Friday, November 21, 2008

Some People

One of my shining moments in public relations — I don't do a lot of PR, and I typically do it for clients who are already using me for advertising work — was when a press release I wrote landed a client on the front page of the Washington Post. A glowing story. On a Sunday.

The client was a new medical spa, a concept that was big in Europe and L.A., but was just making it to the Washington area. (A medical spa is like a typical day spa, offering hair, nail and skin care, but with the addition of an on-staff physician who offers Botox injections and outpatient plastic surgery.)

The Post's consumer reporter was intrigued by this new trend, and did a very positive story which ran, as I said, on the front page of the Washington Post, by far the paper's biggest day for circulation. The story featured our client prominently, and included two photos taken inside the spa.

That Monday morning, everyone involved in the project was beside themselves with excitement. I figured the client would send over a case of champagne and ofer to wash my car for the rest of the year.

I was wrong.

The client called bitching about the photos (two, remember) that the Post had run, because "they didn't show the people I wanted them to show, and I told the photographer what to photograph."

The audacity of the Post, allowing their photographer to shoot what HE thought was a good photo.

The account executive was floored, and blurted out something a little earthier than he should have: "Are you kidding me? Every client we have would give their left nut for a story on the front page of the Sunday Post."

The client whined about the photos a bit more, and then hung up. I was as deflated as could be.

Apparently, there really are some people who can't be satisfied.

That client is now out of business. I think the moral of the story is obvious.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cranks And Coffee Tables

At the moment I'm reading a coffee table book about a long disbanded punk band while listening to a sardonic curmudgeon indict many of the events of the past few years.

I don't know which one I'm enjoying more.

The book is titled, quite simply, "The Clash," and although I'm not sure whether a punk band, ground breaking s it might have been, should be immortalized in a coffee table book, the book is terrific. Too big and heavy to hold and read for long, I've worked my way through it in bits and pieces. Because of the size the photos are both numerous and well showcased, but the text tells the story of a populist band that stretched the boundaries of British punk (notably by adding dub and reggae to the mix) quite well.

Oddly, although the book paints a detailed picture of the band's finances and living conditions during the early days of economic struggle, it's completely mum on life A.D. (After Dollars). Guess the mention of filthy lucre (a Sex Pistols phrase) would sully the purity of the bands ethos. Or something.

Still, rock 'n roll has always been about making money, and I don't begrudge bands for wanting to make a living. And if any punk band deserved a coffee table book, I'd have to say that the Clash and the Ramones would be the only two.

Meanwhile, the CD player is spinning Randy Newman's latest, Harps and Angels. Newman's dry wit has long been misunderstood, but the man is searingly funny. Who else would talk about "tight-assed Italians" on the Supreme Court? In fact, who else could work the Supreme Court, Pluto, Hitler, Stalin, George W. Bush (though not by name), FDR (also not by name), malaria, terrorism and Caesar's horse into one song? Not even Dylan.

Like all of his other albums, no one will buy this one, either. You don't know what you're missing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bless You

My in-laws were very traditional, and so when my wife-to-be (Sarah) and I got engaged, we went to visit her parents to ask for their blessing.

Because they were Catholic and I wasn't (and remain not), I knew what their only question was going to be: Would we baptize and raise our children Catholic?

That, is it turned out, was not the only question, though it was the only question for which I'd prepared an answer.

We visited my in-laws on a Sunday, and I'm sure they knew why we were visiting, since we'd just been there a week before (they lived about 45 minutes from us). We sat around their table, and I started talking. Nobody else said a word, so I kept talking.

They stared. I talked. I talked about how I felt about Sarah, the life we'd talked about having together, our plans, everything. Finally, I'd run out of things to say.

My future mother-in-law asked the children-Catholic question, and I was ready: when that fat pitch came over the plate, I knocked it out of the park. I thought I was home free.

Then Sarah;s father, a retired Air Force colonel who had his gruff side, surprised me.

"Will you," he asked with a slight bit of darkness in his voice, "support her in the style to which she's become accustomed?" Then he thought about her teacher's salary. "Actually," he added, "would you do a little better than that?"

I assured him I would do my best. So far, so good.

(As an aside, when Sarah's older sister got engaged her fiancee was so nervous when visiting my in-laws to seek my father-in-law's blessing that he followed my father-in-law into the bathroom. My father-in-law told him that if he waited outside they could converse in a moment, but there was more pressing business at hand.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Sales Job

My current job search reminded me of a phone call I once received from a headhunter — sorry, executive search firm — pitching a creative director position at an ad agency in Kansas. (I'm an advertising writer and magazine/newspaper editor). I don't remember how he got my name, but from the moment I said hello he was pitching the position vigorously. The agency was great, he said, the work was strong, the atmosphere was friendly and the community was wonderful. I'd be challenged, I'd grow professionally, my family would love the community.

At one point I broke into his conversational stream to ask what the salary was. He kept talking as if I hadn't interrupted him. I asked again, and he ignored again. And again.

Finally, he'd run out of glowing things to say about the agency, the community, the cleanliness of the air, the four seasons of recreational opportunities, the good schools and non existent traffic. It appeared to be heaven without the wings and harps. Once again I asked about the salary.

He paused. "You do realize," he said, his voice deepening and becoming serious, as if he was about to share a closely held, valuable secret with me, "that the cost of living is much lower in Kansas?"

My reply: "Are you asking me to take a pay cut to move to Kansas?"

He danced around my question, but the answer was yes.

Now, I have nothing against Kansas. But to ask my wife to give up her career here, ask our children to give up their schools and friends and everything familiar to them, uproot ourselves and move would have to be for the job of a lifetime. Granted, we might be able to get a much nicer house for much less money, but food, cars and gas would still cost the same, and retirement would still require roughly the same amount of money.

I turned him down and, for the first time, he dropped his salesman persona and became himself. "Damn," he said. "I can't get anyone interested in this job."

Apparently, I was not his first choice.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Loco Motive

Sadly, I'm now at a stage in life where I can pay professional movers to do the sweating and hauling, but that wasn't always the case. More than once, a friend has dangled the offer of free beer and pizza in return for helping him/her "move a couple of things."

We've eased heavy sofas out living room windows, stuffed giant dressers into non giant cars, and done things for pizza and beer that no professional would do for money. My favorite move, I think, was when our friends Kirk and Mary moved into a third floor apartment in Ellicott City.

Ellicott City, Maryland, is an old mill town, with narrow streets, narrower homes and not enough parking. Kirk and Mary's new apartment was above a store, with only one impossibly narrow and rickety set of stairs leading up to it. There was no way to fit any of their furniture up those stairs.

The only way to move their furniture was to park across the street, carry it across a railroad trestle bridge and behind their apartment, then bring it in through the back door. The trestle, like everything else in town, was narrow, barely wider than the train tracks it supported.

As we parked out cars near the trestle and began to unload the furniture we realized the error of our ways: no one had checked to see when trains might roar across those tracks. If a train came while we were in the middle of the trestle, there was no place to go. The only option would have been to leap to the street below, probably suffering a broken leg in the process.

We shuffled our feet uncertainly and looked at each other. Would one of us be macho and stupid enough to say "hell with it" and grab the end of a sofa to begin? Would the rest of us bow to peer pressure and do the same?

The answers were "yes" and "yes." We each grabbed ends of sofas, tables, beds and dressers, and began hustling them across the street. Since we didn't even know from which direction the trains might come, we peered over each other's shoulders while straining our ears for the sound of a train whistle.

It was the fastest move I've ever been a part of. Kirk and Mary were impressed and thankful. "Beer and pizza doesn't seem like enough to repay you," Kirk said to us.

Maybe so. But it was all we got. When Kirk and Mary moved out of that apartment a couple of years later, we had him check the train schedules before we arrived.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ups And Downs

Apparently it's Lackluster Books Month, because I just finished another. As usual, I kept reading, hoping it would get better, but the opposite occurred.

The book was Coronado by Dennis Lehane, a collection of five short stories and a play based on one of those stories. I've read several of his mystery novels, and enjoyed them: the writing is taut, the plots believable and fast moving, the characters fully three dimensional.

Coronado is none of those: characters and situations that defy belief, stilted dialogue and a play that was somehow produced at least twice (although the first time was by a theatre company that counts his brother among its members).

The play, which is the last piece, is based on one of the preceding stories. It somehow manages the trick of being both longer and less substantial than the story on which it is based.

Very disappointing.

On the flip side, I just picked up to solo-ish albums by Terry Adams, the sometimes brilliant, often idiosyncratic, keyboardist and co-founder of NRBQ. Only Adams would have the chops to tackle (and very well, I might add) a Monk tune and follow it with a tune that offers his dream of a perfect woman: one who loves the Three Stooges. I say solo-ish because one is a duet with guitarist Steve Ferguson.

Adams, who might be the American equivalent of lovable English eccentric Robyn Hitchcock, includes in the liner notes to "Rhythm Spell" a brief poem about pants, which is worth repeating:

Every morning I put on my pants
Go out there and take a chance.
Every night I take a chance,
Go in there and take off my pants.

Oh, and he promises "if you come see me I'll play extra good for you."

I've seen him half a dozen times. And he has, every time.