Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Germany

puppet1For nearly all of my working life, I was seriously at the mercy of other people. And what wasn’t at the mercy of other people was, to an absurd degree, subject to luck (fate?).

Yes, I taught English as a Foreign Language for a couple of years, and in the classroom I had at least some control over the students. Not much, but some. But then I went into the business world, where any shred of control evaporated faster than the net worth of my retirement fund over the past six months.

Most of my career was spent in sales and sales support for large, multi-national computer services deals. We’re talking about contracts worth $100 million and up. The largest topped out in the billions. These types of deals often take two or more years to develop, and if it looks as though there is a chance that a deal will close, the lead members of the sales team will be dedicated full time.

But deals like this have an extremely low win rate. There are an infinite number of things that must all go right, and if any one of them goes wrong, two years of work go down the drain.

The Dutch shipping executive whom you’ve spent two years selling your deal to can’t convince his bosses? Pack your bags and fly to Zurich. Your client champion at the Swiss chocolate manufacturer just got fired? Lose a turn and move to Helsinki. The exchange rate of the Hungarian forint goes up against the Finnmark, and you’re bidding your Budapest solution center? Kiss your deal with the Finnish mobile phone manufacturer goodbye and fly to Turin. You were stupid enough to waste your time trying to sell to the Italian automobile manufacturer and you aren’t selling for IBM? Shame on you for being such a doofus. But there’s a deal in Germany that’s hot. You forgot to sell the deal to the janitor in the factory in Cologne? You’re not very good at this, are you? Maybe you should try opening up a Haagen Dasz franchise.

Every one of those things, and dozens of others like them, actually happened to me. OK, the one about the janitor I made up, but the principle is valid. There was always somebody or something that could kill my deal unexpectedly. Over 30 years, I figure that I closed about 10% of the deals I started. Of course, I didn’t spend two years on every deal. Lots of them went away much quicker. But even if the average was, say, a year, the math is still pretty discouraging. 30 year career, 10% hit rate, 1 year per – that’s 30 deals worked on, of which 27 disappeared into the ether. And that’s thousands of pages of great work done late at night that had to be fed into the shredder before I moved to the next opportunity. Discouraging? Hell, yes!

Why would companies employ me for 30 years with a win-rate like that? Because the profit on one successful billion dollar contract is enough to cover all the expenses for the lost deals and still pay for the corporate big shots’ fleet of private jets. That’s why.

The team working on the larger deals would be 200 people or more. I was reasonably high in the hierarchy, but there were still always lots of people above me. You know that expression about s*%$ rolling downhill? Just call me Mr. Brownface.

On one huge contract, I was responsible for writing the executive summary for the proposal. By the time that document was submitted, we were on Version 236d! The final days of writing that proposal were like the car-washing scene from “Cool Hand Luke.”

Boss 1: “Put a comma in here.”

Me: “Puttin’ it in here, Boss.”

Boss 2: “We don’t need this comma.”

Me: “Takin’ it out here, Boss.”

Boss 1: “I thought I told you to put a comma here.”

Me: “Puttin’ it back in, Boss.”

Boss 2: “What’s that comma doing in the Warden’s document?”

Me: “Takin’ it out here, Boss.”

Are you getting the point? I was definitely NOT IN CHARGE.

Finally, I decided to quit it all and start doing something where I am in

Deus Ex Machina

Don as a deity, controlling the scene

complete control. As a playwright, I’m like the deity who’s suspended from the contraption in the corner of the stage in a Greek play. I’ve got a character who’s a 90 years old man and he’s decided he’s going to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world? But that doesn’t work for the play? Poof! He’s a 17 year old girl, and he (she) is pregnant. What a feeling of POWER!

So after all those years of being a flea on the great stallion of life, I am finally

Large And In Charge

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got to go mail off copies of my new book, Ups & Downs to a hundred reviewers. Maybe one of them will actually read it. Then, I’m going to send copies of my latest play, “Shakespeare Incorporated” to 75 theaters. My hit rate on those is about 1%.

One of the biggest cultural shocks in living overseas was the realization thatrembrandt-portrait I wouldn’t be required to live forever, and to be young and beautiful all that time.

Here in America, the prevailing impression is that everything is under your control.  If you just eat right, take the right vitamins and herbal supplements, exercise right, meditate right, go to the right massage therapist, the right psychiatrist, and the right plastic surgeon, shop at the right stores –you will never get sick or be unattractive or be unhappy or get wrinkled.  If you do, it is ALL YOUR FAULT!  Sounds ridiculous, of course, but think about it.  Deep down, don’t you believe that?  I know I did.

I moved overseas when I was 22 and was exposed to an entirely different philosophy.  Depending on where you are in Europe, you may be expected to have some degree of control or very little.  Germany tends to be close to the U.S. in this regard, while the Brits are generally of the impression that you are  going to get old and sick and ugly soon enough — if you aren’t already — so why bother.

Because I had spent my youth in the U.S. but left when I was young and moved from country to country, I ended up being schizophrenic.  Of course, I knew intellectually that time marches on and eventually destroys what genes hadn’t configured in the womb and bad luck doesn’t take care of in the interim.  But subconsciously, when I got my first grey hair and started needing glasses, I felt guilty.  I must have done something wrong.

But no matter.  I could fix it.  The same when my colesterol got a little high.  No drugs for me.  I’ll just go on a macrobiotic diet, run 30 miles a day and meditate, and everything will go back to where it was when I was 18 years old.  My British doctor’s response was, “Well, OK, if you want to.  But you’ll be exhausted and it probably won’t make much difference.

So eventually, I relaxed and started to go with the flow.  Yes, believe it or not, I have lots of grey hair, a few wrinkles, my feet and knees hurt after I’ve walked 10 miles, and my stomach — well, it isn’t the stomach of an 18 year old either.  What a relief.  Believe me, it’s a lot more relaxing than being responsible for eternal perfection.

But then I moved back to the U.S., to Boulder.   While Boulder doesn’t have the mania for artificially induced beauty and youth of much of the rest of the U.S. (yes, you occasionally encounter old, ugly people here), it is one of the world’s touchy-feely centers of endless happiness.  And, of course, I get ample exposure to the rest of the American ethos through the media.

So it’s back on the treadmill for me.  Age 25, here I come!


Don as a "grey-bearded, homeless, unaccompanied-minor" in one of the cartoons from "Ups & Downs"

I guess it’s natural to yearn for things you can’t have, and my yearning for a beard goes way back.

I was fairly late going through puberty, and even when it finally arrived I wasn’t all that good at it. So while my high-school and college friends were all displaying manly five-o’clock shadows and growing impressive full beards, I was cultivating 6 or 7 straggly hairs on my chin.  When those hairs got long enough that they curled up on each other several times, I could almost kid myself into thinking that what I had was a beard.  But then some young lady that I thought was attracted to me would make a disparaging remark about my “Sillygoat scruff,” and reality would set in with a bang.

Fortunately, moustaches can be made up of 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs — or so I imagined — so by the time I was 23, I decided to abandon my beard attempts and try my luck with a moustache.  (By this time, Rhonda and I had left Iran and moved to Germany, where I was teaching English as a Foreign Language to American soldiers.  Yes, you read that right.  But that’s another story.)  Within a short time, however, it was evident that 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs on my upper lip didn’t look much better than 6 or 7 really long, straggly hairs had on my chin.

Then I discovered moustache wax!  I bought a big pot of the stuff and a tiny brush, and devoted much of each day to dipping the brush into the pot and stroking my upper lip horizontally away from my nose in both directions.  And when I wasn’t dipping and brushing, I was pulling and twisting.  All day long — dip, stroke, pull, twist; dip, stroke, pull twist.  Very therapeutic, really.  It gives you something socially acceptable to do with your hands when you get nervous.

And it worked!  After 4 or 5 months, I had what appeared to be a respectable handle-bar moustache.  OK, it was mostly dark brown goo, but that wasn’t obvious to anyone who kept their hands off my face.  Boy, was I proud of that moustache.

One morning, though, I didn’t pay attention when I was shaving my lower lip and cheeks, and when I looked up, the tip of one side of my pride and joy was gone!  Nooooo!  I trimmed the other side to match it, but got it too short.  Back to the first side.  Back to the other.  Back.  Forth.  By the time I finished, I had a nice little Charlie Chaplin (Hitler!) moustache in the center of my lip.  That wasn’t exactly the thing for an American to have on his face in Germany in 1975, so off it came.

The next year, I started work for a computer company that had a rule against facial hair, and for the next 20 years, my urge to grow a beard was frustrated.  But unbeknownst to me, by the time I was in my early 40s, all those little hormones that had been so recalcitrant in my youth had finally decided to pay me a visit.  And when my company lifted the ban on facial hair, I went on a beard-growing orgy that lasted  — well, it’s still going on.

Rhonda has always hated beards, and generally refuses to get too close when I’ve got one.  So every year or so, I shave, get a fix of affection, and then grow the beard again.  Now that we live apart most of the year, it’s not so much of an issue.


A tanned, bearded Don at the end of the trek through the Alps

Usually, I keep the whole affair reasonably neatly trimmed.  But a few weeks ago we started rehearsing a play that I wrote on Charles Darwin (see the Plays tab, and look for “The Debate”), and I’m playing Darwin!  In preparation, I’ve been letting the beard grow since my son David’s wedding in mid-September.  The play closes in early March, so that’ll be 6 months growth in all.  By that time, I’ll be a Rip Van Winkle lookalike.

In the meantime, though, my beard is as long as it’s ever been, and I’ve discovered a number of interesting things that it’s good for (in addition to the obvious one of keeping my face warm in a Colorado winter).  First, I’m a big fan of spare-ribs.  Now, by licking my moustache hairs, I get to continue tasting the barbecue sauce for hours after the meal is finished.  Yumm!  Second, after I wash my face or take a shower, my chin hairs become a water reservoir of considerable volume.  That will be very refreshing on warm days and could be a life saver the next time I trek through the desert.

Perhaps most important though, the beard is enabling me to go undercover while doing the research for my latest play, “Postville.”  The play has a number of characters who are Hasidic Jews.  You know, the ultra-orthodox guys with the black coats and hats and the long beards!  In doing my research, I’ve been spending time with the Lubavitch community in Boulder, and they’ve been very welcoming and helpful.  But it has been pretty clear to everyone that I am an outsider.  Now, with each passing week, I come closer and closer to disappearing into the crowd.

Over the next 3 months, I’m sure I’ll come up with lots of other fun things I can do with my beard.  I’ll keep you informed.