Were We Brave Back Then? Or Just Clueless?

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June 17th, 2022

I’m sorry for being negligent, once again, in my blog production but the truth of this particular matter has to do with a lot of various external sources. I had an important “follow-up” MRI this week, to check on my progress after the illness and hospital stay that marred my summer a year ago, right after finishing my new book How Far? It went very well, and the next follow-up won’t be for five more months. In other words, against all odds for a guy who turns 66 next week, I’m perfectly healthy. Who knew?

Side note: Did you know there is a worldwide shortage of the “contrast dye” they use for CT scans? When I had my other CT scans, I had to ingest what seemed like gallons of a specific liquid that gives the images the contrast they need to see the details. Somehow (can you say China?) there is a huge shortage of that stuff right now, all around the world. My MRI was originally scheduled as a follow-up CT scan, but after it was postponed twice the doctor finally gave up and changed it to an MRI. They serve the same purpose, but the MRI procedure takes a lot longer to complete (an hour or more versus a few minutes) and that backs everything up. I just showed up and got shoved in the noisy tube. I was fine not having to drink all that stuff.

I asked the technician about it and he said, “Yeah, it’s been a problem for months now, and we’re next.”

I asked him what that meant and he said “Well, so many CT scans had to be shifted over to MRIs we’re going to run out of the contrast dye we use for this machine. The demand is huge and for both CTs and MRIs they still have to keep a reserve for emergencies and more serious life-threatening cases. Our shortage will happen soon. It’s coming.” Great.

I also am still neck deep in promoting the book, publicizing it, and marketing the darn thing. It seems to be nonstop, but that’s OK. I’m proud of it. And the more I hear from people who have read it, the prouder and more confident I get.

Of course, getting the word out and selling more copies has nothing to do with dreams of riches. I’ll never come close to making any real money on this book or the first one, but that’s not why I did it. The publishing biz is tough these days, and those riches seem to be reserved for the big-time authors with big-time names. The rest of us are just happy to see our stuff in print and if a few positive reviews roll in, that’s a bonus.

I was talking with my marketing rep from Outskirts Press yesterday, and we were strategizing a few ways to increase awareness for How Far? As I told her, “I’m thrilled with the book, and I’m really proud of it. We’ve done a good job getting the word out to people I already know and who know my writing style, but it feels like we’ve hit a wall getting the awareness built with new groups of readers.”

She said, “That’s really typical, and there are a few things we can do to increase that and get new eyeballs on the book. Looks to me like getting anyone to read it gains you another fan. They love the book, so let’s keep pushing. Believe it or not, good books don’t really have a shelf life like loaves of bread. They can keep selling for years, and can even peak years after they’re first published. You just never know, but it’s all out there. We haven’t scratched past the surface yet.”

One of the things we talked about was a “lending” program Amazon has with their Kindle digital reader. I didn’t really know anything about it, but apparently if you sign up for it you can peruse the Kindle library and “sign out” books just to read them, but not own them, kind of like you have the option to rent movies on TV or buy them so you always have them. Will that create a new revenue stream? Hardly if you’re talking about immediate royalties.

As my rep said, “Oh, you’ll make a solid 33 cents every time someone checks it out. But you’ll get eyeballs, and that can translate into word-of-mouth, book sales, and more growth. There’s basically nothing in it for us as the publisher. We don’t even make 33 cents on this program, because there’s no physical book and no actual sale. But it helps us in the long haul, too.”

Interesting. So a publisher, who only exists to earn income off book sales, fully supports a program that will make them basically nothing and the author a pittance, while it provides the book to new readers for almost nothing? Sort of like that antiquated old concept of those places we called libraries? Crazy, right?. But that’s why I work with Outskirts. They’re willing to do stuff like this to help me, which helps them. It’s the long view, not the shortcut to instant gratification.

This whole publishing thing is one of those late-in-life challenges I’ve taken on for the last few years, diving into the deep end and figuring it out as I go. I must be brave. Right? I’m not.

Knowing that, I look back on my life and see moments that make me cringe today. Trips I’ve taken where I couldn’t have had any idea how many more things could go wrong than go right, but I dove in. Challenges that would petrify the older me.

Why is it like that? Why don’t we get braver as we get older? Why is the actual opposite more likely?

I think I know the answer, and it’s both simple and kind of depressing. It’s this: The older we get, the more we see how poorly things can turn out, and we build a defense to keep away from those situations. In other words, there’s a lot to be said for the impetuousness of youth. When you don’t know the 15 things that can go wrong versus the one thing that can go right, you just dive in. Or, as I wrote repeatedly in Bats, Balls, & Burnouts, we just plow forward.

I guess I’m still doing that, because somehow I’ve published two books and learned how to publicize them without having a clue how to do that when I started. But, on the flip side, I stress out over simple things like airplane flights, security lines, parking spots, and directions, like crazy. Why? Because I’ve experienced about all the problems a person can face in those endeavors. I begin those journeys jaded and wary. I’ve been there when things go haywire. I’d never written a book before, though. What could go wrong?

In grade school, I was a smart kid but I was labeled an “underachiever” by the nuns at Mary Queen of Peace in beautiful Webster Groves, Mo. I was just too easily distracted, I think. As Sister Gertrude Marie would tell my folks on Parent/Teacher Nights, “Bob doesn’t apply himself all the time. He could do much better.”

When it was time to decide where I wanted to go to high school, I never hesitated. I just picked the most challenging and difficult private school in St. Louis. By all accounts, I should have had almost no chance to pass the entrance exam and earn a spot at St. Louis U. High. But I signed up for it, sat in the gymnasium with 400 or so other young men, and tried to make the cut to be one of the 225 who would get in as the class of ’74. And I did. Had I failed, I guess my life would’ve been much different and I’d be writing about what an interesting experience it was to graduate from Kirkwood High, home of the Pioneers.

I almost flunked out my freshman year at SLUH (once again, not applying myself enough) but I straightened that out and one of the impetuous things I did was analyze my strengths and realize what sort of curriculum I could succeed at. I met with the Jesuit advisors and I’ll give them credit. They saw a lot in me. They didn’t see a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, or a kid who could even do anything beyond basic math, but they saw something. And they worked with me and helped me succeed with an emphasis on creative thinking and communications. I have no idea where I’d be if I hadn’t applied at SLUH and if the Jesuits hadn’t spotted something in my makeup that would make me, and them, proud. I just dove in.

High school was followed by college, and again I just picked the one school I wanted to attend, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and I planned on somehow getting a baseball scholarship there. My plan for the scholarship worked, and I’ll forever be thankful for my time as an SIUE Cougar. On the educational side, once more my advisors saw something in me. When I didn’t have to struggle through mandatory math and science classes, I could shine. Straight A’s. Dean’s List. Great advisors and mentors. I was lucky to have them on my side. The same thing has applied throughout my life. I’ve found people who believe in me, who can see the shiny parts through the trash.

The “diving in” thing was a huge part of my younger years. After baseball I went to work for Converse shoes, not because I was an ex-basketball player who was already a legend, but because I felt I could learn the business and move shoes.

Then I went to work for my brother Del, in Washington, DC, at his sports marketing agency. It was a whole new experience and I was flying by the seat of my pants for most of it.

Had I ever written and presented a marketing proposal to a Fortune 500 company? Uh, no.

Had I ever walked into a major sports franchise front office and boldly tell them, from the podium, how my plans could make them more successful in terms of revenue streams? No.

Had I ever gotten on a plane at 3 in the morning, in Miami, to fly to Havana, Cuba for a week, knowing I was there to represent my brother and our company during the International Baseball Association worldwide meetings? Nope. Was I stressed out beyond belief, heading to a communist country which was still stuck in the 1950s? Somehow I wasn’t. When we landed in the middle of the night and the Cuban customs agent took our passports, I didn’t freak out. When we were taken to an ancient hotel left over from Havana’s pre-Castro mafioso days, was I worried? For some reason I wasn’t.

A young version of me, contemplating the meaning of life at a relic of a hotel in Havana, Cuba. Not a care in the world…

I was there with my boss, Maidie Oliveau, and we just went with the flow. We shook a lot of hands, drank a few Mojitos, watched old Cuban men make priceless cigars for money that wouldn’t buy them a cigarette, and we were escorted around to strange places that seemed to be out of a bizarre foreign movie, but I don’t recall ever being stressed. It was just an adventure.

Funny note about Maidie. She was my boss, as were all the Vice Presidents at DelWilber+Associates (my title was Senior Project Director). Oh, and the guy in the corner office, Del himself, was the big boss. We all worked for him and reported to him. Talk about a mentor! I can’t express how much I learned from my boss, my brother, and my friend.

Anyway, Maidie and I got along fine and worked well together, but we could hardly have been more different. She was a New York lawyer, and her life experiences as such were nothing like I’d ever been through. We traveled on more than a few international business trips, and what amused me the most about her was the fact she spoke something like seven languages, but not one of them was Spanish. Odd that we were in Cuba together and my rudimentary Espanol from high school classes and baseball dugouts had to carry us most of the way.

Oh yeah, we went to Cuba back when almost no Americans could do that. We flew back to Florida in the middle of a hurricane, with the charter jet’s crew slamming the door shut before we were even seated, passports once again in hand after we dashed through Jose Marti Airport and out to the Eastern Airlines 727. And somehow I lived through it. The Mojitos probably helped. We just dove in, and I assisted with the Spanish.

Our next big trip was to Italy. DW+A represented the International Baseball Association (IBA) and the World Cup of Baseball was coming to Northern Italy the next year. We were there to confirm the venues and to set the stage for international TV coverage.

We had a driver. He was a fine Italian fellow named Sergio Bernini. Yep, I still remember his name. I’m not just making that up. This was in the late 1980s, over in Italy, and we were on a whirlwind tour of cities like Florence, Grossetto, Milan, Turin, Bologna, Rome, and Parma, where the Baseball World Cup would be held. My specific job was to confirm that the baseball venues were of a high enough standard to host an international tournament.

Again, like Spanish, none of Maddie’s many languages happened to be Italian. Sergio spoke enough English to get us around, but mostly he drove us from city to city on the superhighways at around 110 mph in a Lancia Beta Coupe, and we saw all the ballparks where the tournament would be held. I gave my educated “thumbs up” to all of them. Play ball!

The head of the IBA and the Italian Federation, Aldo Notari, was from Parma, and very proud of his scenic little town. As I related in Bats, Balls & Burnouts, Aldo rolled out his best red carpet and put us up in a fabulous boutique hotel that really impressed us, and he reserved a private dining room for us to have dinner as a group.

When we arrived for our meal, we discovered the hotel manager had forgotten to reserve the room for us. Aldo was not happy.

Sergio Bernini, Maidie Oliveau, and Bob Wilber. Going with the flow in Parma.

So, within a few minutes the lobby was emptied of its usual furniture, a formal dinner table was brought in, and we were served a sumptuous Italian dinner of the highest quality. The whole thing was surreal. I clearly recall sitting at this very table with Sergio and Maidie, thinking “Is this really happening?” It was. We were there. We trusted those around us and went with the flow. We just dove in and acted like we did this stuff every day.

A few months later, I flew back to Florence for the actual tournament, by myself. Somehow I did my job of being the marketing liaison while surrounded by dozens of languages I did not speak. I got to know many of the guys on the USA team (do the names Tino Martinez, Robin Ventura, Andy Benes, and Jim Abbott ring a bell?) and spent a lot of time with the USA staff. Those relationships with the staff were what fostered a certain game in Millington, Tennessee one year later, when the USA Team put my Sauget Wizards semipro club on the schedule and we went down there and beat them 6-5. It’s all about relationships and diving in. And hitting home runs. That helped.

I subsisted on pizza most of the time I was in Italy, when we weren’t having catered dinners. There was a “by the slice” place next to our Florence hotel and I became proficient at pointing out the style I liked and holding up the right amount of fingers to indicate how many slices I wanted. I was not as proficient at then paying for my pizza with Italian Lire. I’d often take a guess and hand over the money, only to have the shopkeeper say “No, no. Too much. Grazie!” as he handed me back about half what I’d given him.

And then of course there was my adventure flying back to the USA after the tournament, when my flight from Florence to Paris was late and I missed my connection. In France. Among French-speaking people. So I dove in, found the British Airways desk, and flew up to London with them, then took the Underground to Hyde Park, got a room at the Grovesnor Hotel at Victoria Station, enjoyed London for a night and then took the Tube back out to Heathrow to catch a morning flight to New York and then home to DC. No big deal. I’d probably just faint now, at my advanced age and stress levels.

Life. It can be mundane. You can force it to be mundane. You can steer clear of the unknown. Or you can just go with the flow.

Was I that much braver back then? Again, I think I was just that much more clueless. And trusting. And confident that we could make it all work out.

These days I feel my blood pressure rising just knowing we have to catch a flight to Denver, or Orlando, or any other domestic destination. But I think I could still do it the old way. Just dive in. Barbara and I have proven we can do that. We’ve met for a weekend in Amsterdam without a real plan on how we’d rendezvous at the massive Schipol Airport. We’ve walked the crowded streets in Aruba and Curacao, and cruised the canals in Costa Rica. We’ve learned enough about the Hawaiian islands to feel at home there. London and Edinburgh feel like second homes, as well, when I visit now. We even go so far as to venture all the way to MINNEAPOLIS for dinner or a ballgame, totally on a whim! We’re nuts, right?

We’ve gotten older, wiser, and probably a lot more cautious, but those younger more bullet-proof days are still in our DNA.

We’re just not as clueless as we used to be.

Thanks for hanging in here with me. As always, I appreciate it when those of you who enjoyed my blog take a moment to click on the “Like” button below. The more likes the better.

Now, I have to get back to marketing How Far? and getting “more eyeballs” on it.


BW (Del’s little brother)

PS: Don’t be afraid to visit my new website. You can see an actual timeline of my career that clearly spells out how many times I’ve gone with the “dive in” or “plow forward” concept. Plus, you can buy both of my books there.