Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Switzerland

Melissa Koltes of Rebecca’s Reads posted a review this week of David’s and my bo0k, Ups & Downs.  Here’s an extract from what she had to day.

“I do not typically laugh out loud as I am reading. But this book made me LOL more times than I can count. … The authors do a fantastic job of giving a visual account of the uniqueness of the towns-people, the villages, the countries and the cultures. The beauty of the landscape, the difficulty of the journey and the individual experiences that each narrate is awe inspiring, incredibly amusing, and greatly entertaining.”

Read the entire Rebecca’s Reads review of Ups & Downs here.

05-cow1We’ve added a new excerpt from Ups & Downs to the book’s website Excerpts page: Bovine Tinnitus.  Sleeping in Farmer Fritz’s Patty Patch proves to be a bit of a challenge for me, and after a restless night I muse on Swiss footpath navigation, cowbells, and the tribulations of making and breaking camp.

David and Angela and I spend the next day walking to the ghost town of Urnerboden, where we sleep in a barn to escape the pouring rain.

We’ll post the next update, The Exorcism, in a few days, letting you have David’s take on  just how creepy this barn actually was.

pirateAbout 5 years ago, when I was still living and working in Europe, I was spending a lot of time working in Zurich. One night I was having trouble sleeping, and I turned on the radio in the hotel room to the BBC. A piece came on about Postville, an isolated small town in northeastern Iowa. In the late 1980s, Postville, like many small Midwestern towns, was having trouble. The local meatpacking plant had closed down a few years before, all the young people were moving away to Chicago and Minneapolis, and in 10 or 15 years, the town would be out of business. Which really upset the locals, many of whose families had been in Postville since its founding in the 1850s.

Then, one day in 1987, an entrepreneur showed up and purchased the plant with the intention of reopening it. The townspeople were delighted. There would be jobs and economic development, and Postville would be saved from extinction.

Except that the entrepreneur was a Hasidic Jew from the Lubavitch sect in Brooklyn, and the plant would be a kosher one. Kosher meatpacking plants are not your typical “outsourcing” venture. A large percentage of the work must be done by specially trained, orthodox Jews.

So in moved 30 orthodox rabbis and their (large) families. Still wonderful, thought the locals. This is America, it’s the melting pot. We’ll accept and absorb anyone. And the townspeople, being the welcoming folk that they were, formed a welcoming committee to help the Hasidim adopt to life in rural Iowa. There would be a “buddy system” matching the Hasidic children with local children at the local schools. There would be dances for the older youth. And the Hasidic women would be invited to come help out preparing for the Postville Christmas Bazaar. But first, the townspeople and the Hasidim would get together for a spare rib barbecue picnic! (As my old Haverford College classmate Dave Barry frequently says in his syndicated newspaper column, “I am not making this up.”)

The Hasidim immediately let the locals know that they had no intention of being absorbed.  Their children wouldn’t be going to the local schools; their sons wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s daughters, and their daughters wouldn’t be dating the townspeople’s sons; and the Hasidic women wouldn’t be working for the Christmas Bazaar. And not only weren’t they going to eat spare-ribs, they weren’t going to eat anything that they hadn’t prepared themselves. Ever.

The townspeople were, of course, profoundly offended and an epic culture clash ensued. But economic salvation is economic salvation, and both sides determined to make the best of it. The next thing that happened, however, is that meatpacking plants have a lot of low-paying, dirty, dangerous jobs that neither the Hasidim nor the locals were willing to do. So in came a large number of immigrant workers from Eastern Europe and Latin America. And Postville, a town of 1,500 people which had never knowingly seen a Jew or a black in person before (of course they’d seen them on TV and the movies, just not in person), suddenly had a population of 1/3 people of color and culture.

Even though I had not yet started my writing career, I recognized this as a story of great dramatic potential, and I wrote it down in my “Ideas File.” A year and a half after I retired, after I’d completed and had some success with my first two full-length plays, I contacted Stephen Bloom, who had written a book entitled “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.” Bloom was the one I’d heard being interviewed on the BBC program. We negotiated and signed a contract for me to purchase the theatrical rights to the book, and I set about writing a play “inspired” by the events in Postville.

AP Photo, The Waterloo Courier/ Matthew Putney

AP Photo, The Waterloo Courier/ Matthew Putney

But in May, 2008, there was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on the Postville plant.  The raid uncovered a large number of illegal immigrants, some underage workers, and various other labor infractions. While I had heard rumors about this sort of thing before I started outlining the play, I had decided that the themes for the play would be completely different.

  1. Change is inevitable. It’s not as though the alternative is living eternally in the 1950s and being happy and prosperous forever.
  2. Change hurts, and when people are hurt they often react in inappropriate ways.
  3. The American melting pot model is no longer universally applicable. Not everyone wants or needs to assimilate and disappear into the American “mocha mix.”
  4. Somehow, people will reach a new working arrangement and learn to live together.

I had consciously chosen to ignore the raid and its aftermath – fines, arrests, the meatpacking company going into receivership, general uproar. But in the 8 months since the raid, there has been ongoing news coverage, and I was becoming increasingly concerned that my play was being hijacked. People would expect to see the raid and its implications addressed.

Then, last week, I came up with a way to incorporate the events but not turn the message of my play on its head. Some unhappy locals would have instigated the raid by tipping off the government.  When the raid comes and the plant closes they, along with everyone else, realize that an uncomfortable truce was greatly preferable to extinction.  The plant re-opens, and life goes on at a new level of compromise.

I had a reading of the first half of the play last night, and I think it’s going to work. Wish me luck, and watch out for “Postville,” which I hope to complete in the next 3 or 4 months.

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%.