Monday, April 6, 2015

Making Good Choices

There’s this annual section in my newspaper called Readers’ Choice. I’ve been working it for years. Newspaper readers vote for their favorite dentist, hair stylist, Italian restaurant or whatever, the votes get tabulated, then they are separated into winners and favorites, generally in both east and west county. These winners and favorites are published in the Readers’ Choice section, which comes out in spring.
It’s a nice way to acknowledge the county's businesses, and, yeah, it’s advertising revenue for the paper. But the winners and favorites are NOT obligated to pay for an ad and they still get a free write-up—a brief advertorial about the business, with maybe one or two quotes from the owner—which is done by me or some other freelancer or, occasionally, a staffer.

These are over-the-phone interviews that shouldn't take too long. After the interview, I do the very brief write-up (this year, it’s 100 words each), I send it in, and then I get paid. This is how it SHOULD work, all easy-peasy-like, but doesn’t because sometimes it takes fourteen phone calls to get ahold of the interviewee. There have been other factors that have created problems, issues, delays, etc., a few of which I am pleased to regale you with forthwith.

There was that one year I got laryngitis and still had to make calls to do the interviews. I sounded worse than I felt, and I didn’t feel very well. I did it anyway because I was committed to doing the work. (This is how I am. For instance, I go to two police stations every Monday—or Tuesday, if Monday is a holiday—to do the crime blotters, and I’ve never called out sick, even the time I had a stomach virus. And, believe me, you don’t want to hear THAT story.)

The Year of the Laryngitis, one of the places I called was a (certain type of beverage) store. In my extremely hoarse, obviously ill voice, I congratulated him for being a Readers’ Choice winner, and his terse reply was something to the effect of, “Yeah, you just want me to buy an ad.” He also intimated that the votes were faked. Um, no, that’s not correct. Also, HACK COUGH SNEEZE OW MY THROAT HURTS.

That same year, I interviewed a (type of business redacted) shop owner and, upon publication, the city in which his shop is located was incorrectly listed as the next town over. The street address was right, the phone number was right—it was just the city that was wrong. I mostly take responsibility for this mistake, although some copy editor probably should’ve checked it. (Redacted) Shop Dude had my HOME PHONE NUMBER because I’d interviewed him for a feature article I’d written the prior year about the popularity of (redacted), which, essentially, was free advertising for his shop. Because of the tiny error in Readers' Choice, he called MY HOME to yell at me, which I am not used to, and which was very scary. I called my editor and asked him to call (Redacted) Shop Dude and apologize for the mistake, and tell him to lose my number.

Bonus: this year, the new editor tried to give me that very same shop for a Readers’ Choice advertorial and I told her “noooooo” and explained why. She was extremely understanding. Also, she thought it was funny, which it kind of is. Now.

Once, I had to interview the director of a funeral home for Readers' Choice. Remember, these articles are only 100 words, about two short paragraphs. (We used to also do 200-word pieces, which are still pretty short.) Anyway, Funeral Director Dude wanted—in addition to the basic information about the business—to include a rather lengthy POEM ABOUT FUNERAL DIRECTORS.

After my initial Jaw Drop of Dismay (but glad he couldn't see my reaction because we were on the phone), I mumbled an adequate response. I then contacted my editor at the time (she no longer works there) and she laughed and said she’d figure something out.

I have been very fortunate to have some great editors.

This year, I called a place that insisted I come in and experience (their category) in order to write a good article. The manager of the joint was audibly exasperated when I explained that it would be a very brief piece and continued to ask him questions about his services. He continued to insist I visit the venue. He actually SIGHED when I said, “What if I just get the info from your website?” My editor, thankfully, volunteered to write this one because she was familiar with (their category).

Also this year, I made the mistake of calling several Readers’ Choice winners/favorites on April 1. The one I talked to for at least twenty minutes, conducting what I thought was a very professional interview, was so sure it was an April Fools’ prank that, after I hung up, he called my editor. I had to call them back and assure them it was no joke.

Time is money, people. Meaning my twenty bucks per advertorial sometimes ends up being about four bucks an hour. Which I’m pretty sure isn’t a living wage, even for freelance writers.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Doing My Home Work

I’ve been searching the want ads, even though that’s not what they call them.

No, what happens is you post your résumé to Monster and LinkedIn, and then you wait for the offers to roll in.

Last week, I was email-asked to apply for positions such as structural engineer, senior Linux administrator and accounting manager. Because those jobs totally fit my qualifications as professional freelance writer with a certificate in Art Museum and Gallery Studies.

Real certificate I received after completing the program at CSU, East Bay. 

Faux diploma mill certificate that came with my "DeMille University" tee, which I bought from Headline Shirts. I love them. I have, like, five of their shirts. Because I'm mature like that.

I picture myself, hair in a bun, sensible heels, be-suited, faking my way into a management job. Why not? I did it when I was 20. OK, I’ll tell you why not. Because three decades later, it’s an employer’s market. You worker bees better have the precise credentials, because, I’m tellin’ ya, there are way more qualified job-seekers out there than there used to be, hair-bun be damned.

The bigger problem is that I am partially responsible for taking care of my 4-year-old grandson, and I probably couldn't even take a part-time office job doing PR or writing web copy or whatever. I mostly work at home in the few hours he’s at preschool, which includes assignments for my newspaper, the one magazine for which I currently write articles, and the upkeep of my various websites.

We had a dilemma a couple of weeks ago, in which my grandson had pinkeye and had to stay home from school. Three of us—his mom, grandpa and I—had to work. Luckily, the fourth adult in our home—his aunt—was able to watch him for the three hours it takes me to do my weekly Monday assignment, plus another hour-ish I needed in order to conduct a phone interview for a newspaper advertorial.

I used to joke about how cringe-inducing the term “it takes a village” is, but I have learned that this concept is not so cheesy. Particularly when it involves pinkeye. Which was not caught by the rest of the village, thank goodness.

Anyway, I am brainstorming ideas I can do at home, even while the kid is here. Just like I did when my own kids were little, twenty-plus years ago. Deja freakin' vu all over again, except with high-speed Internet instead of low-tech fax machines.

Besides continually updating The Vintage Purse Gallery, my most recent endeavor is MADCAPtion, a blog in which I caption old photos (that I own). I’m trying to somewhat get back to my roots, which consisted primarily of writing greeting card copy and button and keychain slogans. Take a look at it when you get a chance. Let me know if I’d be better off working as a structural engineer. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Dog Day Afternoon

I wish I could remember what that editor said to me about how her boss hated when columnists would write essays about dead dogs. It was “dead dogs and…” something else. I can’t remember.

Live cats? Broken romances? Near-fatal car accidents? Still can’t remember. I only remember the dead dog part.

Which is why I was reluctant at first to put this picture and this quote on my personal Facebook page.

“Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one, is a life diminished.” --Dean Koontz

Even though this dead-dog-story-hating boss is a friend of mine on Facebook and may have seen the post, I felt OK about doing it, because I didn’t make any additional remarks. Didn’t have to. Couldn’t. What could I say? RIP Sirius Black Dager, 10-15-02 to 03-02-15? That just sounds so... yucky. I admit something equally yucky--that even though I don't believe in heaven, that's where I told my grandson that Siri went: doggie heaven. Because he's four and I'm either a coward or a wonderful grandma for not wanting to traumatize him. I'll go with wonderful coward. 

Anyway, I’ve been moping around for four days, crying occasionally and second-guessing our decision to let Sirius go. Based on his declining health, it was clearly time to do so, and he wasn’t going to get better, nor was he going to leave on his own.

But "helping" him pass doesn’t make this any easier, "right thing to do" be damned.

He really was the best dog I ever had. I’ve loved all my animals, but this guy was special. I know I sound like everyone else with a beloved dead pet, but you can think whatever you want. I don't care. He was a great dog and this one was a lot harder than every other pet's passing I've had to deal with. Harder than some people I know, too.

And while I try to forget his last moment, which was, thankfully, peaceful, he prances and herds in memory, and lives on in cumulative dog hair that the vacuum will never pick up, and is mine forever in the password to my laptop.

And if you don’t like this particular dead dog story, don’t worry because I’m not writing another. I can't vouch for others, however. There will always be some dead dog somewhere to write about.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Short Goodbye

Someone asked me if I got to write a farewell column after my newspaper informed me of the budget cuts that killed it. I only thought about it a week or so after the fact, being a little in shock (but not really: see my anticipation of being terminated in the blog post of November 4, 2014).

And then, stubborn me, I figured why write a column, even a goodbye, if I’m not going to get paid for it?

So, since this blog makes precisely two cents a month on ad clicks, I thought, OK, I’ll write that column. Because two cents can buy me .0043 of a tall, skinny vanilla latté, that’s why. (Please no jokes about how I like my coffee the same way I like my men. The barista has heard it before and will be sh*t-talking you in the break room later.)

A Short Goodbye

This is my last column. The Ventura County Star, like every other newspaper, has had to make serious cutbacks over the last few years. But don’t cry for me, Ventura County. These cutbacks were much worse for laid-off staff writers and other employees who depended on their income and health benefits and such, and felt they had lifelong jobs in a career they chose because it was supposed to end at a normal retirement age. My column—for which I got paid, even though some people thought I did it out of love of hearing myself speak—financed a few extras, like, you know, food. And shoes. Man, I love shoes. Also food. Possibly more than shoes.

My best way to say goodbye is by sharing some of the experiences I’ve had because of my column.

I once wrote about being a short woman married to a tall guy, and received an email from a man who was president of a short persons’ society. He essentially told me I was a traitor to others of my size.

It’s fun when someone recognizes me at the grocery store from my headshot and is excited to meet me. I feel very good about this. Then I go home and clean up dog poop. Because there is nothing wrong with having an ego as long as you have poop to keep you grounded.

I received the most fan letters from readers when I wrote a 2003 column about Los Angeles-area 1950s-1970s children’s television show host Sheriff John Rovick. His phone number was listed. I called him at his home in Idaho and we talked and I told him how important he was to kids like me. I sent him a copy of the column. He sent me an autographed picture. Sheriff John passed away in 2012.

I received the most hate mail when I wrote about some problems at my kid’s middle school. One of the things I said in the column was that my kid, who was in the midst of a growth spurt, got in trouble for wearing a t-shirt that was too short, and it exposed her midriff if she lifted her arm. A man (who did not personally know me or my family), identifying himself as a teacher, told me my daughter dresses like a “whore,” so “you must dress like a whore, too.” I can’t remember how I responded, but I think I was civil. This was before menopause, or I probably would’ve let him have it.

I once got an email that was so threatening (not the whore guy; another one) I saved it in case something happened to me. Years later, the person who sent it showed up at one of my book-signings and was very nice. I don’t know if all was forgiven or what, but I was still a little scared.

When I get handwritten letters via mail and they have perfect penmanship, I know they are from seniors who want to share a story related to one of my column topics. These people are lovely. I keep their letters. I am ashamed of my penmanship.

The last email I received was in response to one of my last Star columns. I wrote about it not being mandatory to be nice to your relatives just because you are related to them. I’m not going to tell you what she wrote, but I was very touched and honored. Then I went outside and cleaned up poop.

Every single column I have written over the last 27 years—16 with the Ventura County Star—I meant. And I always tried to do my best no matter the subject. I wasn’t writing the Great American Novel. I wasn’t addressing any huge political or environmental or social issue. I would try to write for the masses, usually about those annoying little things in life with which all of us regular folks have to deal. Some columns were not written as well as others and occasionally I wished I could go back and fix them or make them more clear or change a word or two here or there. But once they are out in the ether, they’re done. I move on to the next column. That is, I moved on.

I considered myself an entertainer more than anything, not a journalist. Now it’s time for me to move on to something else, which is hopefully as entertaining. But with less hate mail. Because I don't want to have to be short with people.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pants Afire

People keep asking me what I think about the Brian Williams debacle, so I’m going to tell you succinctly, in the form of a tweet.

Don't worry about #BrianWilliams. He'll get reprimanded, apologize over and over, then get a book deal. #seenitbefore

And now I’m going to tell you the long version.

I’ve seen a few people let go from my newspaper for lying/plagiarism/taking gifts. Not recently. Many years ago. One of them, I believe, as rumor has it—and, please note, all I heard were whispers from others in the stable, since the horse’s mouth had already departed—was that this guy with an otherwise very good reputation was making up stuff for his column. Another guy, who had a very minor role at the paper, was allegedly taking information from other sources and reusing it (aka plagiarizing). Then there was the staffer who was accepting tickets to sporting events. This is bad to a degree, but I think he was also having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a coworker. Again, these are the rumors. But all three people had their contracts terminated.

Even though one of them was a fairly big dog at my newspaper, he was still a little dog in the great scheme of media. And that’s how we come to Brian Williams. You can compare him to other well-known fallen writers/journalists: Janet Cooke  or Jayson Blair or James Frey or Stephen Glass or...

You get where I’m going, right?

All of these people are doing just fine, thank you very much. Except maybe Cooke, who, with her former lover and biographer Mike Sager (whose work I admire) allegedly got $1.6 million for a biopic that never happened. She has since disappeared from the public eye, and we all know a million bucks doesn’t last forever. Still. $1,000,000. That's a lot of zeroes.

The point here—and I do have one (see above tweet) is that the writers/journalists with major chutzpah and enough surface remorse do recover. By surface remorse, I mean that which is currently known as #sorrynotsorry. Because I don’t think Brian Williams or any of the others are sorry for making up stuff. Their egos simply don’t allow them to be sorry, and their excuses, though hollow to others, are good enough for them.

To personalize this somewhat, on a much smaller and more remorseful scale, I once put the wrong development name by mistake in a real estate advertorial and received an angry phone call from the agent whose house was featured. The actual neighborhood, a prestigious one, is around the corner from the house. I thought the house was within the boundaries of the neighborhood. I apologized, my editor printed a retraction, and even though nothing happened to me employment-wise, I still felt awful that something I wrote was incorrect. An honest mistake, but it’s stayed with me as if it were a major offense.

That and a $1 million advance against royalties is the difference between me and all those other writers.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Beyond Burnt

Hey guys and gals! I am so cooked right now that my meat has long since fallen off its bones and the bones have dissolved into a semi-liquid state. I am stew. Stew whose water has boiled off and left an icky goo you see on that TV show with all the quirky actors who wouldn't talk that way in real life, and then the goo is analyzed by that doctor guy who likes bugs and realizes that my goo comes from me being bugged to the point of burnt.

When I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer. A real writer. Not a blogger. They didn’t have bloggers or an Internet or other such nonsense back then. No one threw around the word “monetized.” Everyone got paychecks. Or, if you didn’t get a weekly paycheck as a regular employee, you’d at least get a check for your freelance work. And that’s what I wanted: I wanted to write for a living. First like Ray Bradbury, but I realized fiction wasn’t my thing. Then like Mike Royko. I even sent him a fan letter. He didn’t answer, but I think he was in the process of dying at the time, so I forgave him.

So I wrote and I got checks. And everything was fine for about twenty-five years.

Now I’m a massive pile of burnt bug goo and I can’t stand it anymore.

Here are a few things that have driven me to Cajun-fried corpus, not necessarily in order of irritation.

  1. Newspaper publishers did not anticipate the power of the Internet. They screwed up. They ruined lives.
  2. I get a bit irked when employers don’t pay me.
  3. I don’t like middlemen who are in control of my earnings and give me vague b.s. answers about when I’m going to get paid. Or not.
  4. I hate-hate-hate when people who I am supposed to interview for articles do not call me back. If you are going to blow me off, seriously, just send an email that says “I’m not calling you back” or “I don’t want to do this” or “F--- off.” I’d prefer it to having to call or email you repeatedly. I know my editors want me to keep trying, but since I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, can you copy them on your f--- off email, please?
  5. It physically causes me pain to see my work on other people’s websites.
  6. It does not help when others email me links to websites of thievery and say, “Hey, isn’t that one of yours?”
  7. Condescension. Of any sort. Despise it. I’m not doing this kind of work for free. I get paid to do my job, just like you get paid to do yours. Also, I am not 15. I don’t care how young I sound over the phone. Respect, please.
  8. Whoever you are, get me off your email list. I don’t want your publicity release or “op-ed” or press invitation to your client’s event. I’m not a newspaper editor. And, if I were an editor, I’d probably be fired by now. I am a freelancer who can’t pitch anything because there’s not enough in the budget to pay me.
  9. Everyone’s a writer now. Look! A keyboard! You’re a writer! And since everyone’s a writer, here’s my job. You can have it. I'm so done that you can't even stick that proverbial fork in me. You may, however, be able to scoop me up with a spoon and shovel me onto a new career.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Cut Above

When it comes to being lucky she’s cursed.*

A beautiful song. I didn’t know Cat Stevens wrote it until I found this on YouTube. I’d always heard hoarse, crusty ol’ Rod Stewart in my head.

My Ventura County Star opinion column has been cut for budgetary reasons.


It seems as if many of my readers didn’t know I actually got paid to write this thing every two weeks for over a decade and a half, and several of them asked me to keep writing it and post it elsewhere. I tried to explain that I can’t/won’t do that unless I get paid. The Star did offer to allow me to continue the column, but without pay. I said nope.

Don’t read anything into that. It was all very civilized. I completely understood why it happened, and I expected to eventually be cut. Also, I must reiterate that nearly every editor at the Star has been wonderful to me. They have always treated me as a professional and a team member.

Here is the Star column headshot you will no longer see. There is a backstory to this smirky, snarky-ass expression. The photographer was so good-looking that I kept blushing and acting otherwise stupider than my (at the time) thirty-something self.

I still have my other regular freelance for them—in fact, I have a Homes cover story assignment today—and I’m doing articles for Edible Ojai & Ventura County magazine. I also have a number of projects related to my vintage purse museum. So, no worries. I’m busy.

I am, as I told one of my readers, considering writing an opinion column and posting it here, but I was very clear about the fact that I do have ads on this blog, with the idea being I’d get ad revenue in return for writing. I’m not really in this biz for the byline. Which sounds a little hardcore, but hopefully not mercenary.

That said—and to maybe personalize it a bit—here’s what I told a fellow freelancer (and former staff writer) in an email about the death of my column: “Yeah, man. I knew it was coming, but I was a little shaken when I got that email today. This is a morbid analogy, but it's like having a terminally ill relative—you know he's going to die, but it's a shock when it actually happens.”

*A week before my column got cut, I won $200 on a lottery scratcher.