On Topic: Frankly, my dear

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The story goes that actor Cary Grant happened to be in his office when the telegram arrived.

“How old Cary Grant?” the message asked, sent by a writer trying to check his facts, in an age long before the Internet or email and when telegrams were priced by the word count.

Grant, by all accounts a genuinely witty guy, wrote the reply himself: “Old Cary Grant fine. How you?”

In another possibly apocryphal tale of Hollywood news gathering, a young reporter was ordered to catch a train about to leave town because Vivien Leigh was on it. She’d just been nominated for an Oscar for “Gone With the Wind.”

The reporter dashed to the station, getting on the train by a hairbreadth, and found Leigh’s compartment.

“And so, Miss Leigh,” he inquired, catching his breath, “what part did you play …?”

The immediate lesson for both of these anecdotes is that neither reporter got the information he wanted, at least not easily or right away.

These days, I tend to blame these kind of failings, along with all manner of stuff that goes wrong in the world, on spell-check. Or the notion of spell-check.

My premise is this: Instead of doing our own problem-solving, we rely on other means.

We don’t think things through or check them ourselves because we figure that, well, they’ll get caught in spell-check, or in HR or in accounting. That tiny light will come on to alert us when the car needs more gas or oil.

We kick the can down the road for later consideration, preferably by someone else.

All of which can breed flabby thinking.

Much of this shows up in language: I’d rather not sample the lasagna your relatives “ranted and raved” over, just the bit they ”raved” about. “Heroes” are firefighters who save babies from burning buildings, not merely students who play games out on a field come the weekend.

The meanings of words get worn down and blurred. So, too, does our comprehension.

For its September 2004 edition, Fast Company magazine published its “Courage Issue,” of which I still possess a copy. The Cowardly Lion who turned out not to be so cowardly, from “The Wizard of Oz,” was on the cover.

In it was an adapted essay from “Why Courage Matters,” a book by John McCain, the U.S. senator and a former prisoner-of-war in Vietnam.

“Courage,” McCain wrote, is a word employed to suggest all manner of things, and often incorrectly. And because we no longer understand its true meaning, we don’t require it, in turn, from our leaders, political or corporate.

“That means trouble for us all,” McCain suggested, “because courage is the enforcing virtue, the one that makes possible all the other virtues common to exceptional leaders: honesty, integrity, confidence, compassion and humility.”

We have to know what we mean to know what to expect — from our leaders and from ourselves. If we don’t really know what we mean, how do we measure outcomes?

Or, put another, if you don’t take some responsibility, you’ll never find out how old Cary Grant.

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