A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

If you’ve had a toddler in your house at any time in the past 40 years you’ve probably heard of Alexander. His terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is the topic of an award-winning children’s book that teaches kids how to cope when they have one of those days when everything goes wrong. Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, gets pushed in the mud, is forced to eat lima beans for dinner and watches a favorite marble go down the drain during bath-time. Alexander decides to move to Australia until his mother explains that everyone has bad days, even people who live in Australia.


Alexander’s mom is right, isn’t she? We all have bad days. On those days when we have the reverse Midas touch–everything we touch turns to crap–we can choose to react with grace and equanimity. Or we can choose to react like Alexander (who as a small child may have a legitimate excuse). How did you react to your last terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? Let’s say you reacted badly, like Alexander and children often do. Now imagine that your embarrassing, child-like temper tantrum makes national news.

That’s the sticky situation in which James Beach placed himself last week. He was tired. All he wanted to do was to fly home to Colorado. Employed by a company that builds waste-recycling plants, he was on the final leg of a long business trip back from Moscow. Maybe the Russian airport authorities had been less than friendly to the American businessman. Maybe the ticket agent at the Newark airport was a bit surly when Beach arranged to fly standby back home to Denver. Maybe his bags ended up in Naples instead of Newark. What we do know is that Beach ended up in a middle seat on the Newark-to-Denver flight. We also know that instead of closing his eyes and resting while the plane winged its way toward the Rockies, he put his tray-table down and pulled out his laptop. He had to review that contract with the Russians. To make sure he wasn’t disturbed, he installed the Knee Defender, a device that prevented the passenger in front of Beach from reclining her seat. Except she was tired too. And she really, really wanted to recline her seat. Conflict ensued.

At the request of the flight attendants, Beach removed the device. He claims the other passenger then forcefully reclined her sear, almost shattering his laptop’s screen. That’s when Beach started acting like Alexander. He roughly returned the seat-back to the full-upright position and re-installed his Knee Defender. His fellow passenger reacted like an Alexandra: she threw a cup of soda in his face. The flight attendant quickly moved the woman to another seat, but Beach didn’t stop. He re-directed his ire toward the flight attendants, saying what he says were “bad words”. The pilot then re-directed the plane to Chicago where Beach and his fellow passenger were re-directed off the plane. (No word on whether they shared cocktails at an O’Hare bar.) Beach was not going to get home to Denver that night after all.

Then his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day got even worse. The Associated Press picked up the story and ran it nationally. Beach instantly became the poster-boy for bad airline-passenger behavior. Years ago Andy Warhol warned us that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 seconds. Beach was getting his 15 seconds–and then some.

What would I do if my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day was splashed over headlines all across the country? Would I accept responsibility for my bad behavior? I could do worse than follow the example of James Beach. In a follow-up story, Beach didn’t trash his on-board adversary. He didn’t make excuses about frayed nerves from a long business trip. Instead he told the Associated Press: “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what happened. I could have handled it so much better.”

Careful readers of this blog will note, however, that Beach’s response wasn’t perfect. He could have used his 15 seconds of fame to give us all an A+ acceptance-of-responsibility lesson. How about these suggestions, Mr. Beach?

  • “Happened” is an acceptance-of-responsibility red flag. Blizzards happen. Cyclones happen. They’re no ones fault. What went down on that Newark to Denver flight did not just happen. It’s something you did. Would it have been better to say this? “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what I did.” Or better yet: “I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed that I did the same thing to my fellow passenger that she did to me: forcefully re-position her seat. And then I made things worse by yelling and swearing at the flight attendants. They were just doing their job and trying to clean up the mess that I had helped to create.”
  • And how about an apology to your fellow passenger? An apology does not mean that the person to whom I’m apologizing was without fault. That’s because an apology is not about what she did; it’s about what I did. She need not earn my apology with an acknowledgment of her part in this sorry episode. I need to apologize for what I did wrong, even if she never steps up and takes her fair share of the blame. It’s about me and what I did.
  • And of course an “I’m so sorry” is needed for the flight attendants who were only trying to make everyone of the crowded flight as comfortable as possible.

I’ll give him a B-. And the lesson for me when I have that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and “lose it” like little Alexander and James Beach–especially if I “lose it” in front of a national audience–is to step up and forthrightly accept responsibility for it. That means admitting what I did without excuse or finger-pointing, apologizing to anyone I’ve wronged, and doing what I can to make things right.


I’ve Got a Great Idea For Our New Ad Campaign!

On December 12 a 23-year-old woman was raped on a bus in New Delhi. Her boyfriend was badly beaten. All the men on the bus allegedly joined in the sexual assault. Even the driver. Six men are awaiting trial. The victim died of her injuries 13 days later. The driver hanged himself in his jail cell a few weeks ago. He’s no longer awaiting trial.

On March 15 a 39-year-old Swiss woman was enjoying a cycling trip with her husband through India. While camped for the night in Madhya Pradesh state, she was raped so many times that she doesn’t know the exact number. Her husband was beaten. Five men have been arrested. Two more are sought.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Company is trying to capture a larger share of the growing Indian auto market.  If you’re one of Ford’s “Mad Men” in India, you’re trying to come up with an attention-grabbing advertising campaign for the new Figo. The snappy compact sports a spacious cargo area, but it’s still small enough to navigate India’s crowded streets. “I know!”, the ad men say. “Let’s show auto buyers that the cargo area is big enough to hold three big-breasted women! They’re being kidnapped!”

An alarm bell should have gone off as soon as a junior copywriter ran this idea up the flagpole. But it didn’t. The concept advanced far enough within Ford’s ad agency that a couple of prototype posters were developed. One showed a smiling Paris Hilton kidnapping the three Kardashian sisters while they’re bound and gagged. Another shows dirty-old-man Silvio Berlusconi kidnapping three young well-endowed women, also bound, gagged and shoved into the Figo’s spacious cargo bay. (The former Italian prime minister is awaiting trial in a sex-for-hire case.)

That’s when the curried rice hit the fan. Someone leaked the posters to an advertising website. Outrage erupted. Not only were the ads were offensive and degrading to women, but it was especially thick-headed for the agency to create those ads for the Indian market at a time when sexual violence against women in that country was front-page news all around the world.

Ford attempted to apologize. “We deeply regret this incident and agree with our agency partners that it should have never happened,” Ford said. “The posters are contrary to the standards of professionalism and decency within Ford and our agency partners.” Ford’s advertising agency also gave apology a try, saying the posters “were never intended for paid publication and should never have been created, let alone uploaded to the Internet.” For professionals who make a living by stringing words together, their statements fall short of full acceptance of responsibility.

Do not use the word “happen” in an apology. Ever. It’s a not-very-subtle technique to evade responsibility. The word carries with it the implication that the whole sorry mess was just an accident, a quirk of fate, an unlucky break for which no one is really to blame. By referring to the creation of the misogynistic ads as an “incident” that “should have never happened”, Ford obscures the fact that it was Ford’s own “agency partner” that came up with the terribly misguided idea and moved it along far enough that it created prototype advertising posters.

Ford’s ad agency said the posters “were never intended for paid publication and should never have been created, let alone uploaded to the Internet.” But is there any other reason to create such posters other than as a proposal for “paid publication” advertisements? Are Ford and its ad agency any less blameworthy because someone blew the whistle on them before they managed to get the posters published? And, as loyal readers already know, the passive voice is another enemy of responsibility acceptance. It names the action but not the one responsible for the action. The phrase “should not have been created” conveniently fails to identify who did the creating.

Ford Motor, how about this apology instead?

An advertising agency selected by Ford Motor Company prepared an ad campaign for use in India that callously makes light of a serious problem: exploitation of and sexual violence against women. We are investigating to see if any Ford employee ever saw these ads before they appeared on the Internet. But whether Ford saw these ads or not, Ford is responsible for them. These advertisements are especially inappropriate and tasteless because of recent high-profile acts of sexual violence in the very country for which our ad agency prepared them. We are reviewing the method we use to educate our advertising agencies on Ford’s standards and expectations, and we’re also determining how we can do a better job of making sure those agencies comply with those standards. We apologize to Kim, Khloe and Kortney Kardashian. The ads depicted you in a degrading way that you in no way deserved. We also apologize the Prime Minister Berlusconi. It was totally inappropriate of us to make light of your ongoing troubles. Ford Motor Company will make every effort to do better in the future and advertise our products in a way that respects and promotes the dignity of all women.

Ironically, the ads carried the Ford Figo’s new slogan: “Leave Your Worries Behind.” Of course, for the automaker and its ad agency, their worries are just starting. The Kardashian sisters are considering their legal remedies. (Dad Kardashian was one of O.J. Simpson’s lawyers.) And Italy/India diplomatic relations, which had been on the upswing, took a dive. No, Ford’s worries are still there; it’s their reputation that got left behind. A well-crafted apology could have jump-started Ford on the road to recovery of that reputation.

For more information:

Bounties in the Big Easy, Part II

The axe has fallen.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the cash rewards offered to any New Orleans Saints player whose defensive play took an opponent out of a game, a “knockout” in the language of their bounty system. (Even better was when the opponent was injured badly enough that he had to be assisted off the field. That’s called a “cartoff”.) Understandably, when the news of the bounty system broke, the National Football League took an interest. It’s against NFL rules to offer any performance bonus outside a player’s contract, let alone a bonus for hurting opponents badly enough to take them out of a game. An investigation ensued.

 This week the axe fell. The NFL announced the results of its investigation and the punishment it was imposing on the Saints organization as well as the coaches who administered, tolerated or hid the bounty system.

  • Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams (now with the St. Louis Rams) was suspended indefinitely.
  • Head Coach Sean Payton must sit out the entire 2012 season, without pay.
  • General Manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for the first eight games next year.
  • The Saints organization loses two second-round draft picks and must cough up a half-million-dollar fine.

To those who expressed shock at the harshness of the penalties, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded: “I don’t think you can be too hard on people who put at risk our players’ health and safety.” The axe that has not yet fallen is the one hanging over the heads of the players themselves. That investigation continues, in part because the league wants to hear from the players’ union conducting its own investigation.

Coach Payton attempted an apology earlier this month shortly after the NFL released the results of its investigation. The lukewarm quality of that acceptance of responsibility was the topic of my previous blog post. Yesterday, the coach tried again:

I share and fully support the League’s concerns and goals on player safety. It is, and should be paramount. Respecting our great game and the NFL shield is extremely important to me. Our organization will implement all necessary protections and protocols, and I will be more vigilant going forward. I am sorry for what has happened and as head coach take full responsibility. Finally, I want to thank Mr. Benson, our players and all Saints fans for their overwhelming support.

No one should kick a guy when he’s down. Its close cousin, “piling on”, is a 15-yard penalty in the NFL. Neither of them is a classy move. So, at the risk of costing myself 15 yards, permit me to point out that the coach did not improve his apology on the second try.

  • One cannot “take full responsibility” unless one admits the offense for which one is taking responsibility. Neither can one offer a genuine apology unless one admits the offense for which one is expressing sorrow. Simply saying “I am sorry for what has happened” is, to be frank, a coward’s way out. Man up! The NFL claims you knew the bounty system was in place, you were told to stop it, you didn’t and then you misled investigators about it. Is that true? If so, please have the guts to say so.
  • And if you’re apologizing, how about apologizing first to the opposing players who were the targets of your bounty system? How about saying you’re sorry to the families whose survival depends on the ability of their husbands and fathers to remain healthy and generate a pro-football paycheck?

Coach, you are the leader of men, many of whom are barely out of their teens. You failed in the opportunity to teach them how to compete and win in a good, clean, sportsmanlike fashion. You now have the opportunity to teach them how to take responsibility for a big mistake, how to be men. But you lost yardage on the first two downs. Third and 10 is coming up. Don’t be forced to punt. Please don’t fail those young men you are leading. Man up.

NFL Commissioner speaks on bounty penalties: http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d827c28ff/article/goodell-sounds-off-on-saints-bounty-penalties

Punishment for players may follow: http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d827c28c2/article/goodell-will-hear-nflpas-recommendations-on-player-discipline

Saints release statement from Head Coach: http://www.neworleanssaints.com/news-and-events/article-1/Statement-from-Saints-HC-Sean-Payton/8e6a10af-a20f-46be-91da-45ada420b591

“Gangsters” and Basketball

Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati both have a rich basketball tradition. They share the same Ohio town. Their fans live next to one another. They compete for the same recruits. When these crosstown rivals meet on the court, they’re competing for year-long, city-wide bragging rights. The game is always intense and closely contested. That intensity took a nasty turn this year.

With ten seconds left and the Xavier Musketeers leading by 23 points, two players did some nose-to-nose trash talking in front of the Cincinnati Bearcat bench. A second Xavier player joined in. Pushes led to punches. Both benches emptied. A full-scale street fight ensued, topped off by a blind side blow to the jaw of Xavier’s 7-foot center Kenny Frease that left him bloody and kneeling on the court. The refs wisely stopped the game; those last ten seconds will never be played.

One would expect apologies from both teams at the postgame press conference, but this is what Xavier star Tu Holloway said instead:

We’re the tougher team. We’re grown men over here. We’ve got a whole lot of gangsters over here. Not thugs, but tough guys on the court. We went out there and zipped them up at the end of the game. That’s our motto: “Zip ’em up.” And that’s what we just did to them.

How about an apology later, when passions had a chance to cool just a bit? This was Holloway’s feeble attempt via Twitter:

I apologize for what happened.. Two groups of tough kids competing.. Sorry..

Fans of this blog will readily recognize what makes this apology so lame:

  • Never apologize “for what happened”; it leaves out the most important word in an apology. That word, of course, is “I”. If one is accepting personal responsibility for a poor choice, the use of “I” is essential.
  • “I apologize for” is a good start. (It’s better than the all-too-common “I want to apologize”.) Even better is “I am sorry for”. An expression of one’s personal sorrow is a must for any good apology.
  • An apology is no place to blame the people to whom you are apologizing or to make excuses. It’s no place to point out that your victim shares part of the blame. My apology is about ME and how ME MYSELF is sorry for what ME MYSELF did.
  • “Sorry …” is totally inadequate. How about this: “I apologize to all the Cincinnati Bearcat players and coaches. I am sorry that when I should have been a team leader and calmed things down, I instead plunged full-tilt into the brawl. I let down and embarrassed my team, my coaches, my university and all of our fans.”

Fortunately, Cincinnati’s coach decided–a bit late?–to be a coach and leader to the young men for whom he is responsible. In the locker room he told all the players to take off their Bearcat jerseys and even “assisted” a few of the players in doing so. He told them he and other university officials would decide when–and if–they would ever put those jerseys back on. And later he marched the principal offenders into a press conference where they tearfully took responsibility for their actions.

Cincinnati suspended four players, including a six-game suspension for Yancy Gates who threw the blind side blow to the jaw that brought down Xavier’s center. Xavier also suspended four players, including Tu Holloway. The Musketeers had their own press conference where their head coach accepted his share of responsibility:

We need, I need, to take responsibility for our team’s actions before the fight, during the fight and after the fight. It was an embarrassment to our program and our community. We have kids in our program that have grown tremendously during their time at Xavier. …  That growth isn’t finished. They’ve made mistakes like we all have and it’s our job to insure they learn from those. That’s what this Catholic institution represents.

Cincinnati and Xavier have met on the b-ball court every year for the last 65 years. But the rivalry may not see its 66th year. No decision has been made about the 2012 contest.

Getting Back Up from a Hard Fall


Fame is like climbing a rock wall. The view from the top of the wall is fantastic. Celebrities usually don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay the rent next month. And people treat you like someone extra-special, even when you’re in the grocery store buying toilet-bowl cleaner. But when you lose your grip, you fall a long way. And it hurts when you hit the ground. It hurts a lot. 

Fourteen years ago Rick Mecklenburg landed his “dream-come-true” job, meteorologist for a TV station in his own hometown. The weather forecaster in any town is a local celebrity. So it was for Mecklenburg. We invited him into our homes every evening so he could tell us what we’d face when we walked out the door the next morning. He looked down at us from billboards promoting his station’s evening newscast. He popped up in the middle of How I Met Your Mother to warn us that he’d have urgent weather information for us at eleven o’clock. He was a celebrity, yes, but he was more than that. He’d become a warm and trusted friend.

Twelve days ago his dream became a nightmare. Mecklenburg is due in court on Thursday to deal with two misdemeanor counts of providing false information to the police.  On November 30 he allegedly called police and spun a bizarre tale involving a shooting and damage to his car. Police say that on arrival they found Mecklenburg with a blood alcohol content of .18%. The next day, instead of reporting weather on his station’s news show, Mecklenburg WAS the news on that same show. He found himself off the air and under investigation.

Copyright 2010,  WSBT Rick Mecklenburg

In America, we love our celebrities, even minor ones like the local weatherman. But we forget that they’re just people. Like the rest of us, they’re people who grumble about gas prices, get divorced and take out the garbage. Like the rest of us, they’re people who are fighting some quiet battle. And, like the rest of us, they’re people who from time to time do something really dumb.

In America, we also like to give our fallen heroes a second chance. We’re willing to extend a hand and help them up off the ground, but first we need them to understand that with public acclaim comes public responsibility. We need them to give us respect by accepting responsibility for their fall and sincerely apologizing for it. Mecklenburg started to pick himself up off the ground two days ago when he went on the air with a public apology. As apologies go, it was pretty darned good.

But there were a few flaws:

  • Saying that I am sorry “for what happened”  is much less powerful and effective that saying that I am sorry “for what I did”.  That little pronoun packs a punch.
  • Mentioning one’s father’s failings starts the apology off badly and takes it perilously close to self-pity and blame-shifting. My apology should be about me and my own responsibility as an adult for my own choices.
  • A plea to forgive should include some brief statement of what I did. For what am I asking forgiveness? If “I can’t get into the specifics of that night”, then at least say why. (We’ll understand if your lawyer advised you to exercise your right to be silent while you wait for your day in court. After all, it’s in the Constitution to protect us too.)

Those  are quibbles. The apology was moving. It was sincere. It was heart-felt. It explained that alcohol was a factor in the incident without attempting to use it to excuse the peculiar behavior. It’s common for public figures to claim that the police have “blown this all out of proportion” and are persecuting them because of their celebrity status. Mecklenburg instead chose to thank the police and acknowledge that they were just doing their job. He admitted that he has a problem and made a commitment to get the help he needs to avoid making the same dumb mistake again. And he apologized to his viewers and thanked us for sticking with him and giving him the opportunity to pick himself up off the ground.  

Rick Mecklenburg is starting to climb back up that rock wall. He returns to the air–and our homes–tomorrow. Welcome back, Rick.

Mecklenburg charged with false informing: http://www.wsbt.com/news/wsbt-wsbts-rick-mecklenburg-charged-120310,0,7997873.story 

Mecklenburg’s apology: http://www.wsbt.com/news/wsbt-statement-from-wsbts-rick-meck-121010,0,4304843.story

Two Great Verbs=Two Great Ways to Avoid Resonsibility

 When I want to dodge responsibility for a bad choice, I choose the verb* “happen”. It allows me to seem to be making an apology even though I don’t actually describe what I’m apologizing for. “Happen” is  traditionally used as follows: “I’m sorry this happened”. (Do NOT choose  a verb that actually describes your poor choice, as in “I’m sorry I stole your credit card and used it to buy a big-screen TV”.)

The use of  “happen” is a great choice because it allows me to assume an attitude of sad regret for the consequences of my actions without actually requiring me to admit that I am the one responsible for those consequences. Something just “happened”,  like the incident described in this comment actually heard in the courtroom: “I pulled my knife and put it on his throat and a small cut happened.”

Unfortunate incidents happen! Can anyone really be held responsible?  How terribly unfair it would be to start pointing fingers of blame about something that “happened”. Life is full of bad breaks.

Better yet,  if I want to enhance a non-admission of responsibility with the inference that the whole sorry episode was inevitable, I can upgrade to: “I’m just sorry all this had to happen.” The implication there is that I am just one more helpless victim swept away with everyone else in an overwhelming tide of misfortune. I’m really an object of pity, certainly not one on whom blame should be cast. This creative use of “happen” conveniently permits me to avoid admitting that it was not fate, bad karma, a streak of bad luck or the gravity pull of the moon that caused that tide of misfortune, it was me.

In the avoiding-responsibility family of action words, “occur” is the kissing cousin to “happen”. It is frequently paired with neutral nouns like “incident”, “situation” or “episode”, as in: “I’m just sorry that this incident occurred.” When I want to avoid responsibility, that phrase is far preferrable to “I’m sorry that I cheated on you with your best friend”. Like “happen”, the verb “occur” craftily creates an air of tragic inevitability or simple misfortune about the harm suffered by my victim. How can I be held responsible for a simple occurrence?

I only hope that no one responds to my non-apology by jumping up and saying: “Sure, you’re sorry this happened. We’re all sorry the incident occurred. But what did you do and are you sorry you did it?” 

*Grammar geeks know that happen and occur are intransitive verbs, action words that do not require an object to complete their meaning.