Some thoughts on living and dying.

Month: March, 2013

Oh, no. He’s up on his pulpit again.

An old friend I haven’t seen in years is writing about this blog for a regional magazine.  She’d pretty much finished her article when I posted the “Chickened Out” item in which I came clean about my religious inclinations.  “I was tempted to add the ‘atheist’ tag to my piece somewhere,” she said in an email, “but, while interesting, I don’t think it goes very far in defining you.”

That sounds right to me.  I don’t want to be defined by something I’m not.  I’m not religious.  I am a father, husband, advertising man, moviegoer, klutz, friend, couch potato, etc.  Those descriptions—and a hundred more—capture me more fully, I think, then anything about my religious beliefs.

I’ve been asked, “Aren’t you really agnostic?”  If you mean, do I believe there could have been a starting force that existed before the big bang, then, well, yeah, maybe.  But that starting force is a long way from the usually humanized god presented to us by most religions. 

I don’t feel the presence of a god in my life or in the world.  The world and our lives are filled with moments of wondrous beauty and horrifying ugliness.  (Sometimes those moments happen simultaneously:  think of those magnificent walls of water crashing down on the helpless citizens of Tohoku in Japan.)  Believers tell us that “God works in mysterious ways” that we can’t understand.  But if the goal is really to help us find eternal reward, why would He be unclear? 

Friends visited the other day.  I said what I often say:  “I’m just incredibly lucky.” That is how I think about myself.  But this time there was a little pause after I said it.  I realized that in the minutes leading up to that remark we’d discussed our older son’s death, Ginny’s three bouts with cancer and my current hospice situation—stuck on my couch wearing sweatpants and a tee shirt that I’d slept in.  I had to add, “Well, I’m not completely lucky.”  We laughed.  

When I posted my “Chickened Out” entry, I said I’d have more to say about religion in a future posting.  Now that I’m trying to do that, I find myself confused.   I don’t feel any need to be defensive.  I’d like to also say I don’t feel any need to evangelize—but that’s not completely true.

I don’t want anyone to feel they should turn away from their religion or their agnosticism or their lack of religion.  I do want to encourage people to think about what they believe and why they believe it.  I think society is harmed by people thoughtlessly living up to the assumptions about what kind of people they are.  Just because you’re the daughter of a Baptist minister living in rural Alabama doesn’t mean you have to be a pro-gun, anti-choice, anti-tax Tea Partier.  Just because you’re the son of a Stanford physicist doesn’t mean you have to be a pro-choice, anti-gun, tax-the-rich liberal.  Don’t take your stance on the death penalty based on what people like you feel.  Think it over.  Read advocates on both sides of the issue.  Understand the gray space between the pro- and anti- sloganeering.  

This posting has rambled so much, I have no idea what it’s about any more.   Forgive me.  Earlier versions had a couple of sections I’ll include here in case they add anything to the discussion:

ADDENDUM #1  If my Mormon friends want to baptize me after I’m dead, I say go for it.  (They should give Ginny some advance notice so she can buy me some underwear without holes.  As I understand it, some things in Mormon churches involve underwear.) If my Jewish friends think it’s important to get me in the ground by the next day, they should be aware that it’s hard to get a bunch of Italians, Irishmen and advertising people to do anything overnight.  (They should also go easy on the talk of “sitting shiva.”  Gentiles tend to think that means something dirty.)  Islamic friends should know that my eccentric family agrees completely with not serving meats.  But you will have trouble getting them slow down enough to get them to eat using just their right hands.  (Remember:  Italians, Irishmen, art directors, etc.)

ADDENDUM #2.   I’m not sure why I feel the way I feel about religion.  I’ve certainly spent a lot of time coming to grips with my beliefs.  From the day I was born, I was lovingly nurtured to be a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic.  I believed all of it—miracles, transubstantiation, papal infallibility.  During my high school years, I even spent two nights at a seminary investigating whether I had a calling.  (I didn’t.)

What first nudged me away from the church was the feeling at Sunday Mass that I was shaking hands and wishing “peace” to people who were clearly bigots.  They were the casual racists who would make the “harmless” little “just between us” jokes about minorities.   We’d excuse them by saying “well, you know, when they were growing up, that’s what everybody did.”  This was in the late ‘60s and I was probably a little bit of a self-rightous, antiwar peacenik.  But that doesn’t mean I was wrong.

Once there was some distance between the church and me, I began a lifetime of more objective introspection.  There’s a reason faith is considered a gift.  If you try to build it yourself, you won’t come up with anything that looks like religion.  You’ll come up with something that looks like science. 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t understand science any better than I understand deep religious beliefs.  Take evolution.  You mean something crawled out of the ocean millions of years ago; figured out eating and reproduction and how to raise two-year-olds; split up into a million different species, and got us to where we are today?  Really?  Seems on the surface like a long shot to me.  I believe in evolution because I believe in the scientific processes that led to its discovery.  That makes more sense to me than the notion of a loving God who instructs Abraham to murder his son or who sends his own Son to be crucified on earth because a woman many generations earlier had eaten the wrong apple.  Couldn’t that all-powerful, all-loving God have just forgiven his people?  (Theologians need not respond to this.  I know how much I’m oversimplifying here.  I’ve read a lot on the subject, but I’m not Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.  On the other side, I find Bishop Spong especially helpful—he’s at least skeptical about the same things I’m skeptical about.) 

One more thing.  Yes, I’m fully aware about the irony of my capitalization of words referring to the one, true deity—and of the fact I refer to Him as “Him.”

Thank you.

I was given a standing ovation at the TEDx event in Richmond last week.  Wow.  I wasn’t even there.   Andy Stefanovich said such wonderful things about me that even I would have given myself much applause.  The next morning’s Richmond newspaper called me a “creative icon.”  Wow again. 

 And I can’t describe how moved I was Wednesday at my reception when I made a five-minute appearance at the agency staff meeting.  I love those people.

I’m feeling a little funny now about the gloomy item I posted here last week.  Despite how that item sounds, I’m very grateful for the attention I get–and I’m very grateful for all the extra days that have been added to my life. 

I’m not sure I’ve adequately expressed the gratitude I feel. I haven’t sent thank you responses to the people sending me wonderful emails, letters, notes, comments or blog entries.  (I read the other day in The New York Times that younger people don’t want thank you emails or texts jamming up their electronic inboxes.  Older people feel differently about that. I guess when I get a thank you note now it means the sender thinks I’m old.)

The real reason I didn’t start sending responses when I started this blog?  I was afraid I’d fall behind and then have old-fashioned Catholic family guilt telling me I had to catch up before I died.  In my last moments, while my beloved gathered around me in tears, I’d be trying to respond to just a few more notes on Outlook.   The white light I’d move into at the end would be the light from my Mac.  I can clearly see how ignorant that sounds.  But guilt is often ignorant.

I feel guilty sometimes that I almost never send handwritten notes to anyone.  Never have.  I’m just way too embarrassed by how juvenile and unintelligible my handwriting is. 

Let me just say it one more time.  Thank you.

What I’ve Learned So Far III


Discard things that aren’t working.  Sometimes discard things that are.

Don’t spend another minute on the strategic or creative idea that’s getting compromised.  Have the guts to tell the client to kill the campaign that isn’t working.  Let the committee that isn’t meeting die.  Change the management structure sometimes just for the sake of change. (Creative companies need a revolutionary spirit.)

Make the nonstarters learning experiences—and move on.  Agencies spend too much time tending to ideas that are mortally wounded.

Also, take the time to take a look at the work that is approved.  Is it still right?  Is it still worth doing?  Just because something’s approved doesn’t mean it’s brilliant.

What I’ve Learned So Far II: Have Fun.

I can’t believe my good fortune:  I do work I love with people I love.  Everyone should have that opportunity.

My friends know that I avoid parties whenever possible, but even I know victories should be celebrated.  Staff meetings should be entertaining.  We’ll do better work and we’ll do it more enthusiastically if we do it with friends.  According to David Brooks, “Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.”

It’s the responsibility of agency management to make those monthly social/business meetings happen.  It’s the responsibility of every person at the agency to bring joy to work at least four days a week.  (We all have bad days.)

By the way, make the fun visible to the people around you.  Friends tease each other in affectionate, public ways.  That kind of banter can reduce tension for everyone  (One note:  don’t leave anyone out.  The etiquette for teasing women is still a little different than for teasing men, but don’t ignore the woman in the room just because she’s not as ripe a target as, say, Earl Cox or me.  There’s a bias that accrues from making the men always the center of attention.)

I don’t want to die.

I don’t want to die.

I’m not afraid of death.  I’m not exactly angry at cancer or death.  (Maybe I am sometimes.)  There are just so many things I want to do. 

Jason and I got into one of our political debates a couple of nights ago.  He’s so smart and passionate and powerful when he’s arguing.  I give politicians I like the benefit of the doubt.  Jason’s tougher on them—he points out the times they’ve disappointed us.  Neither of us ever gives in—neither of us ever thinks we’re wrong.  The arguments get more pointed.  It gets uncomfortable at times.  God, I love it.  I want to continue those debates forever.

Ginny wants to tell me Ella stories—I could listen to them all night long.  She wants to show me what she’s planning for Beacon, but I’m hopelessly lost when faced with blueprints.  I want to go with her to Beacon.  And to the movies.  And to dinners with friends. i want to hold hands while we watch tv shows. I want to be a big part of her life forever.

I want to work forever.  I want to spend time with interesting people.  I want to have guy weekends.  I want to vote against Eric Cantor.  I want to try the new restaurants. I want to lead a new business pitch for the agency.  I want to wake up in the morning knowing I have too much on my schedule for the day.  I want to live.

Today hasn’t been horrible, but I haven’t felt great.  I don’t usually feel sorry for myself.  Today I do a little.  I don’t want to die.

I’ll be better tomorrow. 


Fergus O’Carroll says:

Might I ask one question, Mike? For you, is there more anxiety now around what you’ll eventually leave behind… or where you’ll eventually go once you leave?

 I’m not sure how literally to read your question.  I get a little uneasy thinking about legacies.  George Washington had a legacy.  Martin Luther King had a legacy.  I’m just an advertising guy.  As John Adams and I have been turning the reins over to our successors, we’ve spent some time thinking about who those people should be and what they should inherit.  When John and I inherited the company, one of our main and much-discussed goals was to one day leave the agency in better shape than it was then.  We have succeeded.   We also wanted to leave talented, inspiring leaders in charge.  We’re succeeding there, too–in spades. 
As far goals for my personal life, I feel great about the plans Ginny and the rest of the family are making.  I’m only sorry i won’t be with them.
I don’t feel much anxiety about any of this.  I do wish I could get up enough energy to do something more than just  reading, watching tv and occasionally writing.  But I love all those things and I love my brief visits with friends.  

“How can we help?”

Just came across this.  I wrote it on January 4, but I don’t think I ever posted it.

I got a wonderful note today from an old friend, a young writer named Ben Ashauer.  I worked with Ben’s mother Robin Long.  She was a precious friend and a tremendous contributor to the agency’s success.  I learned much from her and her patience.  (It’s tough being the organized, responsible person on an always chaotic agency team:  We need people like Robin desperately.  I’ll never quite understand why they choose the agency business.  Thank God they do.)

Robin died last year after a particularly cruel engagement with cancer.  She was way too young, way too beautiful, way too important to her family, friends and coworkers. 

Ben writes, “I don’t want this to sound cliché, because I must have heard the same thing about 5 million times over the past few years, but just wanted to say if there’s anything my dad, Gretchen, and I can do to help out, please let us know.”

Ben nails the sentiment about offering help.  It’s what we all say to family and friends going through tough times.  And we mean it. I say it all the time.

“Let us know what we can do to help.”

In most cases, we’d welcome some little opportunity to be helpful.  We’d like to feel useful.  But in the huge majority of cases, there aren’t meaningful things that can be done. 

Still, the expression of caring does help.  Just like the offers of prayers:  “We’re praying for you.”   My religious beliefs may be nothing like yours, but the thought does count. 

I hope Ben knows that if there are things we can do for his family, we’d love to do it.  And, whatever we believe, we continue to send them our prayers.

When I chickened out.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a piece I’d written last year with suggestions for my survivors about funeral planning.  I called it When I’m Dying, although a more accurate title would have been When I’m Gone.  My son was disappointed that I’d left something out.  Here’s his email to me:


In your “When I’m dying.” post, you made only two changes from the original document. You discussed funerals differently and left out the following:  “I am not a religious man.  I don’t want a religious funeral, but if Ginny and Jason feel a prayer service within a few days of my death would make my mother or my sister feel better, that would be fine.”

Why is this omitted?

This is the least offensive atheism evangelism possible!  You are expressing your respect for the faith of others while avowing your own lack of faith.

You have hundreds of people telling you that they are praying for you. If that comforts them, great. You don’t owe it to them to play along. You have every bit the right to speak your mind on this issue as they do to express their prayers to you and for you. For Reason’s sake, you have an obligation to do so. To many religious people, atheists are the untrustworthy “other”.  You could be, for many, the first atheist they trust/respect/anything other than pity or fear. Perhaps open their minds to the wider world of what I (condescendingly) call Reality. That’s why I’m not the right evangelist. You are. Please don’t shy away.



Yikes.  Here’s how I responded:


I’ve hesitated to get into religion or politics on my blog because I’m still president of a company—and I’d hate to ever put the company in a compromised position.  Obviously the personal beliefs of a member of management shouldn’t make a difference to anyone—[but sometimes they do.]

One of the reasons I stressed in my early blog writings that this was a personal blog—that I wasn’t writing as head of the agency—was that I wanted to give myself more room to enter controversial spaces.  But so far I’ve chickened out.  Do you think I’m being too cautious?  



Our buddy Larry weighed in:


From my perspective, you have no obligation to anyone, even Jason, to do anything you don’t wish to do right now. However, Jason will have to speak for himself.

I believe the only thing both of us are saying is that if you want to share your thoughts with your many followers at this point in your life, free yourself of the restrictions you’ve put on yourself because you assume your words could have a negative impact on Martin’s success. 

Trust that people want to know you and are eager to know more about you and read what you believe is important to say to them, especially at this time in your life. Trust that they know who is talking…Mike Hughes the human being, not the President of The Martin Agency, especially in this context, your personal blog, and in this time in your life. 

And, if you want to soften your positions so that you’re liked by everyone, consider whether that’s worth not showing everyone who cares about you who you fully are and sharing your amazing perspectives and ideas with them.

Love you deeply


And so did Larry’s son Trevor:

Mike:  I think it is highly unlikely that your personal blog will be anything but a huge plus to Martin Agency, or that someone would read it and stop eating your marketing sandwiches. But . . . since you are the Pres, I totally understand being cautious, particularly since this isn’t a big cause you want to champion one way or the other.

God bless you (or not, if you’re not into that) and God bless America (at least North America — that’s what they really mean, right?


And Jason told his friend Luc, who had some thoughts:

Hi Mike,

If there are positive changes you want to make that could last beyond all of us, this could be your chance. 

What atheism needs is an intelligent and friendly voice. If someone like you were to come out of the atheism closet some of your clients may not appreciate it but I can’t imagine any would do anything drastic while your company continues to make theirs more profitable. Would even the most religious CEO hold his religion above his profit margin?

The potential positive impact you could make by publicly discussing your atheism and the reasons for it is endless. Perhaps I am naive but I think a lot of people might take a second look at what they believe (question their faith) when they see that a guy like you has some profound things to say about not believing in god. Maybe how liberating it is to believe that you are in complete control of your existence.

I’m not saying you need to overtly try to convert people to atheism. Simply expressing yourself through your writing will have the impact Jason and I long for. Hitchens said some profound things but he was way too hatable…

You could be the jolly atheist. Jason might say that you could instantly make thousands of people more intelligent.


There’s obviously a lot to think about here.  My defense about worrying about the company was probably lame and overblown.  I’m not giving our clients and prospects the credit they deserve.  They and I rightly assume my fellow employees cover the entire religious spectrum—and I’m clearly just speaking for myself. 

There’s more to be said on this subject, and I’ll say it in a future blog.

Stupid thinking.

We’ve decided we’re giving my body to science.

Science was never my best subject, but apparently you can’t give your body to English.

I don’t know what it is about the notion of giving my body to science, but I can’t think about it without immediately getting silly.  I told friends yesterday that my only reservation about it is that one day drunken medical students would be making fun of my remains, laughing while pointing out my inadequacies and performing all kinds of Weekend at Bernie’s shenanigans.  I wondered if instead of sending my body to a funeral home, they’d send it straight to a laboratory.  Cue the sadly predictable Frankenstein jokes.

Why is this so funny to me?   I’ve survived a long time with a serious, rare cancer; maybe researchers can find something in me that contributes in some small way to helping others survive. 

Still the idea strikes me as funny.  And I have no idea why I’m posting this.


Kathy Hepinstall is a maniac. She’s also one of the best writers in America, whether she’s writing novels, ads, short stories or blog postings. Every sentence she writes is exquisite on its own—and she deliberately makes every sentence an advertisement for the next sentence.

When one of America’s best writers emails me a few questions to answer in this space, I must answer them.  Here goes:

 Do people treat you different now? In what ways?  

I see differences mainly in the little things.  People who come to see me are nervous before they come in.  They wonder what I’ll look like—how sickly will I be? I can feel them relax when they see I’m not much changed.  (In fact, I’m a whole lot better than I was under some of the chemo programs.)  The other, very nice change is that everyone makes a point of telling me they love me.  I’m old enough to remember when guys didn’t do that.

People still love reminding me of the goofy things I’ve done over the years.  Everyone has a story about me.  That never changes.

What is your first thought every morning when you wake up?

 It’s not about my cancer or my mortality.  It’s about the little things I hope to get done that day.  It’s shocking to me how little I get accomplished. I start each morning feeling today’s going to be different. 

I usually have one or two things scheduled during the day, so I do a little once over to see how I’m feeling because if I’m going to cancel something, I’d like to give as much notice as possible. So how’s my breathing?  Is my stomach upset?  Do I have that dull all-over ache?  A headache?  Coughing or hiccups? How tired am I?  (I don’t want to give the impression here that I’ve always got all these things bringing me down.  I don’t.  Usually I feel pretty good.  I just know what to watch out for now.)  I’ve cancelled a number of visits the past few days because I was feeling punk.  I hate doing that.

What is your last thought every night when you go to sleep?

 [Warning:  this answer will get pretty corny.] I used to go to sleep lying on my left side. I can’t do that now:  it exacerbates my breathing difficulties.  So now I start the night on my right side.  Which means the last thing I see before I close my eyes is Ginny.  She’s tired of me saying this, but I worry that she spends so much of her time and energy taking care of me.  (That’s always been true, but now it’s more true.)  I worry that the extra stress she gets from my condition might weigh heavy on her condition.  After all, we both have cancer. But mostly I reflect on how happy I am that she’s in my life.  A gorgeous, sexy, funny woman who likes the same kind of movies and tv shows I like, who makes a spectacular meal, who (usually) thinks I’m funny and who is perfectly comfortable making all the decisions about finances, home and travel.  Am I spoiled or what?      

What is something you really appreciate these days that people don’t know about?  

 Ginny, Jason, Carley and my sister Patti are making plans for the future—and they’re telling me about them.  They’re excited about their ideas.  Ginny’s going to have a second home in Beacon, NY, where Jason and Carley live—and they’re already planning a guest room for Patti.  Jason and Carley are finding more ways to flex their entrepreneurial muscles.  Cool stuff. It was awkward at first to talk about their lives after I’m gone, but now it gives me great comfort to know they’re going to do well.  (Actually, I’m not surprised.  Everyone who knows Ginny and me has always known that I had to be the one to go first—I’d be hopeless on my own.) 

 Kathy:  Thanks for asking.


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