Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why I Quit As a Travel Writer for Indiana

Today, I resigned as a travel writer for VisitIndiana.com, the website owned by the Indiana Office of Tourism Development (IOTD), because of the passage and signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

I've been a travel writer for the State of Indiana for six years, a role I have loved, as it has taken me around to different parts of the state I had never seen, and I've met some outstanding people.

But after Governor Pence signed SB101 into law today, I decided that I did not want to be a part of the Indiana state government any further, even as a small-time contractor. (Update: I want to clarify that I was only a part-time contract writer for the agency, and not a full-time employee. I still have a job — I own my own business.)

I've loved being a part of VisitIndiana, and all the opportunities it's afforded me. I've made some wonderful friends, like Kendal Miller of Switzerland County Tourism, Laura Libs of Visit Evansville, and Patricia Rettig of Beef & Boards Theatre (the woman who made me appreciate musical theatre).

Entering Vevay, Indiana in Switzerland County. I never get tired of this view.

I've visited parts of the state I would have otherwise never seen, like the Heartland Historic Baseball Trail, the haunted Story Inn in Story, Indiana, and Wolf Park in Tippecanoe County.

And I remember the chaos of the Vera Bradley Outlet Sale in Fort Wayne, watching the Evansville Otters baseball team, and the very first trip I ever took, visiting Pokagon State Park and the toboggan run.

HART's Shakespeare On The Canal - The Tempest, 2014

I can't say enough nice things about the IOTD and their hard-working staff. I've become friends with several of them, and would sometimes lend my social media expertise on occasion, because I support what they do.

They do excellent work in the face of continual budget cuts, and I'm proud of the (very) small part I've played there.

If you ever want to meet a government agency filled with entrepreneurial thinkers, this is it.

I love my state, and its people, history, and traditions. As corny as it is, I even liked last year's tourism slogan, "Honest to Goodness," because I believed in what it meant.

The Lafayette Farmers Market in the Fall.

Even now, I believe Indiana is a good place, with good people who have good hearts.

But, at least today, I don't feel right in inviting people to visit us.

Not when some of them are less welcome. Not when there's a chance they'll be told they're not wanted. I can't ask them to come here, so I quit.

I'll still be a cheerleader for our state and tell everyone about the wonderful places and people in it. But I'll be doing it on this blog, on my own time. Not for a government who thinks so poorly of some of its citizens that it legalizes discrimination against them.

For those of you who read my work, supported my efforts, and made it possible for me to travel my home state and report on what I found, thank you very much. Thank you for six of the most interesting and most exciting years I've spent here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Eschew Convoluted Phraseology

It's a sad day when business jargon creeps into everyday conversation.

I don't mean the conversations between two marketing professionals who say things like "we need to recontextualize our best-of-breed deliverables."

(Yes, they really talk like that. They're not right in the head.)

I mean sad, like when business-speak enters normal conversations between real people you hoped were untainted. Like the disappointment you feel when a loved one has been bitten by a zombie and is slowly changing.

I was at my eye doctor's the other day when one of the staff said she had to "partner with" a coworker about my new glasses.

At first, I didn't know what she meant. In my own job, I often "partner with" other businesses. We'll work together for a particular client or project, functioning as equal partners for a few weeks or months.

But that wasn't the case here. She meant something else, but I wasn't sure what that was. Then she said it again.

And again and again and again.

At first, I thought it might just be a little quirk, like she misspoke. But I heard it a sixth, seventh, and teeth-grinding eighth time.

"I just need to partner with David about your glasses."

She meant "talk to."

As in "I just need to talk to David about your glasses."

As in, "I hate the English language, and I want to watch it die as I slip the knife in."

She said "partner" like it was somehow more proper than actually "talking." Like she and David would exchange ideas through finger-to-brain contact like a couple of Vulcan optometrists.

It's bad enough when people use "dialog" as a verb, which I already hate. That would have almost been preferable in this case.

"I need to dialog with David about your glasses."

No, I take it back. As soon as I wrote that, I threw up a little bit. It's not better.

I heard "dialog" a lot back in the 90s. It was a favorite of educators and therapists, because it somehow signified that what they were doing was more significant than a mere chat.

"I'd like to dialog with you about the upcoming conference."

But if "partner" is replacing "dialog," that's only going to make things worse. And make me grind my teeth more.

Cops and law firms have partners. A business can "partner" with another business, which is a way of working together without formally joining, like a merger.

It doesn't mean to have a quick chat, as in "my wife and I are going to partner about our weekend plans."

The purpose of language is to communicate ideas simply and easily. We should be clear and direct with our language. Rather than (ever) say things like "partner" or "dialog," we should say "talk to" or "speak with."

Can you think of any simpler words than "talk" or "speak?"

Of course not. Because there aren't any. They're simple, one-syllable, four- and five-letter words that mean to have conversations.

Except people like to sound smarter and more official in certain situations. I heard this constantly when I worked in state government. Government people love to sound official, and will use the biggest words they can find, whether they use them correctly or not.

It's a growing epidemic, as normal people are doing it as well. Not to show off, but because they suffer from "cop talk."

Cop talk is that annoying style of writing police officers use to sound all important and official when writing their reports.

Cop talkers use passive voice. Excuse me, passive voice is used by cop talkers.

They say "myself," when they mean "me" or "I." "Bring the coffee to David and myself."

And they try to use extra big words, whether they mean what you think they mean or not.

There's something both amusing and sad about police reports. Sometimes when I read cop statements and government reports, I wonder if I'm being punked. But no, they're completely real.
"Male victim Johnson returned to his aforementioned residence and observed that the frontmost point of entry of the domicile was unsecured and appeared to have suffered a series of bludgeoning blows with the lower extremity of a human person."

Translation: "Mr. Johnson came home and found his front door kicked in."

If you want to communicate clearly, just follow this one rule: if there's a shorter, easier word to the one you're thinking about, use it. If it's longer and more complicated, skip it.

Or as I prefer to express to other individuals, eschew convoluted phraseology.
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Friday, March 13, 2015

Electronic Emotions and Plugged-In Pals

We've become such an open society that it's difficult to have private moments and thoughts. Thanks to social media, we share our lives and tragedies online, when all we really want to do is vent, unload, and cry privately.

We've taught ourselves that personal issues and dirty laundry need to be aired online, for everyone to see. We've developed a weird voyeuristic/exhibitionist relationship with each other.

Are we becoming eager to post bad news on Facebook and Twitter, or do we do it reluctantly? Are we so lonely for human emotions and support that we turn to our online friends for it? Or do we really get emotional relief by sharing our private lives in so public a setting?

Divorce, break ups, loss of friendships, loss of loved ones. They all get aired on social media, so others can see and react.

We live in public. We live out loud.

In many ways, we all want privacy. We don't want people knowing our business. But at the same time, so many people are in pain, they just want someone to tell them everything will be okay.

I'm actually fairly private in what I share. I don't share a lot of my personal life, because I just don't want people knowing about it.

I'm fully aware of the irony of my situation.

I'm a humor columnist; I'm supposed to write about my life and observations. I'm a social media professional; I get paid to help other people to live out loud. And I'm a book author; I write social media books that tell people to share their personal and professional lives online.

I just hate doing it myself.

I'm happy to share personal victories or accomplishments. I take photos of friends and family, and post them to Twitter and Facebook. But I rarely take selfies. Partly because I think they're self-aggrandizing, but mostly because I hate the word "selfie."

For the most part, people are generally supportive of each other online. We all offer the appropriate comments online when someone shares bad news. But our empathy is becoming automatic and rote.

If we can text, tweet, or Facebook a message, we'll do it. I've lost count of the number of times I've posted a simple "Happy birthday!" on Facebook on someone's special day.

Instead, I've taken to writing and calling my closest friends so I don't take the easy way out.

A few years ago, my mother got annoyed with me because I didn't write "Happy birthday" on her Facebook page. I had called her and sent her a gift, but it bothered her that I hadn't written on her wall.

I explained that I thought an electronic message was too impersonal and cold for my own mother on her birthday, and that the personal touch would be more heartfelt.

"How do you think it looks when only two of my three children write on my wall for my birthday?" she asked.

"You only have 12 Facebook friends. I don't think anyone noticed," I said.

No one is really surprised that I wasn't my mother's favorite.

I worry that electronic communication is making us all lazy. We look for a way to avoid physical human contact, and instead look for the easiest method that requires the least commitment.

Recently, after my mother died, I received a letter from an insurance company saying I could take advantage of their grief counseling services and resources. Curious, I typed in the needlessly long web address to see what they offered.

Rather than finding a list of area psychologists and counselors who offered their services, I found a short, generic invitation to call one of their trained grief counselors on the phone.

You get psychic readings on the phone, you don't process the death of a loved one with someone you can't even see. Besides, can you imagine how many cell minutes that will chew up?

Best of all, they didn't include a phone number on that particular web page. So if you actually wanted to call their grief counselor hotline — which was "available 24/7," because hipster slang is sooo comforting — you had to poke around on their website to find it.

I don't want to name this particular insurance company, but it rhymes with "You know who sucks at grief counseling? MetLife."

To their credit, they did offer more than Telephone-a-Therapist services. You could also download PDF articles on dealing with the loss of a loved one. Because nothing is as warm and comforting as an electronic document you can read on your cell phone on the toilet.

"I feel very sad today. I think I'll download a PDF and go poop."

While I'm normally very gung ho about social media and all the great things it can do for us, I don't want to forget the joys and benefits of spending time with real people face-to-face, talking about real issues, hearing their voices, and seeing their expressions.

And when they start to bug me, I can go on Facebook and make veiled passive-aggressive statements about certain people who shouldn't eat garlic fries at lunch.


Photo credit: Ewen Roberts (Flickr, Creative Commons)

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, March 06, 2015

Will You Survive a Zombie Apocalypse?

It's the least likely of scenarios. Impossible, really. We'll never actually have one. But everyone seems to be excited about the possibility of a zombie apocalypse.

When exactly did zombies become a thing?

I remember watching Dawn of the Dead when I was in high school, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. It was about a horde of zombies that had trapped a band of humans in a mall, but the Hot Sam stand was closed, so the zombies were forced to eat the people.

Or something like that. I covered my eyes with my hands for most of it.

I've never enjoyed monsters, zombies, vampires, or anything supernatural and undead that might try to kill me.

Which is why I hate that zombies are all the rage right now. The only people I know who shamble slowly, mouths agape, and groaning that they need brains are those who drive under the speed limit in the left lane.

For as long as I can remember, zombies have always been part of entertainment, but it's only in the last few years, with movies like World War Z and TV shows like Walking Dead, that zombies have shambled their way into our national consciousness.

Several years before that, it was teenage sparkle vampires who had captured the interest of America's teens and 20-somethings. And their moms.

Good news, the werewolves nearly defeated the vampires during the whole Team Edward/Team Jacob presidential campaign.

Bad news, the vampires fought back and eliminated the werewolves.

Good news, the zombies have eliminated the teenage sparkle vampires.

Bad news, the zombies don't appear to be leaving.

It's getting so bad, there's even an online tool to determine how long it will take for a zombie outbreak to cover your part of the world.

The Washington Post recently published an article about a zombie apocalypse computer model, created by statistician Alex Alemi, that can determine how long a zombie virus outbreak would take to spread.

Alemi determined that, depending on where you lived, you could go for weeks, months, or even years, before a zombie outbreak reached you. If you live in a large city, like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, chances are you'll be dead — well, undead — within a week.

But if you lived in remote areas, like central Nevada or the Rocky Mountains, you could ride out the apocalypse for years, since it's not like zombies can hop a Greyhound bus.

So, if you want to avoid the zombie apocalypse, consider moving to a remote part of the country that's only serviceable by state highways and county roads.

If the idea of being chased by thousands of rotting flesh bags seems fun, you can visit Alemi's website (http://mattbierbaum.github.io/zombies-usa/) to see how long it would take the outbreak to reach your own town.

Fun fact: According to Alemi's model, if the outbreak began in Indianapolis, it would take seven full days to reach Chicago and Nashville, Tenn.

So, sleep well on that little tidbit.

But if that doesn't placate your fears (it certainly didn't help mine), a 2010 article on Cracked.com took a more serious, if cynical look, at why a zombie apocalypse would fail miserably.

Because if there's anyone who can outwit a statistician, it's a smartass satirist with plenty of time on their hands.

For one thing, says Cracked, zombies will not survive any place that has flies and bugs that normally eat dead flesh. If the zombie apocalypse happened in the middle of summer, it would be over in three or four days.

Zombies also can't handle the heat (think "bloating") or cold (think "freezer burn"). They don't know how to follow roads, so they would be blocked by natural barriers, like canyons, mountains, rapids, and cliffs, which they can't see at night. If you want to escape a zombie outbreak, just live on a mountain or an island.

Preferably a tropical island with cable and wifi. And a well-stocked bar. And a giant freezer filled with steaks. This thing will take a couple of months, so we might as well enjoy ourselves.

Finally, the Pew Research Center estimates there are anywhere between 270 million to 310 million guns in the U.S. Once the apocalypse began, we could literally crush the first zombies under the weigh of all the guns, without firing a single shot.

But my guess is everyone with a pop gun is going to want a piece of that action, so the zombies will die from severe lead poisoning.

In short, says Cracked, the worst thing that can happen to a zombie is that it's only food source is also its top predator. It would be like if we tried hunting sharks with a butter knife.

But if the zombie apocalypse ever does come, I'm throwing in the the pirate ninjas.

I just don't know how I'm going to sneak around with a peg leg and an eyepatch.



The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, February 27, 2015

Successful Column Writing Secrets

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are reprinting a column from 2004.

Despite my complaints that I don't have many readers or get enough feedback from them, I actually have some great readers who write to me on a regular basis.

Many of them ask me if I would like to refinance my home, buy male enhancement pills, or tell me that they know of another reader — usually a hot Russian woman — who wants to meet me.

I get hundreds of these messages every day. It's messages like this that makes my life of writing worthwhile. I really feel the joy when, for example, a Nigerian prince offers me millions of dollars for my work.

Occasionally, people will ask me "How far out do you write your columns?"

Way far out, man. It's, like, groovy, you know.

"No, no," they say. "How far in advance do you write your columns?"

I'd like to say I write my columns weeks in advance, and that I am well prepared for any emergency. But I'd also like to say that I'm fabulously wealthy with abdominal muscles you could grate cheese on.

Obviously neither are true. In fact, in true writer's fashion, I wait until the last possible minute to write my columns. At least, this is what my editors tell everyone.

So, to answer everyone's burning question, here is my weekly schedule for successful humor column writing:

Friday morning (six days before my deadline): I need a topic.

Tuesday afternoon (two days before my deadline): I still need a topic.

Thursday, 5:00 pm (7 hours before deadline): OH CRAP, I NEED A TOPIC!!

5:01: Cruise the Internet before I go home. Maybe I can find a news story to think about while I drive.

5:10: Nothing interesting happening today. Aren't stupid people filing lawsuits anymore? I'll brainstorm in the car.

5:11: Ooh, I haven't heard that song in a long time.

5:14: Or that one.

5:55: Oh good, I'm almost home. Now I can relax and — OH CRAP, I STILL NEED A TOPIC!!

6:00: There are my kids. Maybe I could write about that time that — no, every baby does that. How about the time when — no, she'll already have enough therapy when she's older. Don't you hate it when — nope, too Andy Rooney-ish.

6:01: Kiss my wife hello. Maybe I could — not if I want to sleep in my own bed tonight.

6:20: Visit the dog. Don't bother. Every humorist does at least 12 columns on dogs, and I'm getting close to my limit. How many new jokes can I do on eating, sleeping, and peeing?

6:25: Dinner time already? Man, I'm tired.

6:30: I'm too stressed to eat, I have to think of a topic.

6:31: So what's the deal with broccoli? No, too Jerry Seinfeld.

7:30: Maybe watching some TV will give me some ideas. But just for a few minutes.

8:30: Oh boy, "Scrubs" is on. That's a great show. I wish I could write as funny as that. Hmm, if only I was a. . . uh-oh, I'd better think of something fast.

8:31: I haven't seen this one. Maybe this will inspire me.

9:00: Okay, show's over. Now it's time to get serious. I need to buckle down and find a topic.

9:05: My desk is a little messy. Maybe if I cleaned it off, I would get inspired.

9:10: Nope, nothing there. Maybe if I organize my CDs.

9:25: Nothing there either. How about picking up some clothes.

10:00: I really need to clean my office more often. Let's see, I had something else to do — MY DEADLINE IS IN TWO HOURS!

10:30: Wait a minute, I keep a file on my computer of different topic ideas.

10:31: Fishing? No. House maintenance? No.

10:40: Think, dammit, think!

10:50: Ah-ha, I've got it. I'll do one about beer drinkers vs. wine drinkers.

11:00: Actually, a beer sounds pretty good right now.

11:30: (BURP) I need to buy more beer tomorrow. Now, let's see. . . what was I doing?

11:35: MY DEADLINE IS IN 25 MINUTES!

11:55: Hurry up, you stupid spell checker.

11:56: What do you mean, "Deckers" isn't in the spell checker dictionary?

11:58: Paste it into the email, hit Send.

11:59: Made it just in time. I really need to start writing these things in advance so I don't have to go through this each week.

Next Thursday morning: Hmmm, I need a topic.



The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, February 20, 2015

Support Group of Misfit Toys

According to Arthur Rankin, the Dolly for Sue's problem was that she was rejected by her girl, Sue, which gave her psychological problems and she believed she was unlovable.

Heather: Thank you all for coming to group today. I know the weather's been rather cold and dreary, and we're all fighting cabin fever. But we're in our safe space, where we can discuss and own our pain without judgment or fear. Who'd like to share first?

(No one answers.)

Heather: Charlie, how about you?

Charlie: Well. . .

Heather: Come on, Charlie. You haven't shared with the group since before Christmas. I'm sure we'd all like to hear from you.

Melvin: Yeah, come on, Charlie. Let's hear your share.

Charlie: Alright. I haven't shared anything because I was sure I was going to get called up this year. But since you-know-who didn't come to the island again — that's 10 years running, you fat jerk! — I just stayed scrunched inside my box. I literally haven't talked to anyone until now.

Dolly: I hear you, Charlie. I haven't left my house since Christmas night.

Charlie: That's not the same thing. You have a house. You can come and go as you please. I just sit in this stupid box until someone cranks the handle.

Heather: Now, Charlie, remember the rules of the group. Every toy has valid feelings.

Charlie: Yeah, but not every toy bears my stupid burden. It's been 10 years, and still no one wants a Charlie in the Box?

Tex: Not too many people want a Jack in the Box either.

Charlie: Why don't you fly your ostrich off a cliff?

Heather: Boys, boys! That's enough. Charlie, would you like to finish your share?

Charlie: Sharing. Just because I'm misnamed doesn't mean I'm misnaming other things. It's not 'a share,' I'm sharing. You know how I feel about that.

Heather: You're right, Charlie. I owe you an amends.

Charlie: *Groan!*

Dolly: Everyone knows how you feel about that, Charlie.

Charlie: Then I would ask everyone to respect my feelings on the matter. Also on the 'amends' thing too.

Heather: Fine, Charlie, I'm sorry. Would you please finish sharing?

Charlie: I've just been angry at all the lies. Moonracer promised us this Christmas would be different. This time, we were all going to be picked up and delivered to children. We weren't going to be misfits anymore. And this year, like every other bloody year, I believed him. He lied to us yet again, and like a sucker, I believed him.

Melvin: You can't be too hard on King Moonracer. He's got a tough job.

Charlie: Well, of course you'd defend him, Melvin. You're his polka-dotted footman. It's your job to defend the winged fraud, but not me. I'm out.

Melvin: But you're our sentry!

Charlie: Not any more, I quit. I'm just tired of it. Tired of the the lies, the raised expectations, and the dashed hopes. I'm even starting to question what I can gain from this group. It's not like we're going to get better. We're never going to get better. We're all misfits, we're all forgotten, and there's no point in getting better, since none of us are ever going to leave here!

(Charlie scrunches down into his box and slams the lid. Melvin pats the box lid in sympathy.)

Heather: Charlie, thank you for your — for sharing. When you're ready to come out, we're ready to listen and support you. Who else would like to share? Dolly?

Dolly: Okay. I tried looking for Sue last week.

Melvin: No, Dolly. You said you weren't going to do that.

Dolly: I know, I know! I feel like a failure. Last month, my stretch was to stop trying to find her, and I was doing so well. I mean, I took up smoking again, just to have something else to crave, but they don't taste as good as they used to. So when I stopped again, the urge to find her came back as strong as ever.

Melvin: But she abandoned you!

Dolly: But maybe she only moved. Maybe she's looking for me, even now.

Melvin: Dolly, you know she didn't. We've talked about this in group for the last 10 years.

Dolly: I know, Melvin. In my head, I know she's gone. But in my heart, I still love her. I can't hold onto a stupid boyfriend, because I don't feel like I can be loved. I can't even hold down a stupid job at a perfume counter. But I can hold onto a hopeless dream for 10 years? Crazy.

Melvin: You know, I've kept Carl the jelly pistol in my cupboard for the last six months. I think he's fermented by now. Let's watch Toy Story 2 and get drunk this weekend.

Heather: Well, it sounds like we've all got things to work on for next week. Tex, I'd love to hear about how you and Olly are doing on your cattle drive. Sheldon, we'll talk about your swimming class for birds. Dolly and Melvin, please don't overdo on the jelly wine. And Charlie, if you can hear me, I'll stick around for a little while if you want to have a process — sorry, process your feelings — afterward. Thanks everyone, have a good week.


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, February 13, 2015

I've Been Shaving All Wrong


Apparently I've been shaving wrong for the last 33 years.

At least that's what a fancy shaving store saleswoman hinted at when we discussed my shaving habits.

I recently stepped into The Art of Shaving store where they sell different versions of a four-step shaving kit for many, many dollars. Things like scented oils, fancy foams, and brushes made from badger hair.

Plus a perfectly balanced nickel-plated razor handle for $200.

I really, really liked the perfectly balanced nickel-plated razor handle.

The saleswoman said the razor handle is "perfectly balanced" to aid with "blade pull."

Because that's a thing now, apparently.

"How are you this morning, Mr. Deckers?" they'll ask at my coffee shop one morning.

"Not too good, Zach," I'll say. "My blade pull was a little off today."

"Ah, that explains the arterial spray on your shirt."

The saleswoman tried to convince me of the wonder and beauty of their four-step shaving kit, and how it could revolutionize my whole morning routine by turning a five minute chore done with soap and a razor in the shower into a 30-minute drudgery with four expensive ingredients.

Their fancy four step process starts with a shaving oil, then a special shaving cream applied with the badger hair brush, then shaving with the perfectly balanced nickel-plated razor handle, followed by a post-shave oil.

Then all your friends will laugh at you for smelling like a high school kid on his first date.

I walked into the fancy store, sporting at least four days of growth, and a goatee that looked more like a goat. It wasn't my intention to upset anyone, but once I saw how fancy the place was, I figured there was no harm in trying.

The saleswoman asked me what my usual shaving cream was

"Lever 2000," I said. "I shave in the shower."

She had been trained not to shriek at clients, so she remained calm. But she did develop a tic in her left eye when I said I only shaved every two or three days.

I started shaving when I was 14, a couple years before I actually needed to. I was so eager that I started as soon as I saw the first hair on my chin. It was probably one of my head hairs that got stuck after eating soup, but that didn't matter. Now I was a man! It was time to prove it by removing all the hair from my face.

Before then, when my dad wasn't home, I would lather up and "shave" with the plastic lid from the shaving cream can, so I wouldn't cut myself, pretending it was a real razor.

It was my stepdad who told me the best way to shave. "Put hot water on your face, as hot as your face can take," he said

I still say it to myself whenever I shave at the sink. "Put hot water on your face, as hot as your—ow, son of a—!"

The problem isn't how hot my face can take. It's that the water burns my fingers and I jump around and flap my hand like I smashed it with a hammer.

Besides that, most shaving advice varies wildly:

- Use a good moisturizer. Don't bother with a moisturizer.

- Shave in the shower. Shave after a shower.

- Use proper shaving cream. Soap is a suitable shaving cream. What are you crazy? Shaving with soap will make you look like the Elephant Man!

- Shave with the grain, and then against the grain. Under no circumstances should you ever shave against the grain! It's like crossing the streams in 'Ghostbusters,' only worse.

According to the advice from my fancy shaving saleswoman, everything I've done up to this point is wrong. I don't use any pre-shave treatments, post-shave treatments, or lather between shaving with and against the grain.

And I don't have a perfectly balanced nickel-plated razor handle, which means my blade pull is all wrong. I might as well be shaving with WD-40 and a rusted sickle.

I'm not a fancy guy. I don't need fancy razors and soaps to make me happy, or even give me a close shave. I've used the same brand of razors, Gillette Fusion, for years, and I use whatever soap is handy.

The whole idea of a four-step scented shaving process to me is a complete waste of time and money, and frankly, a little sissified for a guy like me.

Which is why I only bought the $25 starter kit.

I have a feeling we're going to be very happy together.


Update

After I wrote this column, I actually ended up getting the full kit, not the starter kit. I also got a new Gillette Fusion razor. As much as I joked about the overdoing-it-ness of their four step process, I absolutely have gotten the closest shave I've ever had in 33 years of shaving, and my face is baby butt smooth. I may have teased The Art of Shaving in this piece a bit, but man oh man, this really is awesome!



Photo credit: MagicRobot (Flickr, Creative Commons)

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, February 06, 2015

Life as the Outsider Writer

I was always kind of awkward growing up. I wasn't one of the popular kids, the jocks, or the rich kids. I was the weird kid who did weird things. I played soccer and raced bicycles.

I was an athlete, I just wasn't one of Indiana's preferred athletes: football, basketball, or baseball. Other than playing football my freshman year, I didn't play the Big Three.

In 1980s Indiana, people looked at you funny if you played sports usually played by other people who didn't speak English.

To further cement my awkward outsider status, I was in the band. I was a band geek. I hung out with other band geeks, caused trouble with them, and made music jokes like, "Why did the dumb kid become a bass player? Because his mom told him to stay out of treble."

Compared to the theatre kids, we were awesome.

As a band geek, I was usually on the outside, looking in, but it didn't bother me.

I never liked what was "in," and so on the days I "looked in," I didn't like what I saw. I was more than happy being on the outside. I reveled in my outsider status and sought out the people who were unusual like me.

I drew the line at the choir kids though. I mean, I had standards.

Even now, 30 years later, there are days that being a humor writer makes me feel like I'm on the outside of the Indianapolis literary scene. I know dozens of writers here, maybe over a hundred, and only one of them is a humor writer.


I was just never into the navel gazing writing style of literary fiction, and I don't like the drama and pain of creative nonfiction. My oeuvre — that's fancy writer talk for "collection of works" — is humor. Like fart jokes, dysfunctional families, and the dumb things school administrators do in the name of Zero Tolerance.

Needless to say, humor writers don't get invited to do a lot of writerly things, since we make people laugh. The thought is that if people laugh because of your work, it must not be serious. If it doesn't make you sigh or dab at your eyes, it's not worthy of being called "literature."

Humor writers are not seen as real writers. We're the band geeks of the literary world.

How's that for a kick in the pants? In a community of people who were the outcasts and weirdos in high school, a community that has created its own circles and cliques, the humor writers manage to be on the outside there as well.

But I finally received some validation last week, when I was invited to speak at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in March, as part of a University of Indianapolis literary function. I'm even going to be the featured speaker.

I've never been the featured anything. Even at my own book launch, I got second billing to the cheeseburger sliders. And now, I'm going to be the featured reader at an event at the memorial library of one of my literary heroes.

I realize Kurt won't actually be there himself, but considering he's one of the reasons I became a writer in the first place, it's like I'm getting his nod of approval. That my work is worthy. That nearly 20 years of fart jokes and columns about the Oxford comma were important. I've been over the moon all week.

I'm not sure of the etiquette of the performance though. How long should I read? Should I read one long piece or several short one? Do I allow time for questions? What if no one has any questions? What if no one even comes? Do I have to provide wine? Should I get the audience drunk so I'll seem funnier? Or should I get drunk, so I won't care?

And the most important question, what am I going to read?

I asked Kaylie, the organizer, what I should read, and she said I could read some of my columns, or I could read one of my books. Considering I write social media marketing books, which are also not literary or dramatic, I don't know how interesting that would actually be.

I posed the question on Facebook, and received a variety of suggestions: Green Eggs And Ham, Kanye West lyrics, the Song of Solomon, or my personal favorite, Everyone Poops.

I'll most likely read some of my humor columns and maybe a short fiction piece or two. Maybe I'll even write a piece in the spirit of another literary hero, Dave Barry.

I'll call it Everyone Picks Their Nose.



The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, January 30, 2015

Life In America: Comedies Versus Tragedies

It was a defining moment early in my column writing career, when someone sent a complaint letter to my editor, making it my first and only complaint letter. I've had emails and blog comments, but no one has taken the time to write an actual complaint letter before or since.

Seventeen years later, I still remember what the letter actually said:

"Discussion of Pamela Anderson's boobs have no place in a humor column."

I was confused. Where else would you expect discussions of her boobs to be?

Okay, late night talk shows, but the point is — and the Internet. But the point is — yes, and her B-movie career. But you need to realize — well, obviously Baywatch reruns. But what I'm trying to say — yes, more stuff on the Internet.

What I'm trying to say is it made me realize there are two types of people in the world, those who appreciate Pamela Anderson's boobs, and those who don't.

Wait, that's not my point at all.

My point is there are two types of people in the world, those who appreciate humor, and those who don't. Those who think we need to laugh and enjoy life more, and those who think life is meant to be endured, and not enjoyed.

I worked with one group, and worked for the other. Given that I now own my own business, I'll let you guess which is which.

You've seen the old theater masks that symbolize Comedy and Tragedy. You're either happy, or you're not. You laugh about the good in life, or you cry about the bad in life. We know both types, the wise-cracking cut up who laughs at everything, and the melancholy Debbie Downer who finds misery in everything.

Let's call them Comedies and Tragedies.

Tragedies manufacture outrage, while Comedies can't be bothered with life's small difficulties. Tragedies are easily offended by their favorite hot button issues and will look for things to gripe about. Comedies like to poke Tragedies' favorite hot buttons, and then sit back and watch the fun.

I call it Poking The Bear. I like to play it on Facebook by posting articles about the negative effects of helicopter parenting when I know my helicopter parenting friends will read it, after they finish feeding their children organic peanut-free peanut butter sandwiches on gluten-free bread. I like to post pro-gay marriage news articles where my anti-gay marriage friends will see them.

Poke, poke, poke.

Comedies have wrinkles around their eyes from smiling so much, Tragedies have lines around their mouth from frowning. Comedies just smiled to feel their eyes wrinkle. Tragedies said, "I do too smile!"

Tragedies enjoy dramas and sad movies and depressing books. They watch the news every night and share the scariest stories at work the next day, convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket. They watch Parenthood and The Fosters, loved The American Sniper, and they read The Help. In hardback.

Comedies love, well, comedies — sitcoms, funny movies, and funny books. They watch Big Bang Theory and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They read Christopher Moore and Douglas Adams books. They get their news from The Daily Show, and are often better informed. And they don't make a grumpy face that makes them look like they haven't pooped in a week.

Comedies will think that last joke was funny, Tragedies will send angry letters saying "the word 'poop' has no place in a humor column." (You would've hated my boobs columns then.)

Comedies watch Scandal to make fun of it, Tragedies watch Mulaney and fail to see the humor in it. (Of course, so did the Comedies, which is why it was canceled.)

Personally, I don't see the need to entertain myself with sad stories — tales of war, bankruptcy, death, lost love, and personal suffering. I'm not saying these stories aren't important or worthy. They are. But the whole point of escapism is to escape real life sadness and pain. I want to laugh, not bathe in other people's miseries.

Comedies tell me that everything is going to be all right in the end. Tragedies tell me I'm one day closer to the sweet, sweet release of death.

In the end, we'll measure our lives by how much we laughed and how much we enjoyed the journey. Ultimately, we'll all measure the joy in our lives in pounds or in teaspoons.

Personally, I'm going to measure it in newspaper complaint letters. Check back next week for my column about gay weddings that serve non-gluten-free cake shaped like boobs.


Photo credit: Tim Green (Flickr, Creative Commons)


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, January 23, 2015

Karl the Curmudgeon and the Time Capsule

"Hey, Kid. Did you hear about this time capsule they opened up in Boston?"

I heard something about it on the news, I said. Something a couple of the founding fathers hid away to keep the law off their tail, or something like that?

"No, not at all. This was a real historical find."

Look, just because someone stuck a box in a closet 200 years ago doesn't mean it's historical. It just means they didn't do a good job of cleaning up.

We were sitting in The Tilted Windmill, our favorite Dutch bar, watching the Dutch national speed skating championships. I waved at Nicky the bartender for a couple more beers. He brought them over, and set them down. This round's on him, I said, pointing at my friend.

"This isn't any old time capsule, Kid," Karl looked around to see who might be listening, and then leaned in closer. "It's Paul Revere and Sam Adams' time capsule from 1795. It was buried in a cornerstone of an old building, and they recently opened it."

So? I asked. It's not a secret, and it still doesn't sound interesting.

"But think of the history!" he said. "They found some coins, some old newspapers, and a silver plate made by Revere himself. Isn't that cool? Actual objects handled by Revere and Adams. What did you think they would find?"

Mrs. Adams.

"Classy. Don't you care about history at all?"


Sort of, I said. I just don't see what the big deal was. It's not like they buried a secret treasure map. We already know all the cool stuff there is to know about those guys. It's in museums and history books. These guys have been studied and examined so much, the experts know more about them than their own mothers.

"I'm going to be opening a time capsule in May," said Karl, ignoring my cynicism. "I'm a little worried about it." He rubbed his face with his hands. "When I was 16, in 1965, they buried a time capsule at my high school, and several of us students put some items in it — school books, records, the school paper — to show people of the future what our lives were like."

We know what life was like back then. We can see it on TV and in used trinket stores. Hell, there's people like you to tell us about it. What's to worry about?

"That's not it," said Karl. "I'm worried about what else they'll find." He took another drink of his beer, and plonked it half-heartedly on the bar. This was serious.

"As one of their most famous graduates, they want me to be on hand to emcee the event and explain to the students and their parents what's in there. There's going to be a whole big ceremony in the auditorium and everything."

That's great. Congratulations. I'll bet you never expected that.

"No, I never did. I never thought this day would even come. Which is why, after we buried the time capsule, some of my buddies and I dug it back up, and dropped in an extra item."

Uh-oh. I don't like where this is going. What did you put in there?

"A pair of my underwear." I nearly did a spit-take with my beer.

Well, aren't you the rebellious one, I said.

"Give me a break, Kid. It was 1965, and I was 16. We were naive back then. Our idea of hijinks was filling up McDonald's after a football game and not ordering anything."

You mean when you weren't busy playing with your Flash Gordon radio decoder ring.

"Shut up."

So what are you going to do? I asked. You'll have a lot of explaining to do when they open the box, and there's a pair of tidy-whiteys in there.

"It gets worse. My mom had sewn my name in them. What am I going to do, Kid? They're right there on top of everything else."

If it were me, I'd announce my candidacy for office right then and there, and use their little discovery as my slogan.

"Seriously."

BVD. Better Vote Deckers.

"Come on!"

Just remember to keep your speech brief. Try not to lingerie too long.

"I'm serious!"

Of corset you are. I was laughing so hard, I was crying.

"You're not helping."

Perhapth you could even thing a thong.

"That's it, I'm leaving." He drained his beer and walked toward the door.

Karl, you're just not thinking outside the boxers.

Karl shouted something unintelligible and probably vulgar, and slammed the door. I wiped my eyes and saw Nicky holding the bill.

He said, "You should have given him some more support."

Nobody likes a smartass, Nicky.



Photo credit: MoveTheClouds (Flickr, Creative Commons)

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, January 16, 2015

The Adventures of Letterman (In memory of my mother, Linda Lee Maxwell)


Erik's mother passed away on Tuesday, January 13. So we are reprinting a column he wrote in 1997 about one of his favorite memories of his mother, learning, and cartoons.

As a father, I worry about things I never did as a bachelor, and instead think as a parent: Are the kids healthy? Are we feeding them right? Is that Barney the Purple Dinosaur on TV?

I also worry that my daughters are going to start dating earlier than I want (about 40 years too early), or that she is going to make me known across the world as "the father of the biggest serial killer in the entire world," or worst of all, marry an accountant.

When I was a child, my biggest concern was that I didn't miss Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. My baby sister and I watched them every day. But we never, ever missed The Electric Company.

My favorite segment was the Adventures of Letterman. Letterman, voiced by Gene Wilder, was a literary superhero whose costume was a leather football helmet and varsity letterman's sweater. And the letter on his sweater would be the very letter featured in the Electric Company episode. I could never get over the serendipity of it all.

Letterman's nemesis was the evil villain, SpellBinder, who looked like Boris from the Bullwinkle show, and was voiced by Zero Mostel. Spellbinder liked to change items into other items by using his magic wand to change a letter or two in the word — light into night, pickle into tickle. Many of these items had captions, telling the viewer what they were.

In one episode, a container of French fries had the word "snack" above it. One unlucky man sat down at the table, ready to enjoy his "snack" of fries. But Spellbinder had other plans. He zapped his magic wand, changing the "snack" into a. . . "SNAKE!"

The snake wrapped itself around the poor man, and he squeaked out a choked "help," as Spellbinder chuckled evilly. (I never figured out Spellbinder's real goal, but he seemed to enjoy himself.) It seemed the victim's cries would go unheard, but wait! One person did hear: Letterman!

"Faster than a rolling O, more powerful than a silent E, able to leap a capital T in a single bound, it's a bird, it's a plan, it's LETTERMAN!" the narrator, Joan Rivers, shouted. Letterman was attending Calvin Klein University this week, because he sported a 'CK' on his varsity sweater.

But Spellbinder was ready for him. Not only was the snake big enough to crush one helpless victim, he wrapped himself around Letterman too.

"Oh no, what will happen to our literary hero?!" my sister would shout. Actually, she made gurgly noises and pooped in her diaper, because she was a year old, but I knew what she meant.

Letterman wasn't the brightest bulb in the box, so it didn't immediately occur to him that his salvation was on his own chest. But soon, inspiration struck, and he acted.

Joan Rivers said, "Tearing the 'CK' from his varsity sweater, and placing it over the 'KE', he changes the snake. . . back into a snack!!"

This was the coolest thing ever, so I told my mom I wanted to be Letterman. She cut out a few letters — two M's, an L, and an O — and taped three of them to the wall, spelling LOM. She taped the other M to my chest.

Spellbinder had changed my mom into a LOM! I didn't know what that was, but it was nasty — purple and green, with tentacles and eyes growing out of its neck. My mother, always willing to play along with my insanity, even did Joan Rivers' part.

I coached her on her lines for several minutes, so when she started shouting, "faster than a rolling O, stronger than a silent E, able to leap capital T in a single bound!" I raced from the kitchen into the living room, chest puffed out to show off the "M" emblazoned on (taped to) my varsity sweater (Kool-Aid stained t-shirt).

"It's a bird, it's a plan, IT'S LETTERMAN!"

I did the rest of my narration: "Tearing the 'M' from his varsity sweater, Letterman places it over the 'L', changing the Lom back into Mom!"

I had saved the day, the city, and my house. My mom clapped and cheered, and thanked me profusely, assuring me she was very happy to no longer be a Lom.

Which was good for me, because Lom's don't give cookies to their sons.


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, January 09, 2015

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones

Erik is out of the office this week, so we're reprinting a column from 2004 to see if the political climate has changed at all in the intervening 11 years. Although the names have changed, the pettiness and whining have not.

It takes a lot to get politicians in an uproar. They're generally pretty easy going, level-headed, and not prone to immature outbursts about silly issues.

Wait, I was thinking of my children.

Politicians, on the other hand, have an overdeveloped sense of righteous indignation that flares up when they think it will serve a purpose. Which is whenever a journalist is nearby

It's happened twice in the past month, and people on both ends of the political spectrum have gotten their panties in a bunch over public comments made by someone on the other side.

A few weeks ago, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called some California Democrats "girlie men," recalling the Hans and Franz skits from "Saturday Night Live."

He blamed state Democrats for delaying the budget, claiming they were catering to special interests.

"If they don't have the guts to come up here in front of you and say, 'I don't want to represent you, I want to represent those special interests, the unions, the trial lawyers' — if they don't have the guts, I call them girlie men," Schwarzenegger said, according to a CNN.com story.

You would have thought Schwarzenegger had kicked a puppy and told a dirty joke to a group of nuns. Women's groups were apoplectic, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus was livid. Charges of homophobia and misogyny flew like bullets in a Schwarzenegger flick. But following in the tradition of the leaders of his party, the Republican governor didn't apologize for his remarks.

"If they complain too much about this, I guess they're making the governor's point," spokesman Rob Stutzman said to CNN.

The remark also offended actual girlie men around the country, who stamped their little feet and flung their Williams-Sonoma catalogs to the ground.

So with two simple words, Arnold was able to offend two different groups of Californians.

Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Senator John Kerry, managed a similar feat, although she only offended right-wing journalists.

Earlier this week, after being badgered by Colin McNickle, editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — a conservative newspaper — she pointed her finger at him and told him to "shove it."

I presume she didn't mean her finger.

Many news analysts and pundits wondered whether she would be a liability to her husband's presidential campaign.

Of course, these are the same pundits who started using the term "red meat" during the Democratic convention this week, so I wouldn't put too much stock into what they say.

Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, was asked by David Broder of The Washington Post, "Who's in charge of keeping her on message?"

"She just says what she thinks. She's her own person," Cahill replied. "So get bent!"

She really didn't say that last part, but I'm sure she wanted to.

"That's going to be wild if she gets to be first lady," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-IL.), in a story on HillNews.com.

Republicans were actually pretty quiet about the whole incident, which is not that surprising, given the party's gaffes in the last four years.

In 2000, on the campaign trail, then-Governor Bush leaned over to Dick Cheney and pointed out a reporter from the New York Times. "That's Adam Clymer," said Bush. "He's a major league a**hole." "Oh yeah, big time," Cheney added, his rapier wit working overtime.

The problem was, the dissing duo wasn't aware a microphone was picking up their little exchange. The "a**hole" heard 'round the world haunted them for a couple of weeks afterward.

And who can forget last month when, while on the Senate floor, Vice President Cheney invited Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to have sex with himself.

"Go f*** yourself," was actually what he said.

Needless to say, the Republicans can't really complain about Heinz Kerry's "shove it" statement when the Vice President of the United States goes around encouraging US Senators to commit unnatural and nearly impossible sexual acts.

But it makes me wonder, if I ever decide to run for public office, will my own unpredictability and off-the-cuff remarks prove to be a liability? Will I be lambasted by my opponents and the media because of my potty mouth? Would a remark like that eventually prove to be my undoing?

Who knows? But if anyone wants to make an issue of it, they can bite me!


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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