Spoiler alert: if you are from Cotuit and want to read the book described below, stop now
Nevil Shute was an English author and aeronautical engineer best remembered for his post-nuclear apocalypse novel, On the Beach. I bumped into his writing as a kid reading a truncated version of his classic Trustee of the Toolroom that had been butchered and stuck in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.
Recently I downloaded a ton of classic lit from Project Gutenberg and epubbooks.com and came across a copy of Shute’s An Old Captivitywhich I loaded into my Kindle and started to read during my commute. It takes place in the 1930s and is about a young Scottish pilot named Donald Ross who scrounges around London for a flying job and is referred to an Oxford don, an archaeologist who is planning an expedition to Greenland to perform an aerial survey of an abandoned Viking settlement on the south coast.
After ordering a new seaplane from an American manufacturer, Ross, a former bush pilot who flew float planes in Labrador and up to Hudson Bay in Canada, fits it out for the long flight from Great Britain to Iceland and then eventually onwards across the Atlantic to Greenland.
During the layover in Reykjavik, Ross seeks out a druggist to get some pills to help him sleep due to the long hours and stress of overseeing the safety of the professor and his somewhat surly daughter. These pills evidently have the desired effect and Ross is able to catch up on his sleep before the long, grueling flight west to the ice-strewn coast of Greenland.
Ross likes these pills and begins to depend on them, but they seem to have the opposite effect and he gets unhinged and suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress and strain of flying over ice floes and perpetual fog banks. The professor and his daughter confiscate the drugs and Ross passes out for 36 hours into a coma-like sleep.
The novel shifts to an extended dream sequence in which Ross imagines himself to be a young slave owned by Leif Erikson, son of Eric the Red, founder of the first settlement on Greenland around 982 CA. The dream imagines Ross paired with another slave, a girl, and they are put aboard a Viking longboat (known as a knarr) after another expedition of discovery returns from a voyage to the west and reports the sighting of forested land but no landing due to the timidity of the Viking captain, one Bjarni. Erikson, infuriated, sets out to explore this land and Ross’s dream imagines the long sail to the coast of Newfoundland where the expedition party goes ashore and founds the settlement known today as L’Anse aux Meadows.
So I’m reading along, a little indifferent to the narrative because it’s a weird shift from the brutal realism and details of arctic aviation circa 1936 and because I know a little about Erikson’s purported expeditions to Canada and New England. There’s lots of local lore and conjecture about Viking settlements in New England, none with much conclusive evidence. There’s Dighton Rock
in the Taunton River in Berkely, Massachusetts and also claims that the Viking land of “Vinland” was actually on Cape Cod near Bass River and a place called Follins Pond
“Holes drilled into rocks along water ways and former water routes have been classified as Norse “mooring holes” by some writers. Presumably, when landing in areas where a speedy departure might be necessary, the Norse drilled a hole in a suitable rock and inserted a mooring pin into it. The pin was attached by a line to the ship. When mooring, the Norse inserted the pin into the hole. For departing they simply tugged on the line, pulled out the mooring pin and stored it for use the next time they landed.
The holes are about 3 cm in diameter and about 12 to 15 cm deep, usually triangular in shape. Several series of holes have been identified as evidence of Norse landings. One was located on Bass River, the outlet for Follins Pond on Cape Cod. Two others were found on the shore of Follins Pond itself and the nearby Mill Pond, close to where Frederick Pohl had predicted they should be if the Norse had stayed there.”
Whatever the historical record and theories may hold, Shute continues the dream voyage from Newfoundland and I started to wonder if the shoreline was meant to be the beach of the outer Cape from Provincetown down to Monomoy Island. The Viking ship turns west at the end of the sandy strand and I started to wonder if Shute was implying Erikson had sailed along the southern coast of Cape Cod.
The knarr enters a bay in Ross’s dream and the slave and his girl companion are told to explore the forested shores and report back in a few days on their findings. I’m by this point trying to imagine if they are roaming around the upper Cape, but dismiss the hunch and keep reading as the two slaves run through the forest marveling at the landscape before returning to the bay where Erikson waits.
Before departing the two slaves — evidently Celtic prisoners captured in some coastal raid by the Vikings on Scotland or Ireland — carve their names into a stone using Norse runic characters, they set this stone on a hill overlooking the bay and sorrowfully leave aboard the boat to head back to Greenland.
Ross wakes up after his long nap and is very deranged by the dream and begins babbling about what he saw. The archaeologist encourages him to share every detail and confides to his daughter that Ross is eerily correct about certain details of the Leif Erikson saga he couldn’t have known but perhaps had come across in some prior reading.
The trio finish their aerial photography survey of the abandoned settlement (the archaeologist believe a Celtic church may be found by analyzing the photos and thus prove that Irish sailors like Saint Brendan had also made their way to Greenland) and pack up the plane to fly it to Canada where it will be sold and they will sail back to England on a Cunard liner.
Ross lands in Hallifax, Nova Scotia and they rest for a spell before pushing on to New York City where the plane’s buyer plans on meeting them. As they fly over the Gulf of Maine from Nova Scotia, Ross sights the curved hook of Provincetown and descends, excitedly proclaiming that the landscape and beach are exactly as he dreamt them. The professor and his daughter grow alarmed as the sea plane flies only a hundred feet above the beach. At Chatham they turn west and skirt the coast. Now here’s the payoff:
“He throttled back, and circled out to sea. The yellow seaplane sank towards the water; presently he opened up again and flew towards the harbour entrance about thirty feet above the water. “This is the place,” he said. They passed the sand spit and flew on above the placid inland water, with Osterville Grand Island on their right hand and Cotuit on the left. They passed on between the wooded shores into the Great Bay and turned to the north. A narrow, river–like stretch of water led inland with wooded country to the west and fairly open, parklike country to the east. They shot up this at ninety miles an hour; it opened out into a still, inland lagoon completely surrounded by the woods. The pilot took the seaplane up to about three hundred feet, and circled round.”
Okay, so my hunch was right. Shute imagined Erickson came into Cotuit Bay and dropped anchor up in North Bay or Prince’s Cove. Ross lands the plane in North Bay — where the gameshow host Gene Rayburn used to land his seaplane in the 1960s, and goes ashore with the professor’s daughter. At the top of a hill they see a stone buried in the dirt and unearth it. The professor confirms it is a geological “erratic” of the type of stone used by the Vikings for ballast. They clean it off and of course aren’t surprised to find the runic carvings of the slaves in the dream.
So that’s pretty cool, but here’s the mystery for me: did Nevil Shute spend time in Cotuit before World War II? If so who was his host? I know two summer families who’s patriarchs were flyers in the RAF. Could one of them be the connection? And what about that stone? Would Shute have thought it clever to carve one up and hide it somewhere on the bluff over looking North Bay, where it probably was destroyed by some new McMansion? And is it a coincidence that there is an actual Nevil Shute fan club on Cape Cod, organized by a married couple in Osterville? And that the world convention of Shute fans came to Cape Cod several years ago?
Update 2018.04.07: My neighbor Phil has joined the hunt. Evidently we aren’t the only ones with questions.
My first memory is from 1960 on the linoleum floor of a kitchen in a house on the corner of Huron and Lexington Avenues in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am two years old and crawling. My mother is cooking. At the kitchen table, sitting in front of a manual typewriter, is my father, a student at Harvard Business School. I discover a crumb of something interesting on the floor and put it into my mouth. It’s an old dried-out piece of fried onion and the flavor is intense.
Second early memory: I am sick and still in Cambridge. There is a vaporizer pumping out Vicks Vaporub steam over my crib. A smiling stranger enters the bedroom with my mother and he picks me up. He opens a black leather bag, prepares an injection, and gives me a shot in the butt. The pain is the worst thing I’ve experienced. The smiling stranger then becomes the dreaded Needle Man and his subsequent house calls are nightmares.
Four years later in the living room of an old colonial house on Central Street in Georgetown, Massachusetts, I am alone and exploring the forbidden drawer of my father’s desk. I’m afraid to touch his drafting tools, his slide rule, his mementos, but I touch them anyway. Knowing the consequences of desk invasion, I turn to the bookshelves and look for something to read.
I started reading when I was three years old. I said the word “stop” when my father stopped the Ford Falcon station wagon at a stop sign in Houston. He asked me why I said the word, assuming I was referring to the fact that he had stopped the car but I pointed at the red sign and the big white word. And the word was “STOP.” By five I was tearing through the weekly copies of Time Magazine, Argosy, BusinessWeek and the Boston Traveler. I had read all of the series by Thornton Burgess and Tom Swift, and was obsessed with sea stories by Edward Rowe Snow which Ida Anderson, the librarian in Cotuit, recommended I read.
My reading talent earned me with a lot of flattering attention from the grownups, particularly my grandfather, a high school teacher in Exeter, New Hampshire. I began to associate reading with praise, but I couldn’t pronounce a lot of words correctly (the Nile River was the “Neely River”) and got easily bored. I could rattle off the names of every one of the state capitols, carry on a conversation about U Thant, the Tet Offensive, and the names of the Mercury astronauts. I was trotted out at cocktail parties like a literary Mozart, a parlor trick who did tricks for treats. Life was good for I was special.
The bookshelves sag with college chemistry textbooks, a Modern Library edition of Rabelais, Boccacio’s Decameron, a Time-Life series of books about the countries of the world, a long row of yellow-spined National Geographics. There are shelves up higher which I can’t reach, so I drag over a chair to climb up for a peek. There is a book way up on the top shelf with the word “Child” on the spine. Being a child, I take it down, sit on the floor and look on the back cover.
There is a photo of the smiling Needle Man.
I understand why the book is kept so high and out of reach. It is part of the conspiracy to stick needles in me. It is where the pain is hidden. It’s an owner’s manual for raising a child circa 1964.
I open the book. I turn to the index at the back and start scanning for key words. The most important word in my world is there:
Yes Santa. The opposite of Needle Man. The avuncular giver of good. The chubby red-suited saint on his throne at Filenes Basement who flies around in a Piper Cub with Edward Rowe Snow and drops his presents out of the window down to remote islands for the stranded children of lighthouse keepers. Santa who brings train sets and itchy sweaters. He who sticks special gift packs of LifeSavers into stockings hung with care by the fire. The mysterious eater of Cookies. He who knows all. He who must be obeyed because he’s always watching.
I turn to Santa’s page in the Needle Man’s book by and begin to read. Knowledge flows from the page through my eyes into my empty brain and in an instant the world begins to feel wrong like the hallway of the snowbound hotel in The Shining when Jack Nicholson’s son is riding his tricycle down the carpeted hallways and the parallax perspective shifts and turns the hallway into a endless nightmare with no end.
“How to tell your child there is no Santa Claus…”
No Santa Claus. No Santa Claus? In that moment — as brutal as if the words were written bu chiseling letters chiseled into a tombstone — everything that was magical about my childhood became a sordid lie. The Tooth Fairy. The Easter Bunny … All of it was dashed into pieces made from my parents’ lies. I forgot to breathe. It was my heart breaking moment of existential First Grader despair. A loss of innocence straight out of that madman William Blake’s poetry:
A truth that’s told with bad intent Beats all the Lies you can invent.
Six years old and sitting by myself feeling very alone and faint, I closed Needle Man’s book and pondered the consequences of this terrible knowledge. I had flown too close to the sun, taken a bite from the corrupt apple of knowledge, and lo — Eden was destroyed and I had nowhere to go with with my new found knowledge. Tell my little brother Tom because I needed a friend to console me? That would be too cruel to destroy his illusions. Run sobbing to my parents? That would certainly bring an end to the annual scam and Christmas would surely be cancelled forever. I knew enough to bury the secret.
Actually, I had no moral compass and I kept the knowledge of the Santa Scam to myself for another five or six years out of pure greed. The book by the Needle Man went back on the shelf, but I kept returning to it constantly because it was the Dark Book of Parental Knowledge.
I pulled the book down whenever I was left alone in the house. I had no idea I was reading the most provocative influence on baby boomer child rearing since Doctor Benjamin Spock. Needle Man was the guy who told mothers to breast feed, to love their kids freely and not run them through some Prussian schedule of forced feedings and denied urges. After all it was the 1960s, Dr. Spock was getting arrested for protesting the Viet Nam War, and free-range child rearing was still in effect before the dawn of Helicopter Parenting. Those were the years when Daisy BB guns and bikes without helmets were considered acceptable Christmas gifts. Whenever Mom would run an errand to the IGA to pick up some milk and leave me alone for 30 minutes, that was enough time for me to pull the down the book for a quick exploration. Darker secrets lay ahead, ones far heavier than the Santa Disclosure.
I rode Bus #3 every day to the Perley Elementary School in Georgetown to attend first grade. In the classroom I sat behind a kid who had rickets and was given a special glass of milk every morning by the school nurse while the rest of us watched. One day, while I watched, he pooped in his pants and cleverly worked the turd down the leg of his pants, shaking it out of the cuff and onto the floor beside his desk, grinding it into the floor with his shoe to erase the evidence. The entire Perley Experience was weird. The principal had a pet goat who wore a sweater with a big G for Georgetown on it and who came to school on special occasions and could be induced to butt heads with the high school football players who got on all fours and charged it with their helmets.
The dynamics of my life on the playground and school bus were vicious, a Malthusian life of fear and despair. I was the tallest kid in the first grade, a total smartass because of the reading and my Texan nursery school manners which made me sound like a total suck up whenever I called the teacher “Ma’am” or wore my cowboy shirts to school. So I was the target of many fist fight challenges by the bullies in the second and third grades. I got the shit beaten out of me by one future serial killer on a regular basis. His last name was McBriarity and he lived in a dilapidated grey unpainted sagging house next to a rank smelling tannery and was the youngest of 10 siblings. I was forbidden by my parents to ever associate with him, but he lived in the neighborhood and there was no escaping his torments. My father nicknamed him “Pig Pen” after the character in the Peanuts comic because he smelled a bit like the tannery.
Pig Pen’s throne was the very back seat of Bus #3. His court of cronies were allowed to sit near him if he approved and his approval was earned through gifts of pocket knives, quarters, or penny candy. I wanted to be a back seat rider badly, but I lived on the edge of that clique, listening to their bawdy limericks and forbidden songs which they had learned from the older brothers I lacked: songs about Hitler and Mussolini’s genitalia, three Irishmen working in a ditch, and monkeys who wrapped their tails around flagpoles to keep their assholes from getting ice cold.
The back of the bus crowd was obsessed with sex. It was a Patriarchy too far from the bus driver to be disciplined and there were profound whispered debates between them like a bunch of Oxford dons speculating about the mystery of girls. Listening to them was like sort of like what it must have felt to sit in the back row of a meeting of the Royal Society in London in 1600 while the great scientists like Newton debated the miasma theory of disease spread by foul smells.
The prevailing sexual theory held by Pig Pen’s gang was the Belly Button Method of Reproduction. The Stork Model of Baby Delivery had been long discredited because of its appearance in a Loony Tune cartoon. Nudity, rubbing and the butt were somehow involved in the Belly Button Method. Pig Pen was the final authority on the Navel Theorem and embellished it with observations about the role of alcohol and public displays of affection in front of him and his siblings before the act took place. There was no challenging his hypothesis, for he had actually committed an act of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” with one of his older sisters and thus had actual field research to confirm that girls lacked the appendage then properly known as a “dingus” by the back benchers of Bus #3. To deny Belly Buttons meant banishment from the back of the bus. (I never could understand the whole civil rights back of the bus thing as a kid watching the evening news with Walter Cronkite because I was so desperate to sit there myself).
It occurred to me that I might earn my seat if I found an definitive answer in the Needle Man’s Book. I turned to it wondering if there was some scripture between its magic covers about baby making that I could smuggle onto the bus to show Pig Pen and his lieutenants. I had kept the horrible proof of Santa’s nonexistence to myself for over a year, and felt smug knowing that whenever the big kids got worked up in early December during peak Santa Fever when they talked about their visits to Jordan Marsh to sit on the fat man’s lap and got crazed talking about their Christmas letters to the North Pole complete with a list of wants compiled from the Sears catalog.
“Puny fools,” I thought. “I could make you sob and grovel with what I know.”
Anyway, Needle Man’s book did indeed contain anatomical diagrams of Fallopian tubes and uteri, testes and urethrae. It was a Cliff Notes to help tongue-tied parents disclose the mysteries of life to their tweens. It was not written for a six-year old autodidact looking for leverage against a bunch of future Massholes riding in the back of a school bus and cracking up over words like “douchebag” and “dildo” — both of which I called my mother to see if she too found them funny but which earned me a savage mouth soaping and spanking with a wooden spoon.
I read about foreplay, intercourse, gestation, birth. The whole biological saga was there for me to consider, but once again my mind was blown and with my world rocked and as I sat cross-legged on the hooked rug of the old colonial house on Central Street, my thoughts raced with the horror that OMFG, mother and father had engaged in coitus like frogs in amplexus to produce me and were still doing it as mother was very pregnant with my future sister at the time.
The Horror. The Horror. There was no unseeing that truth.
I was so unsettled by the discovery that I could never bring myself to share it with the back seat gang. Santa was one thing. Sex was way too dangerous, so I tucked the nuclear secret away beside the truth of the Santa-Tooth Fairy- Easter Bunny deception and never told a friend nor my brother for another six years.
More than 30 years later, during the summer of 1995, I was at the Hyannis Airport waiting for the 6:30 am flight to LaGuardia. I saw sitting in the terminal the Needle Man. He was perhaps in his late 70s, but still looked as familiar to me as he did when he stuck needles in me. But he had gone from being a young doctor who made house calls to sick toddlers in Cambridge to become the most famous pediatrician in the world, publishing 40 books beyond the magic one I had found, and become a celebrity for his pioneering concept of child raising.
His name was T. Berry Brazelton and he died at his home here on Cape Cod last week at the age of 99.
Dr. Brazelton sat by himself reading a book while we waited for the flight to board. Because the seat beside him was empty I sat down and introduced myself as a former patient. He claimed to remember me, or at least to remember my mother, who he correctly recalled had red hair. He laughed hard at my memories of Needle Man, looked concerned and a wee bit wistful when I told him about the Santa trauma, and narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow when I told him about my personal Sex-Ed Education as a first grader.
“That must have been awful for you!” he said. “To carry such a thing inside of yourself for so long. Did you ever tell anyone?”
I told him the story of quahogging in the Seapuit River with my father. I was 13 when the old gent turned to me and ambushed me with the topic of the birds and the bees. I let him suffer a little as he tried to diplomatically talk me through the realm of manhood and responsibility. I took a little pleasure seeing him stammer with embarrassment, saying nothing until he asked me if I had any questions. I dramatically raised a finger to make him wait a second, felt for a clam with my bare toes, then reached down to pull it out of the mud.
Dropping the clam into the basket between us I innocently asked, “So you mean you don’t tickle the woman’s belly button and the baby doesn’t come out of their butt?”
Rest in peace Dr. Brazelton. I forgive you the needles.