Yesterday I got an e-mail from William Mack Webner — known to me as Uncle Mack — announcing that he is officially retired from the practice of law. His decision to retire marks the end of more than 40 years of practicing as one of the premier intellectual property lawyers in the country.
Mack Webner (right) at a 2008 conference
It has been a distinguished career, indeed. Through his representation of the Elvis Presley estate, entertainers, and a wide variety of different commercial entities, Uncle Mack has played a significant role in the development of the law on licensing and marketing of personalities and protecting and enforcing trademarks and other forms of intellectual property. As the American economy has grown to focus more and more on the value of concepts, brands, and ideas, intellectual property law has grown and adapted to respond to those developments. Uncle Mack has been one of the agents of change. He also has been very involved with his alma mater, the University of Akron, with various professional organizations, and with various community groups. You might say that, through these different activities, people have seen him “in triple focus.”
Because of these other interests, Uncle Mack is not one of those people who have let their work define them, so that when they retire they feel lost and uncomfortable without a job to tether them. I know he wants to work on his golf game (what retiree doesn’t?) and he and Aunt Corinne still have a lot of exploring to do in Savannah, Georgia and its environs. He’ll keep reading, and thinking. I expect that I will get book recommendations from him, as I always have; he was an enthusiastic proponent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Watership Down, among many others. Uncle Mack no doubt also will continue to be as open to trying new things as he always has been — whether it is experimenting with woodworking or finally writing that novel that he and I used to talk about when Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. You would expect nothing less from a man who made his career dealing in the world of ideas.
I am a big fan of Camille Paglia, whose most recent column is here. Why? First, she is independent-minded. Her column always reflects her own views, not some distilled and recycled conventional wisdom. She obviously doesn’t feel the need to be a shill for anyone, and is willing to criticize the actions of politicians whom she supports. I have tremendous respect for that characteristic. Second, her interests are wide-ranging. Her columns often address political issues and feminism, but equally often discuss music, performers, and other popular culture issues. She has the self confidence to express thoughts on topics that actually interest her, without self-editing because she worries that some observers might view her as a lightweight. Third, and most important to me, she is an extraordinarily gifted and powerful writer. Anyone who can appreciate quality — and as a devotee of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think that includes just about everyone — will recognize that her prose reflects the pen and mind of a true craftsman. Her column appears monthly on Salon.com and is not to be missed.
One of my influential books
When I was a senior in high school I went to visit my Uncle Mack and Aunt Corinne at their home outside NYC. They were fascinating and unpredictable relatives for several reasons. For one, they lived in urban areas far from Ohio. For another, they tried to treat me like an adult. Furthermore, they liked to talk about things other than sports, TV shows, or music. My aunt was tireless in encouraging me to improve my vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. My uncle, on the other hand, always had a recommendation of a book that might help me to become a better, or at least more thoughtful, person.
One of the books that Uncle Mack recommended was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I remember reading it and thinking, “Wow, this book is weird!” There was a kind of creepy tension to the text, because the narrator had admitted mental problems, he seemed to be struggling in his interaction with this son, and you just hoped that he would make it through his motorcycle trip without having a relapse and being institutionalized. It may well be that the weird vibe of the book helped to make some of its message more memorable, but in any case it is one of those books that had an enormous impact on me. I am not alone in this regard. It has now been 35 years since Zen was first printed, and Wikipedia states that it is regarded as the most widely read book about philosophy, ever.
I particularly recall the portion of the book where the narrator discusses his view that “quality” is a kind of innate characteristic that people can recognize intuitively. He relates an incident where an English class reads well-written pieces and poorly written pieces, without having received special training in sentence structure, foreshadowing, character development, or other technical aspects of writing. Notwithstanding the lack of such training, the class was easily able to distinguish the high-quality pieces from the low-quality pieces. That particular concept, and anecdote, has stuck with me, and I often refer to the book when I talk to associates at the firm about legal writing and the need to strive for “quality” in their work. If my comments about writing have had any positive impact on the work product of our lawyers, the firm and its clients have Robert M. Pirsig to thank.