The Power of Ritual

About 40 years ago I was playing a lot of chess. I was nothing special, but I could beat just about anyone who didn’t play in tournaments. Bobby Fischer had just become World Champion, and chess was booming in the United States. The Bay Area was a thriving greenhouse of chess talent, perhaps second only to New York City, because of its proximity to the University of California in Berkeley, and Cal’s arch-nemesis, Stanford, on the other side of the Bay.

One Spring I went to a master chess tournament in a bar on College Avenue called “The Loft.” I recognized a few familiar faces, but no one I had met. I watched a few games. To someone who has never played tournament chess before, watching a chess game must seem duller than watching Jello coagulate, but to someone who plays, it's a mind-boggling torrent of combat.

Gary Snyder and Dennis Fritzinger
I don’t remember exactly how I introduced myself to Dennis Fritzinger, but I do remember that afternoon, I got him to sign a tournament book of games, a tournament in which he had scored respectably. Dennis was the first chess master I’d met who was more than polite to me. He answered my questions about his game that day, and when I saw him at another tournament, he remembered me, and said hello first.

“We All Need Our Cookies”

Recently I joined the East Bay PEN, the Professional Experience Network, an organization composed of professionals who help other professionals. Couple of weeks ago, I attended my first General Meeting. Although I’m a new member and I haven’t yet completed my training, my résumé coach, Mr. Ben English, looked me square in the eyes and said, “You’re going to attend this meeting.’

We’d only just met, but I knew this much: if Mr. Ben English says I’m attending a meeting, if I know what's good for myself, I’m gonna attend that meeting.

I sat quietly, trying to get the lay of the land. Because I was the FNG, I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything. (Vietnam vet slang for “Freaking New Guy.” Except they used another word instead of “Freaking.” You never wanted to go out on patrol with the FNG because he’s green and he’s gonna get you killed.) Much of the meeting concerned attendance. Why were members dropping out after a few weeks? What could the organization do to serve them better (and reduce the rate of attrition)?

Just because a dog can talk, doesn't mean you should listen

In Sunday’s New York Times Op-Ed pages (yes, pages, even though no trees were sacrificed for my convenience), comedian/actor/musician/author Steve Martin wrote about an unpleasant experience he had at the 92nd Street Y as part of their speakers series. Mr. Martin is currently on a book tour promoting his new novel, An Object of Beauty, about the world of art, a subject Mr. Martin, a serious collector of modern art, knows well. The promoters of the Speakers series knew he was on a book tour promoting this novel, and they knew the subject of it.

This fact is undeniable: the promoters at the 92nd Street Y knew the reason Mr. Martin would be in town and what he was promoting. They asked Mr. Martin to select his interviewer; he chose an old friend, Debra Solomon, an art scholar and contributor to the New York Times. They were informed of his choice of interviewer and in the course of due dilligence, were provided with a bio of Ms. Solomon, which was used in the marketing of their appearance. (Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon had engaged in a public conversation before an audience some years ago in Washington, D.C. and remembered it was rewarding, so they were looking forward to yet another.)

To be clear: The 92nd Street Y knew Mr. Martin was promoting a novel about the world of art. They knew that he had asked an art critic to participate in the conversation. They included this information in their advertising and press releases about the appearance. Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon knew they had signed a contract to appear on a certain day and time and have a conversation between each other. Ticket buyers were informed of these facts as well in the advertising and promotional material.