PS... A Column
By Paul E. Schindler Jr.
Some things are impossible to know, but it is impossible to know these things.
October 23, 2000
Travel, Travel, Travel
I have a day job, so I need to make it clear to anyone who comes here that the opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer, my family, or your great-aunt Mathilda. Offer not valid in Wisconsin. You must enter to win.
Table of Contents:
My Dinner With Marlow
I had to go to New York City last week for a very quick trip; I flew out Monday, landed Monday evening, and returned 24 hours later. Boy, a trip like that can take a lot out of you. And as I write this, I have a two-day LA trip (to visit Vicki's mom) and a three-day Seattle trip within the next seven days, and another three-day New York trip two weeks after that. A whole lot more travel than I usually like, I must admit.
But what makes travel tolerable for me is the people on the other end. I really enjoy Lynne's company, so I am looking forward to seeing her this weekend. The staff I'll be meeting in Seattle are a swell bunch of people.
And while last week's New York trip basically involved sleeping, eating and working and not much else, it had a highlight--my dinner with Marlow.
I haven't seen her since about August 20, when she went off to Columbia for her sophomore year (her mom went with her, while I stayed home and got Rae started in school). It’s a long time, we're close, and I missed her a little.
So when she waltzed into the tea shop that just opened up across Broadway from the main Columbia gate at 116th street, clad in a black sweater, my heart lept. She was fun and funny, and we chatted gaily as we walked to an Italian place on 110th and proceeded to have dinner. The nasty shock at the end, where I discovered the restaurant doesn't take credit cards, was, well, a nasty shock. Fortunately, I had enough cash.
She showed me her new room in Wallach; it seems spacious for a single. While I was there, she gave me a bag of apples she had picked herself. She also showed me her newly purchased dishes, and introduced me to her suitemates (of whom she doesn't see much). Then, all too soon, it was time for her to study and me to go back to my room at the Empire Hotel, where I stayed up too late doing email and watching David Letterman, which is why I'm so tired now I can hardly see straight.
And one more thing--it turns out she has eaten something green besides green Lucky Charms since arriving in Manhattan; she had a green salad before dinner on Monday night.
When It's Apple Picking Time In Orange, New Jersey
Is there really a song that begins, "When it's Apple Blossom Time in Orange, New Jersey, we'll make a peach of a pair?" Someone taught me that as a boy. Probably my mother, who also taught me the song title, "I've Got Tears In My Ears From Lying On My Back, In My Bed As I Cry Over You."
I am writing this part of my column this week on the incredibly long return flight home from a two-day trip to New York (see the first item). As I sat down to write an introduction to Marlow's Apple-picking story, I remembered that my carryon bag contained a dozen apples Marlow gave me. I am eating one now. Mmmm. Fresh picked apples (even apples picked four days ago) that have never been shipped or refrigerated make mighty good eating. Crisp and tasty. Red Delicious apples you get in the story are usually so meally.
What PR People Will Do
Karyl Scott sent this to Phil Gill who sent it to me. I have cut the piece (and I didn't have time to look up the URL, but I am sure you can find it at the Washington Post Website if you're really interested. The point is, he found a half-dozen PR people willing to abase themselves, one of whom made up an embarrasing story.
Below the Beltway
WASHINGTON -- The wastebaskets of The Washington Post newsroom fill up each day with relentlessly chirpy mail from PR people alerting us to important news, such as a new line of home furnishings that "makes accessorizing rooms easy and fun with decorative pillows from.
. . ." Actually, I am looking at exactly that news release, which I rescued from a trash bin along with a dozen others. Blatantly commercial items like these never get published in big, influential newspapers. But PR people -- bless their indefatigable hearts -- keep sending these items in, tiptoeing that taut tightrope between optimism and desperation.
Just how desperate are they? I designed an experiment to find out. Now, I know some of you might call this experiment cruel. However, others might call it very cruel.
I explained my proposal to Lisa H. Morrice, 44, a PR agent from California: I will write glowingly about her client's pillows if she will tell me something really humiliating about herself that I will also print. (A colleague of mine had been skeptical of this gambit: PR folks may be desperate, he reasoned, but they have their dignity.) Just how glowingly, Lisa wondered.
Very, I said.
"My husband dumped me for a younger woman," she said. At this moment, I gave my doubting colleague a cheerful thumbs up. "She was a blonde," Lisa continued. "A secretary . And I'm not ugly! And. . . . '' Lisa showed no signs of stopping, until I informed her she'd made the cut. Lisa represents Houles….
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com.
On Writing And Editing
Dan Rosenbaum shared these thoughts recently in an on-line forum and asked if I would be interested in them for this column. I was:
When I was starting out as a freelancer after six years as a wire service writer and about two years in the tech trades/consulting, I had a way smart editor at one of my major clients. (All right, it was Amee.) She once told me that about 20 percent of her job was spending time on the phone with her writers -- just chatting, talking about articles, what was going on in the world, making sure the writers felt loved and in the loop.
I've worked with a lot of editors since then, and with a lot of writers. Twenty percent is a lot -- and there are some writers who can eat up all that time and more all by themselves -- but the idea of making your writer your partner, and spending the time to make that relationship work, is dead-on right. I've always tried when I'm traveling for a magazine to make some time to take at least one of my writers in that city to lunch or dinner. They are invariably stunned.
As for writing seminars and so forth. In every creative industry of size N, there is an associated industry of size 3.5N designed for people who are looking for that secret handshake. I am probably underestimating this, possibly by an order of magnitude. To some extent, this is perfectly reasonable; creative businesses pay so poorly that one proven way to make a buck is to give lessons to other possibly less-skilled people who are seeking the non-existent key. This is why there are always more ads for teachers and lessons than there are for auditions.
I talked about this with my first jazz singing coach, who understood perfectly, and told me that the first thing she does in her group classes is to insist that people give themselves permission to call themselves singers. It's an amazingly powerful thing, permission. Most of us are always looking for it.
To some extent, this handshake industry *is* important. Talent and drive aren't enough if you don't know the proper direction to apply the motive force. I'm doing some voiceover work now, which simply wouldn't have been possible if I didn't have a teacher who helped me assemble a reel of a quality and format that's expected of professionals. That was a secret handshake, but lord knows there's more to it than that.
As for seminars and books, I'm a hard case; if there were a silver bullet or a single way, everyone would know about it and someone would be very rich. About 15 years ago, I took Lawrence Block's "Write for Your Life" seminar. (Block is a well-known and prolific mystery writer.) The seminar dealt not at all with agents and submissions and queries and mechanics. Those things are easy. This was about creativity, shutting down the internal editor/censor, and getting out of your own way. The next day, I thought it was bullshit. The next month, I thought it was brilliant. Fifteen years later, it's more the latter than the former.
And none of this matters if you don't have talent or something to say. We all know the First Rule: Write what you know. But know one ever dares say the Second Rule: Know something interesting. You can't learn talent, you can only learn to apply it -- which in many cases may be enough.
I didn't think this incident was all that interesting, but Marlow says it is the coolest thing she's ever heard and insisted I put it in the column, so here it is. One day two weeks ago, the contestant coordinator for Family Feud called and asked me if I wanted to put together a team. I told her I like and respected the show (which stretches the truth a little, to be frank), but that I would have trouble putting a team together (which stretched the truth not one whit).
For those of you who don't realize it, this never happens. You have to apply to game shows; they don't come to you. They came to me because I've become known as a good contestant from one end of Hollywood to the other.
The fact is, there isn't enough money to be won on the Feud, and while it is based on personality and guessing, general knowledge doesn't really give you much of an advantage. I mentioned I was waiting for the new Million Dollar Pyramid, a revival of the old $20,000 Pyramid. "I might be working that show," the contestant coordinator said, "I'll keep your name" I hope she does. To be continued…
Some Thoughts On Bill Gates
I tried some of these insights out on my mother, who feels they are not particularly profound, but I was really struck by them.
They came to me as I was reading a monumental piece-50 pages--in the November issue of Wired Magazine. It won't be available online until Nov. 14:
The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth
I don't know who Jone Heilemann is, but he's clearly got the kind of access I always thought was limited to Wendy Goldman Rohm. And unlike Wendy, virtually all his major sources are named. Among other things, he met regularly with Joel Klein, the assistant attorney general for antitrust, during the case (on the understanding nothing would be printed until the case was over).
This is, and will likely remain, the definitive account of the trial. The conclusion is searing:
But like a figure lifted from classical tragedy, Gates sowed the seeds of his own undoing. He created a company that reflected his image and fostered a culture that fed his sense of omnipotence. He mastered a business that rewarded farsightedness, but failed to develop his peripheral vision. In his arrogance, he lost whatever perspective he once had, and in his monomania, he was unwise the ways of the world. He began his journey as an aspiring god, an illusion his universe nurtured and sustained. When his reckoning came, it was shocking and final--and it seemed somehow ordained by the ages. For the wreckage of the trial revealed that Bill Gates was mortal.
I am pretty sure (and you can correct me if I am wrong) that in ancient Greek tragedy, it was always the hero's most salient characteristic that made him a hero--but, ironically, also brought him down in the end, when he failed to adapt to changing circumstances. In political terms, the concept is expressed by the aphorism, "If you maintain a consistent political position long enough, you will eventually be charged with treason."
Remarkably, I also found a section in the November 2000 issue of Brill's Content, in a profile of Al Gore, that also reminded me of Bill Gates:
Gore seems to approach interactions with the press as a kind of total-sum game. Gore seems to be thinking: What are the benefits of talking to this reporter. [Says one reporter] "In life it always hurts to be treated in an instrumental fashion," or to be nakedly viewed as a means to an end. "If you go to a singles bar, it is the difference between saying, 'What's your sign' and 'What do you think my chances are of being able to have sex with you later.'"…[Reporters covering Gore have this sense of] "What am I, chopped liver?"
This insight about Gore finally allows me to reconcile some disparate facts I have always found difficult to reconcile, to whit, my pleasant Spring 1979 interview with Gates (and Paul Allen), my very unpleasant Fall 1991 interview with Gates, and the fact that two of the journalists I respect most, Jim Forbes and Jerry Pournelle, find him much more agreeable than I do.
In 1979, Microsoft was a $2 million company that wrote languages for microcomputers. It wasn't even in the Operating System business yet. Gates needed publicity. He acted human and treated me like a human. By Comdex 1991, Windows Magazine and I needed him to sell magazines more than he needed us to get his message across. So he demonstrated his arrogance, clearly and regularly. My guess is that Jim and Jerry haven't been in the supplicant position, at least not as often as I.
Gates treated me like an idiot. I am a lot of things, but an idiot isn't one of them. I am an MIT graduate, and by the time I interviewed him the second time, I'd been a journalist for 17 years and a computer journalist for 12. I'm no Connie Chung (she didn't even bother to learn to pronounce MS-DOS properly before interviewing him). I have interviewed scores of CEOs, and never before or since has one treated me with such scorn, such a lack of simple human decency. I'm sure some of he others thought me dim, but they didn't show it.
Gates doesn't bother with impulse control if you're not important. He throws temper tantrums. He is insulting and demeaning. Genius is no excuse for bad behvior. Plain and simple, he is immature. And he seems to have no grasp of that old saying, "Be careful who you stab on the way up; you may need them on the way down."
Gates will probably never be on the way down, but despite a decade of unparalleled positive publicity, when he started to slip, he had almost no reservoir of goodwill among the journalists who covered him (who had to be masochists, in Heilemann's well-turned phrase), which made possible an almost instant flip, from hero to goat.
He is a genius--not at software, but at business. He will go down in American history beside Eli Whitney and Henry Ford as one of those people who changed everything. He has social skills, but declines to exercise them with those he considers unimportant or useless--a mark of cruelty or immaturity. He doesn't have to kiss my ass, but he doesn't have to kick it either. He's a great philanthropist, and quite possibly noble. But none of that makes him a very nice person.
Craig Reynolds wrote to me and asked:
...Say, do you happen to know the source (a URL would be ideal) for that Al Gore and the Internet piece from a week ago?...
I told him I didn't. He then answered his own question:
As it happens this is covered in Wired today inThe Mother of Gore's Invention which BTW cites this online copy of Cerf's letter, with commentary: Did Al Gore Really Invent the Internet?
Air Sickness Bag Virtual Museum
Marlow pointed this one out to me, and since it is run by a fellow MIT grad, I felt obliged to share it with you.
I've fallen behind in web site listings, so here are some others that have been brought to my attention.
From the Columbia University Marching Band comes word of this amusing, albeit macabre graphic.
Daniel Dern notes Eric Asimov's story Attack of the Giant Sushi: A Knife is the Only Defense in the NY Times (free registration required).
I think I did this one before, but I am too lazy to look it up: it's a little story about Santa Claus, the perfect man and the perfect woman, submitted by Kent and Brooksie Peterman.
I don't always credit my humor sources, because they're usually just passing something along, but really, the ability to be on the right list, and to know what to pass and what not to, is a skill. Dan Grobstein, the brother of my first fiancé', has a real talent in this regard. For example, he turned up this one:
Ratio of an igloo's circumference to its diameter: Eskimo Pi
Jack Nicholson Imitation
Normally, I don't run Top Five list material unless I make the list, but this entry, the No. 1 Celebrity Answering Machine Message is too precious not to share.
Jack Nicholson -- "You probably don't recognize my voice because I'm doing my impression of Joe L. Hendrickson, an office temp from Dover, Delaware. How do you like that, Joe? Not so damned funny when someone's pretending to be you on their answering machine, is it? Is It?!?"www.topfive.com ]
[ Copyright 2000 by Chris White ]
You want the facts? Go to the Internet Movie Database.
Last week, I wrote of this movie, "With so many Oscar-quality performances, the movie itself could win a few awards." And I stand by that, judging the film solely as entertainment.
Usually, when readers write to me about a movie, their comments are short and limited to agreement or disagreement with my opinion. I am offering my college classmate and longtime personal friend, Mike McNamee, a more prominent forum than most such readers, because his comments are spot on, patently accurate--and because I missed everything he mentions.
I knew you'd love The Contender. I enjoyed it too--as a thriller with some neat plot twists.
Upon reflection, however, I think the movie has two enormous flaws -- one of credibility and one of message:
* How did a pro-abortion, anti-gun, anti-death penalty, atheist vegetarian ever get elected dogcatcher in Chillicothe -- let alone Senator from Ohio? As a Republican, no less? I'm sure that Sen. Hansen's ringing closing statement warmed the hearts of Hollywood's political communities -- and I can envision you standing with your hand over your heart and tears coursing down your cheeks. [pretty much] But outside of a few ZIP codes in Brentwood, San Francisco, and New York, the multiplex audience isn't going to stand and cheer for this set of all-American values.
(There's a throw-away line at one point when someone's tossing out names of potential female candidates: "Boxer?" "Nah, too liberal." Barbara should sue -- she's a right-winger by comparison to Laine.)
* Why would anyone want this particular Senator as a vice-president? Aside from the list of rather toxic causes she upholds -- and her oft-commented-on looks -- she offered no affirmative reason for anyone to pick her for higher office, either at the beginning or throughout the movie. (And how was it NO ONE noticed that she'd broken up her friend's marriage and swiped her friend's husband? Happened in her first campaign and had never been an issue? Right. How would her "Love is an incurable disease" line have gone down in the vetting process, had there been any?)
Ultimately, there was one reason why she was picked: She was a woman. Rep. Runyon, as disgusting as he was, got that right. So add to that list of Hollywood virtues the ultimate: Tokenism. We're all supposed to be for her just so she could be the first woman vice-president.
Pretty unsatisfying fare, once your knee stops jerking and you actually think about it.
I'd have probably run Mike's letter for its great closing line alone. He writes for a national magazine. You can probably spot that "polished professional writer" look.
Journalism Movie Praise
When you have one of only two pages that turn up in most search engines for the phrase "journalism movies" you get some nice mail now and then. Here's a piece that came this week from Holly Dolezalek, a person I've never met:
I just visited your webpage and I must suggest a movie to you. Roman Holiday (1953) is a fine flick where a reporter is seen in the practice of getting a story on a princess. You would probably enjoy it, as I enjoyed your site. I completely agree with you about The Paper, too.
I've said it before and I'll say it again; one of the best things about the Internet is the ability to share your hobby/passion with other like minded people who would, in the physical world, never find you and your opinions in 10 million years.
To obtain a weekly reminder when new columns are posted or to offer feedback, advice, praise, or criticism write to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
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