Saturday, September 29, 2007

In Search of Excellence!

In his seminal, post-cyberpunk magnum opus “Snow Crash”, Neil Stephenson states that pretty much all men, well into their 20’s, hold tight to the belief that (and you’ll have to excuse my wild paraphrasing, here), if they just worked out a little harder at the gym, ate their spinach, took a multi-vitamin, and maybe attended a weekend intensive seminar taught by Shaolin Monks at the local free university – there would still be a chance for them to become the baddest ass MF in all the world.

In the story, these hopes are all in vein. Not, as one may think, because of the fact that the average American male is too lazy, has high cholesterol, and is more likely to spend his free time cruising the Craigslist “casual encounters” section in search of a genetically suitable (for the evening, anyway) female than performing a workout more intense than little itty-bitty crunches on the hardwood floor of their apartment. No, it’s too late for them because the baddest ass MF in all the land is a mass of mullet and muscle perched atop an appropriately imposing motorcycle - a motorcycle that just so happens to have a nuclear warhead strapped precariously to its front.

(Damn, I love Snow Crash. The main character’s name is “Hiro Protagonist”. Don’t think I didn’t notice, writers of NBC’s “Heroes”)

For my part, I’ve always fancied myself more as an everyman hero, like someone from a mid-80’s high concept action-comedy picture... the kind of guy who’d be played by Chevy Chase. Somebody who’d be pulled into a situation beyond his control, only to triumph in the end thanks to a mixture of good old fashioned gumption and comic bumbling.
But every now and then, even I can find myself smack dab in the middle of some uber-jingoistic fantasy, the kind where I carry myself like Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, exhibiting that paradoxical “intense calm”; confident enough know that if the Jehovah’s Witness at my front door just happened to be a terrorist agent in disguise, I’d be able to take him down by punching him in neck and snapping his forearm in two. (Or maybe even if he wasn't a terrorist. Depends on how I’m feeling.)

Of course, I’m not a violent guy. It’s like a metaphor, right? It’s about excellence… mastery, even. That feeling of being the one person in the room who knows everything about one thing - whether it's kicking ass, world history, the collective output of Sid and Marty Krofft from 1968 to 1978… ANYTHING. Because, really, you don't just stumble into victory. Real life isn’t like a Chevy Chase movie – there’s a reason they’re called “comedies”, and it sure as hell isn’t because they’re funny.

This week I have an article in The Onion profiling 3 local coffee roasters (who shall remain nameless, to protect the innocent) * To go along with the piece, my editor asked me to get a hi-res photograph. “Call ‘em up,” he says “ask ‘em if they have any press ready photos.” Easy enough - and frankly, I like doing some of that footwork. Seeing as I never hang out with any of the other writers, never get to shout “stop the presses” over the din of a crowded newsroom, never get invited, as a member of the media, to watch a good-hearted, though misguided, super-scientist unveil the atomic powered robot that will surely make the world a better place to live (and what could possibly go wrong?) little side stuff like getting photos just helps to make me feel more like a Real Writer (™).

But actually talking to people like that – folks who are at the apex of the respective industries (and they are - each of them - or I wouldn’t bother with them) – is an interesting thing. Once they figure out you’re offering free publicity, there’s a fair bet that you’ll find yourself staring down the barrel of an industrial-strength sales pitch, all about how their coffee is served to world leaders, how it cupped better than any of the others at some competition attended by the type of folks who attend that sort of thing, how it dripped from Christ’s wounds while he was hanging on the cross, etc., etc.

And if you’re like me - someone who fancies themself a cosmic court jester; not a post-modernist per se, but definitely afflicted with acute post-modern tendencies - someone who, while he may understand that, say, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is a “better” book than H.G. Wells “The Invisible Man” he'll still cover his bases and put “better” in quotes, 'cause deep down he suspects that maybe it's all just relative; if you're like that, those conversations can feel a little awkward and stilted. Because, hey... it's just coffee, right?

But you know what?... I'm having this epiphany; I'm finally starting to realize that, for all the ribbing I give these guys above, the problem isn't theirs... it's mine. My too-cool-for-school "c'mon, don't take youself so seriously" attitude doesn't affect them one bit. They're gonna continue to do what they do at a level that other companies just dream about, and they're gonna reap the benefits of that - professionally and financially. And me, I'll just be some chump riding on their coattails, coasting along and faking it in my own work, too lazy to even make sure all my information is current - resting on my laurels, just happy that I'm being published at all. **

That is, of course, until I learn to exhibit some of that excellence myself. Because there's nothing wrong with trying to take what you do to a higher level, and to know it when you've done so.

So to everyone in my feature, whether you've been made fun of on this here very blog in the past, whether I'm taking the piss with you right now; or even if you're the one who pretty much blew me off altogether when I asked for a photo... thanks. And keep up the good work... you all set hell of an example.

(what, you thought this "coffeecrush" entry was gonna actually be about coffee? Nope, sorry; just more random musings and soul searching for you. Soon, though. Promise.)

* Go! Pick one up, why don't you? Sheesh.

**however, in the article, the passage "coffees are served at local shops around town as well as many of the big wholesalers" should have read "coffees are served at local shops almost as often as some of the bigger wholesalers" ...that was my editors mistake, not mine. Bastard.***

KIDDING!!! I kid! I totally could have been clearer on that. Loves ya, Jason!)

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