Digressive Discursions

It riles me up to no end to hear some bright-eyed know-it-all declare “what we really need is some engaging story telling to ignite our flaccid content marketing strategy.” There are an abundance of douche marketing “storytellers” ready to sell us a breathless how-to book, or charge us a hefty consulting fee before they tuck us all in, sit on the end of our beds, and crack open the white-paper edition of Go Dog Go! and put us to sleep with some nighttime fable of how to create lovable marketing content that will engage and connect us to the thought leaders that will flip our funnels and turn us from faceless users to loyal brand advocates.

But I digress.

Digression is what I’m here to write about today. Digression is a maddening art and a truly guilty pleasure that squanders time. Taken too far it can be worse than oral surgery. Done right it can delight and leave us begging for more. Who among us hasn’t sat stupefied in the presence of some absolutely horribly pedantic story teller who just. can’t. seem. to. get. to. the. goddamn. point? Yet, who can argue with Lord Byron’s brilliant epigram, about his lover, Caroline:

“Caro Lamb, Goddamn”

Or the shortest, sad story ever told, attributed to Hemingway:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

While brevity is the soul of wit, and short words always win out over longer synonyms, our Ritalin society can be tagged with the depressing acronym: TL;DR“Too Long; Didn’t Read.” The art of spinning a yarn, telling a tall-tale, being a true raconteur (a person who can tell an anecdote in a skillful and amusing way) just doesn’t seem to fit when declaiming on a four-part framework for calculating the ROI of website personalization.

After all: story telling is the original entertainment medium. Think of Homer sitting around the fire and telling the story of brave Ulysses to a crowd of illiterate Greek kids.  The heart of the story-tellers is the spoken word — not the written  — and it would do us all well to remember that stories were invented around the campfire, delivered from memory by a story teller, and is the origin of the theater, the novel, film and ultimately the place from which the music of language was tested and perfected. Digression in a story is a way to build suspense, foreshadow events, explain and provide background, and show off one’s erudition. How to weave a footnote into a narrative is a delicate balancing act that few can pull off.


In this era of TED talks and the Moth Radio Hour, Podcasts, personal reminiscences, and self-indulgent blogs such as this one, this is no surfeit of stories to consume.  Headlines beg for our limited attention, we get seduced by clickbait and listicles, A/B tested by algorithms to see what reptilian part of our hippocampus will cause our right index finger to flex and click.  So in our quick-twitch, Adderal-amped lives, let’s consider the luxury of digression; of stretching out and letting a story teller take their time, hook our attention like an angler sets the barb in a fish’s lip, and hold us for 1,000 pages from one sentence to the next, always wanting more.  Let’s follow the footnotes, spend sometime looking up a word, chasing more information, and realize we live in an age of amazing possibilities when it comes to digressing and falling down the rabbit hole of digression where incredible discoveries might be found.

My late friend Jimmy Guterman was fascinated with the impact of hypertext —  links embedded in text — which could be followed by the reader down different paths. He would have laughed at the concept of corporate storytelling and punctured the conceit with some droll bon mot. He quoted, in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company founder Alan Webber, opening a conference about content and context by saying “…Webber began the two-day event by arguing that storytelling is overrated….

Before HTML came on the scene in 1994, Jimmy and I experimented with a hypertext project using the engine behind Microsoft’s help engine — the name escapes me — to digitize the rules governing yacht racing. Jimmy took it further into fiction, but I can’t find any examples on his blog. Experimental fiction has played with alternative plot tracks — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch has two different possible chapter sequences.  Video games — the most lucrative entertainment medium extant today — represent one of the best manifestations of interactive story-telling, the hype that was touted around “interactive television” in the 1990s, when viewers could pick different plot lines or camera angles.

Two writers embody the beauty of digression for me me. Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace in nearly all of his books, but especially his masterpiece Infinite Jest. In 2005, Wallace wrote a profile of a right-wing talk radio host for the Atlantic Monthly.  The print edition, which I read on an Acela to NYC, was a masterpiece in taking the principles of digital hypertext and linking onto the printed page. The editors at the Atlantic reformatted the digital edition, using color cues on words to designate footnoted material.

“Navigating the baroque structure of footnotes within footnotes on either the original manuscript or galleys would have been nearly impossible, so we worked on a printout of pages in the ingenious design of our art director, Mary Parsons.”

Here’s a link to their explanation of how they edited and formatted the piece. It presages some amazing examples of interactive journalism and storytelling such as the iconic New York Times piece on an avalanche tragedy, Snowfall.


Here’s the text as it is formatted online:


And here is what the reader sees when they click on the colored words with the [+] prompt:


For me the revelation has been reading William Manchester’s three-volume epic biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion on a Kindle. While e-books are a bit of a tragedy in terms of substantial additions to one’s physical bookshelf, the developers at Amazon have introduced some amazing things in the decade they’ve been perfecting the Kindle interface. For example, any Kindle user is familiar with the ability to look an unfamiliar word up in a sentence simply by highlighting the word and seeing a pop-up definition appear. That in itself is an amazing service to readers like me who are guilty of skipping past some obscure word and missing the opportunity to add something new and amazing to our vocabularies. But it’s the addition of Wikipedia that takes things to a whole new level. Consider when Maechatfieldnchester talks about Churchill’s relationship to the Royal Navy in the years between the two world wars and introduces “Lord Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet.” Well, my middle name is Chatfield, I have a personal stake in finding out who the hell Lord Chatfield is, and thanks to the Kindle I get right to his entry on Wikipedia, share it with my brother Henry (who also has the Chatfield middle name), and we both get a good laugh and begin referring to each other as “Admiral of the Fleet” whenever we pull our skiffs out of the harbor.

I read Wallace’s Infinite Jest through the first time without taking the time to follow each and every foot note to the end-notes. When I finished the novel — a serious door stop at 1000 plus pages — I started to read those notes and realized what I had missed.

What we have before us, to go back to Guterman’s piece about Alan Webber, is “context within our content”, the ability to stay in the narrative but take a digressive detour out without losing our places.  I think it’s incumbent on any writer to indulge their reader’s with some detours, to walk them down a side-path to some hidden spot. In all our wheel spinning in search for optimization and algorithmic textual perfection, take off your shoes, kick back, and get lost down the rabbit hole of digression. Who knows what surprise you might stub your mind on.

50 Pieces of Random Advice

Here’s a list of random advice and rules of thumb I’ve picked up over the years and  still cling to.

  1. The Golden Rule still applies
  2. If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything
  3. Trust your intuition
  4. If offered a Tic Tac, accept it. You probably need it.
  5. Bitch up, not down
  6. Never eat anything bigger than your head
  7. Don’t s%^t where you eat
  8. Omit unnecessary words
  9. Shorter words are better than longer ones
  10. Listen more, talk less
  11. The only time to use an exclamation point is in the sentence “You cut my arm off”
  12. Don’t date someone with more than three cats
  13. The sky is high and the Emperor is far away
  14. Don’t quit your job until you have your next one
  15. People think in three’s — three acts, three bullets, three concepts
  16. The 80-20 rule always applies
  17. A car carrying a AAA sticker or a license plate with a sub-five digit number is driven by a bad driver
  18. George O’Day Died Defending His Right of Way — watch out for the other guy
  19. Throw back the first fish of the season with a kiss
  20. Red Sky At Night, Sailor’s Delight
  21. Red Right Returning
  22. When offered something, take the one closest to you
  23. No pleats
  24. Bowties are asshole detectors
  25. The Abe Lincoln rule of pissed off letters (and emails) applies: write, don’t send
  26. Tough guys don’t dance
  27. Tough guys don’t tweet
  28. Tough guys don’t sip cocktails through straws
  29. Powerpoint sucks
  30. Never bullshit your boss. Just say “I don’t know.”
  31. Rub dirt on it and take a lap
  32. Children only need to go to the ER if blood is coming out of their ears
  33. Don’t wear clothing with the name of any school you attended
  34. Don’t be the Closer of any party
  35. If you don’t know who the sucker is, then it is you
  36. 80% of Walmart shoppers turn right when they enter the store
  37. If ignored for 5 minutes in a restaurant, get up and leave
  38. Keep the crew dry and in the sun
  39. There is no bad weather, only bad clothing
  40. Cheese and fish do not mix
  41. High tide in Cotuit is always at noon and midnight when the moon is full
  42. The 20s are the worst decade
  43. No one gets out alive
  44. Don’t arrive empty handed
  45. Handwritten notes work
  46. Nothing important happens after midnight
  47. Take a cab
  48. Do what the officer tells you to
  49. Keep religion and politics out of it
  50. There’s always hope

On horse races, ground games, and voter surprises

I was a political reporter in the early 1980s when I worked at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, MA.. My beat consisted of covering the elected officials in the paper’s circulation area which consisted of the 5th Congressional District along the northern border of the state with New Hampshire, along the Merrimack River valley to the seacoast and encompassing the mill towns of Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill. It was a solidly Democratic district with lots of old school Irish-machine Democrats,tons of Hispanic immigrants in the cities from Puerto Rico and the Dominican  Republic, and some white-wine and brie liberals down around Thoreau country in Concord and Lincoln.

This was the district where John Kerry got his start after returning from the Vietnam War (I met him as a sixth grader at the Pike School in Andover when he was running against Paul Cronin for the first time, losing a contentious race that included his campaign headquarters getting burglarized. This was the district where the late Paul Tsongas (still my personal favorite among all politicians I’ve covered — for personal, not political reasons) rose out of Lowell and the Greek base there to be the Commonwealth’s second US Senator beside Teddy Kennedy. This was the district that butted up against the southern commuter tier of New Hampshire.


So in the winter of 1984, shortly after getting promoted at the callow age of 24 to State House Bureau Chief, I was assigned to the New Hampshire Presidential Primary and told to develop full feature-length profiles of each and every one of the candidates. This was Reagan’s re-election, this was the campaign where Walter Mondale, the eventual Democratic nominee would tap Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate. This was the campaign where Gary Hart came out of Colorado to shake things up and eventually crash and burn for his indiscretions and unwise taunting of the press to look into his background.

That winter I had the chance to meet and interview every candidate, Republican and Democrat. I rode in the back of a car with George McGovern, the South Dakota legend who lost badly to Nixon in ’72. I interviewed Jesse Jackson. Hart. Mondale. Reagan, Ernest Hollings……Very heady stuff for a recent college grad who had first voted in 1976 but never had been particularly political. I was rubbing elbows with person heroes from the Boys on the Bus era: David Broder, Curtis Wilkie, Walter Robinson, Jules Germond, Ted Koppel, Brit Hume and of course, Hunter S. Thompson.

Election night at a newspaper is an amazing thing, especially back in the pre-CNN days of 24-hour news coverage when newspapers were still pretty influential (hence the reason the candidates took the time to talk to me because the Eagle-Tribune’s impact on the voter-dense southern counties of New Hampshire was pretty significant).  I worked the polls in Salem, NH because  I got my start covering that town and it was a very politicized place because NH Governor John Sununu lived there.

Going into election night it looked pretty much like a lock for Reagan.  New Hampshire was still rock-rib Republican so the press was chasing the Democrats around the state to see who would go against the Gipper. Iowa caucuses weren’t a thing in 1984 — not to the extent they are today, so New Hampshire was still emphatically First in the nation and the media circus was amazing. I was excited. I was in the middle of the news. I was writing good stuff and finding myself drawn into the sports-like atmosphere of election reporting. The pollsters, the debates, the grassroots door-to-door ground game stuff. People were actually asking me my opinion and I realized I was expected to pick some winners.

Alan White, now the editor in chief of the Eagle Tribune, and the New Hampshire editor in those days, was my mentor and he organized a newsroom election pool, advising me I better win or my credibility would suffer post-election. Everyone was assuming Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s VP, would win the primary. The polls had him leading. He was well funded, he was getting most of the attention, but ….

But something about Gary Hart was interesting to me. Something about his past experience working on the McGovern campaign in 1972. Something about his progressive Colorado, John Denver Rocky Mountain High attitude. He had charisma, he had sex appeal, and he had a raucous young campaign team that seemed willing to take chances.

So I picked him to win.

Al White told me I was crazy. I stuck to my guns. And sure enough, Hart upset Mondale in a big way, disproving all the polls and pundits the way a certain someone did last Tuesday night.


What did I learn? That the polling booth is an incredible sanctuary for all of us. A place where we can take all the time we want, ponder our choices, check off boxes and come out and flat out lie to the exit pollsters or even our friends and family about what we did behind the curtain. I learned that big data and statistics are samples, not measurements, and that the more “conventional” the wisdom, the more likely it is to fail. I learned that front-runners take things for granted, fall prey to hubris, and commit the most mortal sin any politician can make — assume support from their base without working for it.

I wondered why there was some discussion this past election year over ballot selfies — people snapping pictures of their ballot to post on social media — freedom of speech, right? Then a wise friend said, “It prevents coercion by organizations like unions who may ask for proof in the polls by their members. It keeps the secret ballot, secret.”

That secrecy in the polls, reminds me of my father’s answer whenever I asked him how much money he made (“A dollar ninety-eight”) or who he voted for (“Gus Hall)* — somethings are our business and ours alone. Yes, there are a lot of incredulous people in my social streams wondering who created such a surprise last Tuesday. There are people outraged the popular vote is (ahem) Trumped by the Electoral College**

But elections are about the expression of choice, in private, between you and me and our single ballot. Not about movements or coalitions, demographics or samples.

So did I call Trump like I called Hart? Yes I did, back when he announced his candidacy. I told a friend that America always gets the President it deserves, and it felt appropriate that the country would elect a reality TV star, just as it felt appropriate that Jimmy Carter was defeated by an actor who played opposite a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo.

How did I vote? Well, I am Tony Churbuck’s son, so I’m not telling. When I was a political reporter I was tempted not to vote in the belief a political reporter should be utterly objective. I am a registered Independent — always have been — and since my first time in the polls in 1976, when I was an 18-year old freshman and the Vietnam was had just ended, to last Tuesday, I have applied the same personal test to every ballot: “Who is the smartest person here?” Some people apply the “who would I want to have a beer with?”  Me, I perform my own intuitive IQ test and cross my fingers. Looking back over the 11 presidential elections I can proudly say I voted in each and every one, and picked a nice balance of Democrats and Republicans in the general election.  I haven’t picked the winner every time, oh far from it.

I only regret one bad vote, and that was 2000 when I denied Al Gore my vote because of the sexual shenanigans of Bill Clinton — but that election was a total shit-show of hanging chads, so I get a mulligan.

And finally, a last word from an ex-bartender, inflicting one’s personal politics or religious beliefs on other people is a sure fire way not get a tip. I get the surprise and shock, but keep your counsel to yourself, defend your right to a secret ballot, and if you want to change things, go volunteer. But please, don’t expect me to commiserate. How I voted is my business, not a loyalty-test.


*:perennial candidate for the American Communist Party

**: I support the Electoral College on the basis that it fairly distributes elective impact to the rural, sparsely populated counties and doesn’t over-emphasize metro voting blocs



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