The Bane of My Existence

I really don’t want this blog to become too much about me and my problems. Whoops, too late.

Let me start over. I don’t want it to be too much what we call in journalism “inside baseball” – that is, too much about a topic that resonates only with those deeply dedicated to its existence. That’s a sure way to lose the reader.

One factor in my favor is that everyone is the bane of someone’s existence, banging on their door and clamoring for attention. Physicians have drug reps. IT executives have computer salespeople. Low-lifes have bailbondsmen. Celebrities have groupies. Writers have public relations people.

To call public relations practitioners the bane of my existence may be too broad a brush, especially since some of my best friends and colleagues – and indeed, some of the most devoted readers of this blog – are indeed in that profession, and some of them provide an invaluable service to me in navigating the maze of corporate sources. (To them, I apologize.)

No, I’m really talking about people who think they’re practicing public relations, but who in reality are never going to get good at it. They’re likely to be new minted employees who neither have the experience, the technical depth, nor the critical thinking skills to push back against their bosses and clients who direct them to employ time-wasting tactics of inaccuracy and misdirection.

My favorite example: I once got a call from one of these chirpy youngsters asking me if I was familiar with her client. Since I’d been covering the company for about three years, I told her that if she had to ask me that question, I probably knew more about her client than she did. I called her boss – with whom I thought I’d had a good relationship – to ask why I was receiving such a useless call. She replied – and this still drops my jaw decades later – that she couldn’t waste her time briefing her staff on every journalist they were assigned to call. “Oh,” I said. “But it’s okay to waste my time.”

But I realize that’s still all a little too inside baseball. So I’m going to try and give you a sense of why these people are the bane of my existence by extrapolating what they do to me to situations everyone might encounter.

What PR People Do: The moment you have written about a particular topic or technology, they will write you and say, “I read your story about chicken plucking. You really should write about the way my client does chicken plucking.”

Real-World Equivalent: A car salesman calling you and saying, “I see you’ve just bought a car. Would you like to buy another one?”

What PR People Do: They seem to get so desperate to sell their client that, even though what the client does is only tangentially involved with what you write about, they think that this is the one time you’ll make an exception and write about them.

Real-World Equivalent: Your travel agent saying, “I know you always go to Hawaii, but wouldn’t you like to try Mongolia this year?”

What PR People Do: Especially in technology, they’ll pitch you on something when they’re really not quite sure what it is. Invariably, they get it wrong.

Real-World Equivalent: A waitress offering you a milkshake, except that it’s made without milk and with some non-dairy variant of ice cream.

What PR People Do: If you show even an iota of interest, they will – without asking your permission – add you to (1) the client’s mailing list, so you get every trivial press release it issues; (2) the mailing list of every other agency client, so ditto; and (3) who knows what other mailing lists.

Real-world Equivalent: Junk mail hell. Everyone has experience with this. We’ve lived in this house for 11 years, and we still get junk mail addressed to the previous owner.

What PR People Do: After they send you an e-mail that you’ve ignored because it’s so completely inappropriate, they’ll follow up with either another e-mail or, worse, a phone call to see if you got the e-mail.

Real-World Equivalent: The jerk who gets turned down when he asks you out calls back and says, “I know you said no when I asked you for a date, but I’m asking again just in case you find me less creepy this time.”

The underlying reason why this is a problem: PR people don’t get compensated for actually getting their clients publicity. They get paid for their attempts at getting their clients publicity. So it really doesn’t behoove them to focus on quality, as long as they can still get paid for quantity.  As long as they can show that they contacted a writer, that’s all that counts. You know all those awards kids get in school now for participating, rather than winning? Those were the brainchild of PR people.

The irony of all this is that I worship the PR people who bring me great story ideas. In my field, everyone’s looking for great content. It’s the same in the real world – people want to know about the latest restaurants, the coolest movies, the hottest books. But I can’t get these other folks to see that they’re wasting my time and theirs, and worst of all, making it less likely that I’m going to pay attention to their clients’ message, not more.

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Why People We Do Business With Are Driving Us Crazy

You've Got MailI had a little epiphany the other day. Or are all epiphanies big by definition?

Anyway, I was researching a blog for Forbes on big data (don’t be impressed; it’s sponsored, which means a company pays me to do it), and I ran across this wonderful blog post from about 18 months ago. The author, who doesn’t seem to be identified by anything more than the name of his blog, Squarely Rooted, and this description – “a rational radical with firm footing” – seems to be an equally cranky version of me, but even more left-wing than I have become.

SR wrote about retailers taking results of successful customer interactions and using them to provide incentives for sales people. For instance, customers are more likely to purchase something if they’ve touched it or tried it on, so employees are paid more when they hand items to customers or herd them into dressing rooms.

But SR also hits upon the one problem with this plan. Everyone has access to the same suggestions: “Each of these were measured in isolation, not in tandem. So what you and every other brick’ n’ mortar clothing retailer is collectively [doing is to] make shopping a miserable, pressure-filled, harrowing experience.” (italics original)

Suddenly it became clear to me why every time I open my e-mail, I have multiple messages from companies I’ve patronized asking me how I enjoyed the experience. Somewhere along the way, someone discovered that customers like having their opinion solicited.

That’s why my car dealer asks me how I liked getting my car serviced, and whether it was done to my liking. Well, uh – I really don’t know what you guys do when I bring it in for service – they’re your specifications – so how the heck do I know whether you did a good job or not?

That’s why United asks me after every single leg of a flight how I enjoyed being crammed into a seat barely suitable for a twelve-year-old.

That’s why Amazon asks me how I liked the way my grocery delivery was packaged. You know what? I didn’t. It was wrapped tightly in sticky bubble wrap and it took 10 minutes to get the box unwrapped and 10 more minutes to get the sticky stuff off my hands.

You know what I’ve discovered is wrong with this process? While companies clearly think their customers like having their opinion solicited, nobody took the time to tell them that customers also like having their opinions listened to (italics mine).

And that ain’t happening.

I know this because I have frequently included suggestions in these surveys, and they have all been roundly ignored. Even my complaints about the endless surveys have been roundly ignored. But because somebody came to this conclusion about surveys, everybody’s sending them out, but nobody’s reading the responses.

This is basically the corporate version of saying “how are you?” and not being interested in the response in the slightest.

I wish I could make it stop. But I’ve found that if you ignore the surveys, companies just send them out again, thus making the simple act of opening e-mail – as SR so aptly put it – a miserable, pressure-filled, harrowing experience. As if it wasn’t already.

 

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Unstuck in Time

Slaughterhouse FiveBack in the late 1960s, Kurt Vonnegut published his acclaimed novel Slaughterhouse Five, in which the otherwise milquetoast Billy Pilgrim became what Vonnegut termed “unstuck in time.” Pilgrim slipped from the past of World War II to the present of the 60s to the future of interstellar transportation and back again with remarkable agility.

The construct of becoming “unstuck in time” has always struck me as a fictional one until recently. It seems that – like the reels of one of those five-spin slot machines in casinos – parts of the U.S. and indeed the world have become unstuck and are spinning at dizzying speeds away from the present.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the idiots in my neighborhood who seem to have slipped ahead three months because they already have their Christmas lights strung. That’s a rant for … well, the future.

No, I’m talking about the broad latitudinal swaths of people who seem to have left either the early part of the 21st century or modern times altogether. This is not just about the amazing number of people who voted earlier this month to seemingly bring back the 50s, putting the Senate under the control of people who think Father Knows Best is the pinnacle of American culture. They did, however, inspire the topic of this post.

I’m also talking about those broad swaths of middle easterners who think the clock stopped back in the late 600s, who are still fighting for the Sunni-Shia schism all these centuries later. As if the bickering weren’t enough, many of them also have these antediluvian beliefs about women and homosexuality.

It’s almost as if those of us on the Left Coast of the U.S. have become unstuck in time and slipped into the future, electing female senators, legalizing gay marriage, and raising the minimum wage. (Both Washington and California’s two senators are female, and while Oregon’s are male, last week’s incumbent winner Jeff Merkley ran against a female Republican.) We’re toiling away at building the future out here, and the further east you go, the further back in time you go.

You do slide back into present day as you move into the Mid-Atlantic States and then across to England, Scandinavia, and parts of Europe. But then you roll into the old Russian empire and you kind of expect to find Vladimir Putin hosting Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev for dinner, not only to socialize but to get tips on how to govern.

And what’s even more bewildering: these people who are stuck in the past don’t seem to be clamoring to move forward. If anything, they’re clamoring to go further back into a world that was disconnected, uneducated, warmongering, and totalitarian. I almost feel like I’ve been tied to a chair and forced to watch an unending simulcast of every Time Tunnel episode, a cascading parade of human venality that only becomes more depressing by the minute.

Don’t get me wrong – I never expect there to be cultural parity in the world, nor would I want such a thing. It would be horribly dull if everyone thought the same about everything. But I just wish we were a little closer together, if not in thought, then in time.

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Lessons From People You Hate

Aficionados of I Love Lucy know the sad backstory that Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played bickering landlords Ethel and Fred Mertz, truly disliked each other in real life. In fact, there is an apocryphal story that when Vance learned Frawley had died while she was dining out at a restaurant, she stood up and yelled, “Champagne for everyone!”

I relate that story because I have a split of Veuve-Clicquot chilling in the refrigerator for when I get the same news about my father. Yes, I know that sounds terrible, but the fact is that my father should never have had children. Alcoholics should not procreate, simple as that. Kids need stability and consistency, and the outrageous behavior and cutting words that alcohol triggers fashion children who don’t know what to believe, who to trust, or what’s appropriate. (And yes, I do acknowledge the irony of celebrating the passing of an alcoholic with champagne.)

When I think of the emotional distress he visited on my siblings and me when we were growing up, and the way it impacted my first thirty years – my social life, my work life, my whole life – I just want to scream. And this is after years of therapy.

My father even admitted many years ago that if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t have kids. I think it was because he thought we made his life difficult. Introspection was not his strength.

And yet …

I have to begrudgingly admit that my father was not all bad. He got a Stanford MBA long before they were sexy, and created his own highly successful real estate business. We lacked for little, materially (love and affection were quite another matter). His investments kept him and my mother in a comfortable retirement and are still paying for his wonderful care today.

He may have been a lousy father, but as a man and a husband, he did okay.

Politically, he was a man of principle. He was outspoken against 1964’s Proposition 14, an initiative put together by the California Real Estate Association. It would have legalized discrimination, allowing homeowners to decline to sell to minorities, and his visible antipathy to it could have affected his business. He didn’t care. In 1966, he sponsored a Japanese restaurateur for membership in the Elks’ Club, which did not accept minorities at that time. When the application was denied, my father resigned.

There may have been whispers around divorce and affairs, but no evidence. He and my mother were married a few months past sixty years. I look at myself and realize the solicitousness with which I treat Monica comes from the way my father treated my mother. I look at the fact that I’ve been self-employed for a dozen years and realize that the focus and discipline with which I do my work comes in part from my father.

At the same time I struggle with my feelings about my father, I struggle with my feelings about my college fraternity. I was a dedicated alumni volunteer until the collective inanities of both the undergraduates and the alumni forced me to distance myself from the organization. Subsequent horrifying revelations about other Stanford Kappa Sigma members (see the Evan Spiegel debacle) and other Kappa Sigma members elsewhere (cf. college rape issues) make me wonder where the national organization is focusing its energy. It doesn’t seem to be on the molding of character.

And yet …

Many of the people Monica and I socialize with today are the friends I made in the fraternity, either in college or through my alumni work. We’ve seen each other through career ups and downs, weddings and kids, funerals and football games, too many poker games to count, and, oh my goodness, more laughter than anyone has a right to expect in any one lifetime.

What’s the takeaway? You never know what people are going to teach you. Sometimes the same person or entity teaches you things you want to emulate, and sometimes they teach you things you want to subjugate. The hardest part is figuring out which is which, and jettisoning the bad while cherishing the good.

 

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Do I Know You?

About ten years ago, I was talking a German class at night at the local junior college, the better to speak to my wife’s relatives back in the old country. One night the teacher, Frau Kural, told a wonderful story illustrating the differences between German culture and American culture.

Here in America – and especially here in our Silicon Valley neighborhood – it is considered acceptable to greet people on the street, even strangers. On a trip back to Germany, Frau Kural was walking down the street of her hometown and – just as she would have here – greeted a man coming in the opposite direction. She had that funny feeling you get when someone is looking at you, so she stopped and turned around. The man was indeed staring at her, with a perplexed expression on his face. “Kenne ich dich?” he asked. Do I know you?

The unstated question was, if I don’t know you, why the hell are you talking to me?

I think of Frau Kural and that story frequently these days, because I find myself increasingly in a similar situation. Once or twice a week, without fail, I’ll get an invitation on LinkedIn, asking to “connect” (the LinkedIn version of Facebook’s “friending”). More often than not, these are from strangers.

Now, LinkedIn offers a way to personalize the invitation to connect, but also more often than not, these people don’t bother to explain:

  • who they are
  • how I know them
  • if I know them
  • why they want to connect
  • what benefit I might derive from being connected to them

Maybe I’m just confused about what LinkedIn is supposed to be. In my mind, it’s a recommendation engine. I see that you’re connected to someone whom I’d like to work with, and I ask you for an introduction. Thus, I’m missing the point of being connected to someone I don’t know. If someone pings me asking for an introduction to one of my connections, I can’t very well say, “I have no idea who that is or why I’m connected to them, other than that I got an invitation out of the blue one day when I’d been drinking heavily and I accepted it.”

And some of these people are really random. I looked over my recently ignored invitations and discovered quite a motley crew:

  • the guy who fixed my television five years ago;
  • a woman I haven’t worked with for 25 years
  • various marketing executives and entrepreneurs I’ve never worked with
  • a whole bunch of people I’ve either never met or never heard of, including a woman who does SharePoint design at a pharmaceutical company; a massage therapist; a psychologist specializing in women’s mental health; and a couple of office managers
  • and some random friends with whom I’d rather stay in touch on Facebook

These random requests take me back to the pre-Internet days when I’d work with a public relations agency on a story, and then they’d ask if they could use me as a reference. And I’d be like, a reference for what? You set up one interview for me. How does that give me insight into what you’re like to work with? I was stingy with my references. I saved them for people with whom, as I liked to put it, I’d “rolled in the dirt” – people who got me the executives and customers I needed to talk promptly, consistently, and without whining about how difficult it was. People I knew could deliver. Frankly, people I knew.

I have no clue about these random people on LinkedIn. At the risk of sounding like Martin Short character Nathan Thurm in the Saturday Night Live parody of 60 Minutes, but … is it me? Am I the only one who’s confused on the point of LinkedIn? It’s not like a networking party where you’re trading business cards; it’s a personal version of Angie’s List where you can actually attest to someone’s veracity because you’ve actually interacted with them.

I’m beginning to wonder whether it is me, or if it’s just that everyone else on LinkedIn is drinking heavily.

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Clips

The lifeblood of any budding journalist is their clips – evidence of stories they’ve written and had published. That’s why it’s almost easier to be a writer in the 21st century than in the 20th century, when I started – you can post blogs and create your own clips. In my day (he said curmudgeonly), we had to submit queries, have them accepted, write stories, have them accepted, and only then would we have something to prove that we were bona fide writers.

There are three stages to being a freelance writer: unpublished, unpaid, and unknown. It took me a while, but I’ve finally worked through all of those stages, and am lucky enough that most of my work today comes through referrals and recommendations. I am finally known.

This musing comes about because I spent last weekend going through my clips. Almost no one asks me for clips these days. And if someone does, they want something recent, which means it’s a PDF or a hyperlink, not black ink on increasingly brittle newsprint. Ostensibly, I was culling material to put into scrapbooks. But frankly, what I found was a little depressing.

Item: I found multiple copies of a satirical story I’d written when I was a freshman at the University of California at Irvine, about cruising downtown Irvine. The original joke was that there was no downtown Irvine, and there still isn’t. The subsequent joke was that I had toted these pages in my files for … gulp … 41 years. And it wasn’t even that funny.

Item: There was a whole section in my files devoted to my life at the movies – dozens of reviews from both university and daily papers; a letter from the late Walter Matthau about the one movie he’d directed; a copy of the Remington Steele script I contributed to; and even the rejection letters from other studios for other scripts. The movie reviews brought back particularly pungent reminiscences, such as the time an attendee at a fraternity rush party revealed that he read my reviews avidly, and then did the opposite of whatever I’d recommended.

Item: Going through my clips was a walk down bad-memory lane in other ways. It reminded me of all the times I’d been laid off and then freelanced in the interim. And even when I was departing for greener pastures, there were reminders of bitter feelings. As I left one magazine, one co-worker asked others to submit their favorite memories of my time there. There were heartfelt remembrances, except from my boss, whose sole adieu read, “Please remember to send source lists for your current stories. Good luck in your future endeavors.”

It was not all depressing, of course. There were heartfelt thank-you notes from editors at defunct publications; warm memos about difficult stories finally wrestled into submission; memories of editors, some with whom I’d initially clashed with but eventually become friends (and some where the relationships traveled the opposite path).

As I edge closer to retirement, it was daunting to look at my career in toto. Sure, it’s great that it’s tapering to an end on a high, successful note. But staring 40 years in the face – and fitting it into a dozen scrapbooks that I know my heirs are going to toss unceremoniously – that’s a little depressing. I’m happy to be able to tangibly hold what I did. I’m glad that the crushing moments of firings and closures and layoffs have faded into dust. I’m happy that I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning.

But did it all have to go by so quickly?

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A Week Full Of Dying

Dying was a big topic of conversation last week. That’s not surprising when the week begins with the revelation that one of our most beloved entertainers could make everyone in the world laugh but himself, and continues with the passing of a Hollywood legend who from her teens had made glamour and celebrity look as easy as falling in love with Humphrey Bogart. (The unexpected third member of the celebrity triumvirate of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall was the venerable character actor Ed Nelson who, while nowhere near as famous, was every bit as familiar.)

But it wasn’t just in the news that death was so apparent; it was here at home, too. It wasn’t just the clear signs of summer gasping its last breaths – school starting, the days growing shorter, and NFL referees beginning the long season of throwing penalty flags at the Oakland Raiders.

There were other, completely coincidental signs. Our neighbor’s beloved kitty disappeared late in July, and every passing day made the return of her sweet mew on our doorstep less likely. By coincidence, I was just finishing a book I’d long intended to read, William Manchester’s weighty look at four even sadder days in American history, The Death of the President. The massive outpouring of global grief from that long-ago time, not to mention the loss of optimism that still feels fresh, saddened me anew.

And last Thursday would have been my late mother’s 93rd birthday. Something she said to me in the kitchen of the home I grew in when I was ten years old has always stayed with me. I don’t know what prompted such a morbid comment, but she said, “I am not afraid of dying, because I know you kids are smart enough to take care of yourselves. I’ve done my job.” I think we were making my lunch for school at the time, which made the statement and its setting even more preposterous.

But it begged the question of when it’s okay to leave. For Lauren Bacall, it was okay; she’d gone to be with Bogie, just as Kate had gone to be with Spence and George had gone to be Gracie before her.

Me, I have my mother’s stoicism. If I go tomorrow, cut down by some moron texting in his car, I’m okay with it. I’ve had the best time. The first thing I’m going to do after I die is write somebody the most heartfelt thank-you note for inviting me to absolutely the very best party in the world ever. It has some moments early on that made it seem like it was going to be a dud, but I got to be a writer, marry a doctor, and swim in a Tahitian lagoon on my 50th birthday. That, along with getting to live in Silicon Valley, calls for eternal gratitude.

But not everyone’s as lucky as me. One of my friends is facing the triple trauma of divorce, job loss, and moving out of his house. He’s fought depression his whole life, and the idea of his muddling through while someone like Robin Williams couldn’t amazes him (my friend may have been trumped by the revelation of Williams’ Parkinson’s disease, but just barely). Even as he railed at Williams during lunch last week, he admitting knowing the feeling all too well – that depression is like smokestack emissions: eventually it darkens everything so deeply that you can’t even remember what things are supposed to look like, or how they looked when the world was new. Everything just looks black.

So how do you respond to a week full of dying? The answer is the same for those of us who are happy and those of us who are sad, because none of us escape its inevitability. The only thing you can do is to avoid regrets.

It’s not a question of creating a bucket list and checking each item off one by one. Not everyone can afford to splurge on Tahiti, or Venice, and almost no one can afford the drinks at Harry’s Bar near St. Mark’s Square. No, experience the little things. Try a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (or better yet, work your way through Talenti’s gelato options). Venture back to the place you had your first kiss, with the same person if you can. Rent a convertible. Call in sick and go to a baseball game. Stick your feet in a stream. Hold hands with someone you love, even if it makes you feel silly.

The time to say “I wish …” and make it happen is now, because on that sad day in the future when you or someone you love is gone, the opportunity will have long been lost to eternity.

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