Another side of covering Princess Diana’s death

Tdianacarhe phone rang at 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 31, 1997. I was fast asleep. On the other end of the line was Tom Watkins, an assignment editor on CNN’s national. “I’m sure you’ve heard by now Princess Diana is dead,” he intoned.” I actually hadn’t because I had gone to bed early. Then Watkins laid my assignment on me. It came directly from CNN’s hardnosed president, Rick Kaplan.  He ordered a piece on the braking system in the Mercedes Benz Diana was riding in.  Deadline, 7 a.m.  Sure. I pulled on some clothes and dragged myself the 7 miles down to the CNN Detroit Bureau, which was actually located in suburban Southfield. Fat chance getting an interview in the middle of the night but maybe I could find a way to pull something together for a first run at 7.

When I got to the bureau I combed our tape (1997, remember) library and it was then any belief I had in a higher power was confirmed. Sitting  on the shelf was a handout video from Mercedes Benz: “Safety systems for S-280.” Are you kidding? Like a parched pilgrim in the desert I devoured the shot list stuck inside the box and and feasted on the entry that read “Animation of S-280 braking system.” Now I had something to work with. Using the animation as the centerpiece for the package I was able to find all sorts of information about its workings on the Mercedes media website and assorted press kits we kept around the bureau. It wasn’t much, but it was something. I cobbled together a script and submitted it by about 3 a.m. Once approved, I used my sparse editing skills to produce the piece, then fed it by satellite to Atlanta for air.

The fusty Kaplan was pleased but wanted more since the network was in full wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy. “Keep adding elements to it,” were my orders. What I needed was an interview as to how lousy the braking system actually was and whether or not it could have contributed to the crash.

I had worked with plaintiff safety advocate Ralph Hoar in the D.C. area on several stories and decided to give him a try.  Ralph’s company provided information for plaintiffs involved in various lawsuits involving vehicle safety and I was sure he would have something I could use. Normally, we’d get him to go into CNN’s Washington D.C. bureau for the interview then it would be fed to Atlanta where an editor would insert whatever soundbite I chose into my piece.

Curveball.  I did reach Ralph. He said he could definitely offer some thoughts but explained he was on his way to Richmond, Virginia to see his father. Oh no, not just a weekend jaunt to see the folks. He said his father was dying and he expected this would be his farewell.  Of  course I apologized for disturbing him as he undertook this very sad task, offered my deep sympathies, hung up then pondered my next step.

Unbelievably, a few minutes later Ralph Hoar called me back. “I know what a spot you’re in, Ed. I would be willing to go to a Richmond TV station to do the interview.” I replied that while I appreciated the gesture very much I couldn’t possibly cause him to lose even a second with his dad, but he insisted…and did the interview.

cnnhoarWith Ralph’s comments I now had a substantial package that played for the next 36 hours on all the CNN networks and was fed out to the affiliates. Kaplan and the producers were happy and I must say, I was relieved to have pulled this off..but not without the extraordinary help from Ralph Hoar. I ended up sending him a large gift basket from Harry and David and that seemed to make him very happy. “You’re a classy guy,” he said when he called me. “You have me forever.”

The epilogue to this is by September of 2001 I had left CNN and was the national auto writer for the Associated Press. I kept in touch with Ralph Hoar and knew he had been ill. I had no idea how ill. He died that month of prostate cancer. Even though I was based in Detroit, I asked for, and was granted permission to write Ralph’s obit for the wire.

And now, whenever Aug. 31st comes around and the world is thinking about the death of Princess Diana, I think of my late friend Ralph Hoar, who sacrificed precious time with his fading father to help a reporter who was in a “spot.”

 

 

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Workspace-d out

cubeI don’t need much space to do my work. I’m good with enough surface space for my computer, phone, and a flat area close to me where I can place my coffee cup and maybe a pad of paper. Yeah..I like pads…with paper. I call them MYpads as I semi-conduct myself in today’s tech-obsessed world.  I’m also good with one drawer where I can keep a couple of pens and extra MYpads and my lunch bag.

Truthfully, that’s all the space most anyone needs, but they always want more. I bring this up because we recently were notified that our workspaces will be upgraded. To what? You can’t make my desk any flatter, I’ve got plenty of surface space and I already have THREE desk drawers, two of which are empty.

Everyone is entitled to a clean, comfortable, functional workspace… one suitable for the job..but the fact is, however, corporate culture can sometimes fool you into thinking the size and amenities of your workspace translates into power, self-worth and respect, resulting in misguided and honestly, idiotic aspirations.

For example, at the very large company from which I retired last year one can walk up and down an office suite and immediately discern the pay level of an employee.  The spaces ranged from deep, narrow cubes that looked like the chutes holding a rodeo calf before it’s released, then hogtied by a cowboy. The similarity is not unintentional. The occupant of such a demeaning space is being sent the message that you are just meat on the hoof, performing some simple task with little hope of advancement.

As your pay level, or “band” increases, your cube becomes less shallow, but wider with a little more surface space, more desk drawers, even overhead bins and a little counter with enough room to entertain one lucky visitor.

But the Holy Grail is the GLASS ENCLOSED OFFICE. It takes years to land one of those and every single employee aspires to occupy one. It says, “I’m hot shit! I have power! I’m important! I know more than you!” Indeed, many of those pining to spend their days in a corporate isolation booth have no desire to attain this dubious achievement..they just want the damn office.

Indeed, when I was promoted to such a level that included the granting of a glass office I asked to remain in my current, more open workspace. I was denied this request by HR, firmly scolding me that doing so would “send the wrong message.”  I explained that I would perform to the standards that landed me the promotion and, at the same time, stay in better touch with my team by working in an open space, but again, it was explained that I would not receive the proper respect of co-workers unless I worked in a space too big, too hot and stuffy and isolated. So I moved into the cell that made me feel like a convicted felon. Suddenly, people who had sniffed at me previously came by and wanted to give me high-fives for reaching bureaucratic nirvana. At the same time, latent jealousies were exposed and one whiny co-worker who had hoped to occupy that office went crying to her supervisor that she was cheated.

When I explained this moronic culture to my Italian boss his face turned grey as he said to me, “you are lying to me. Who could come up with such a foolish system?” Heh. Tell the CEO to end it. He didn’t.

Now, in semi-retirement, I’m often able to work from home in a small office of my making. I get a lot done in that little room. The door is always open. So is the window. But when I’m asked to come to my assigned workspace at my part-time job, I’m fine with my little cube, space for my laptop, drawer with my coffee cup, two pens and some MYpads..and I feel pretty freakin’ good about myself…and get the job done.   You see, the physical space you work in isn’t nearly as important as your mental space..it’s where your talent and motivation live.

My (no) spin on fidgeting

fidgetspinner1Do you use a Fidget Spinner? You do? Are you insane or have you run out of body parts, paper clips or salamanders to play with when feeling anxious, frustrated or lonely? Perhaps you’re just too damned proud of your precious finger nails. If who, or what, ever came up with humans didn’t want finger nails to be bitten, he/she/it/them/Mattel wouldn’t have made them so damn soft and available.

fidgetykid1Fidgeting is a part of life and those of us who count ourselves among the neurotic, introverted and impatient depend on personally disruptive behavior to attenuate our inner chaos.

I learned at an early age fidgeting is frowned upon. It came at the hands of my first grade teacher, Miss Silliman, at P.S. 186 (Castlewood School) in Queens, New York. castlewoodschoolAllow me to share two instances of her version of “behavior moderation” circa 1959, when teachers were still permitted to torture students in order to get them to draw straight chalk lines on the blackboard.

We were sitting in the old favorite “reading circle,” which was actually set up as a convenience for teachers to more easily choose targets for corporal punishment. The truth was, “Dick and Jane” was so freaking’ boring and I always hoped Spot the dog would take a dump on the school bus. I found myself losing interest in the dull narrative and skipped ahead to see if Dick ever knocked up Jane. You might think that’s quite a precocious thought for a first grader, but this was the big city and we kids knew things. I had flipped a couple of pages when “wham!” Miss Silliman’s veiny right paw whacked the book out of my hands sending crashing to the floor. “Edwaaaaarrrrrrd!” she yelled, making the sound not dissimilar to that of a porcupine pleasuring itself. “Yooouuuuu weeerrrrrrrrrrrre FIDGETING!!!!!!!! LEAVE THE CIRCLE!!!!!” I did, with pleasure, secretly smirking that I could now totally tune out of “Dick and Jane” with no further punishment.  Just to piss her off, I kept the book in my lap over in my corner, and continued flipping the pages.

Unfortunately, another devout fidgeter in the class, Bud Levy (not his real name..the real guy may still be in the workforce) thought I was lucky to be banned from the reading circle so he got up from his seat and started dancing the hora. Not only did this set off Miss Silliman again, it reminded her she was an old maid and that she would never have a wedding where guests danced the hora. She was also not Jewish. Taking a new tack, the wicked witch of Room 102 wordlessly walked over to Bud, picked him up by the scruff of his collar and placed him in the wastebasket, with the gentle admonition, “that should limit your fidgeting.” But Bud was devoted to the cause and also had zero control of his habit and proceeded to dance in the wastebasket, hopping all over the room making a racket as the aluminum pail repeatedly clunked on the floor. Defeated, but unbowed, Miss Silliman yanked Bud from the basket walked him to the classroom door, sent him into the hallway and closed the door leaving Bud free to fidget his way up and down the hallways of all three of P.S. 186’s floors.  Poor Bud never heard the end of it because school kids are inherently cruel and since it was many years before cowards could hide behind social media we took great joy in hectoring him in person and relishing the instant feedback in the form of his major embarrassment and truly accomplished technique at flipping us off.

To this day I’m sort of a fidgety guy. I have little patience for boring meetings, self-important speakers who are full of crap, self-help books, or hockey games involving NHL teams from cities in the south and southwest U.S. that don’t actually have ice, or a winter.

fidgetspinner2No matter to what degree I fidget I would never buy something artificial to bite or spin or abuse. It would just end up in the wastebasket.

Totally Eclipsed

eclilpseAre you excited about the upcoming solar eclipse? I am, because any time it’s dark enough to take a nap during the day without closing the curtains, I’m all for it.

I understand hotels, motels and airlines are taking advantage of people who are generally in the dark by hiking rates and fares to areas where you can experience the total effect of the eclipse.  Anyone falling for that highway robbery deserves to have their lights out.  Not me. I understand that in Michigan where I live, I’ll be able to experience some degree of darkness and that’s pretty much all I need. You see, you can get the same experience of a large body blocking the light by walking behind the typical Walmart customer. Just make believe their butt crack is one of those “canals” they think are on Mars.

eclipsemapPersonally, I enjoy the talk about eclipses because I like the words “umbra” and “penumbra.” You don’t get to use them very often because we most often opt for the more common “shadow”  or “whoa! It’s freakin’ dark!”

If I still lived in NYC I might grab a spot on 8th Avenue and set up shop hawking special total eclipse “PenUmbraEllas!” After all, you don’t wanna get any of those dark shadows falling on your head before ducking into the subway, or a Shake Shack. New Yorkers love to buy crap from guys on the street with merchandise piled in large cardboard boxes, especially if you tell them it’s been “imported from Miami Beach.”

I think I’ll just sit on my deck, which faces the woods, crack open a Summer Shandy, and wait for something spooky to emerge, like a guy wearing spats, every once in awhile yelling to the moon, “down in front! Can’t see the sun!” And sure enough, it’ll take one small spin for mankind..and move its cratered ass.

August and Everything …

augustandeverythingOne of my favorite CDs is “August and Everything After” by the Counting Crows released in 1993. It’s full of angst, honesty and the kind of whining I fondly recall from my days at Hebrew school during especially difficult attempts at properly applying tefillin. Lead singer/songwriter Adam Duritz is the spitting image of other guys in my bar mitzvah prep class who had hair that would not support wearing a yarmulke forcing them to make liberal use of bobby pins, which only made them appear more goofy, yet almost pious.   adam

I bring this up because here we are in August—a month when nothing particularly momentous happens, punctuated by the NFL pre-season when success in games that don’t count are a sure harbinger of an utterly disastrous regular season, when they do.

It’s easy to understand why Duritz and the Crows chose August as part of the title of their musically brilliant but lyrically downbeat collection because August represents the transition between the joy of summer and the dread that “everything after” includes like the chill winds of fall, the tedium of raking leaves and the winter freeze. While I personally enjoy the change of seasons I would vote they be distributed thusly: Summer, 6 months; Spring, 2 months; Winter, 6 weeks; Fall, what’s left. I know, I know, some people love fall, the turning of the leaves, the golden sunrises. I’m sure if you asked the Counting Crows they’d explain in their dark logic that Fall is but the threshold into the dark, frigid tundra that is winter, when you lose your boy or girlfriend and you slip on the ice in such a way as to become permanently impotent.

I like a lot of songs on “August and Everything After,” but one that always gets to me is the fabulously pathetic “Raining in Baltimore.” Duritz whines that he “needs” the following: a raincoat, a phone call, a sunburn, a plane ride, a big love, but especially the raincoat which dominates the final lines of the whine: I need a raincoat
I really need a raincoat
I really, really need a raincoat
I really, really, really need a raincoat
I really need a raincoat

When I grew up in New York, if you needed a raincoat you had two choices: The old chain Bonds, or a guy on Broadway with cardboard boxes full of them.  Poor old Adam just has to put a little more effort into it. These days, of course, you can easily pick up a raincoat online but you don’t get the cheesy salesman to tell you “ya look like a successful bra merchant in that one!”

As for the sunburn, plane ride, phone call and big love, those are issues for his shrink, or a quick search on Amazon.

Yes, August is perhaps the most dismal month of the year. Hot, featureless, bereft of holidays and hope. The kind of emptiness that I imagine makes Adam Duritz happy and inspires him to write catchy tunes like “Mr. Jones” that belie that fact they are actually paeans to pathetic goals where “we all wanna be big stars.” But August is the perfect month to be pathetic, because honestly, there’s nothing else going on. There’s joy in that….and everything after.

 

 

Reflections on a year of retirement, unretirement, semi-retirement

retirementcakeThis week marks a year since I retired. It also marks eight months since I retired from retiring, although only partially. When I swiped my badge for the last time after 11 years at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on July 29, 2016 I took a deep breath as I imagined a freed prisoner having done hard time would do,  inhaling fresh air and marveling in the blue sky and bright sun. My lockups had been conference rooms and stuffy offices. My shackles were a corporate culture where too many employees cared about the size of their workspaces rather than the quality of their work…with the bold exception of my amazing FCA Digital Media team…the best in the business. fcadig

Now, all I had to navigate were the aisles of the supermarket with my wife who, like a field general, marched us from meat to melons to milk plundering the shelves and making a beeline to the checkout unscathed by less focused shoppers, meandering with their carts with no purpose or strategy. cartWe emerged the victors every single time reveling in many dollars of coupon savings.  We went out to lunch and paddled the Huron River, hiked nearby trails and took roadtrips.  There was no schedule, no Outlook calendar entries, no meetings or town halls. There was only all the time in the world to do whatever, whenever. We ate dinner as a family every single night and spent every night together. It was perfect. It was retirement. It was too good to last.

It ended on October 17th. That’s the day I began a part-time job at Automotive News on their video team. ANNblogWe would say I was now, “semi-retired” which means you work a little..in my case a max of 29 hours a week, have no career aspirations other than keeping your nose clean, doing a great job and having some fun while you earn a few bucks to pay your Medicare and bourbon bills. When you show up people seem happy. When you need to take a day off for one thing or another, no one minds and when you offer some insight based on many years of experience, it’s appreciated. Sometimes I show my age with some timeworn reference and my younger colleagues give me crap, but it’s all in fun because they know I have no interest in their jobs. They work a full damned week! I have every Friday off and most any other day if I need one. Maybe the best part of it all is having a chance to continue to do the kind of work I’ve enjoyed for so many years, but in much smaller bites. Most days I’m home by 2 or 3 and rarely, if ever, miss dinner. I still play ice hockey once in awhile and mow my own lawn.

I’m no Rockefeller (timeworn reference) but we’re comfortable, so it’s not about the paycheck. The currency I crave comes in denominations of relevance, sharing, team work, curiosity, social connection and fun.

I don’t know when I’ll make the move back from “semi” to full retirement. Right now I’m having too much fun..and I’m still around enough to push the shopping cart for my wife at the supermarket, lug the heavy jugs of milk and juice, and reach some items on the top shelves..on my tippy toes.