A Thing of Beauty

One of the not-so-fun parts of being a communications professional is that you’re told bad news before giving it to the wider world … and you have to sit on it while working furiously to make its eventual release bullet-proof, or at least minimally palatable. And no matter what you do–how carefully you word the truth (or worse, hide it) and time the delivery–people will be unhappy. Full many a non-communicator has presumed this work is easy–it’s anything but.

Years in the business have toughened me to not take this reality personally. At the same time, I love what I do enough to have a keen awareness of–and appreciation for–communications done right. Done wrong drives me nuts–especially when you can tell the voice is inauthentic and the language contorted to pull the wool over your eyes–but communications done right, that’s a beautiful thing. Especially the worse the news being communicated. That’s when I really sit up and take notice.

The recent announcement by Sweet Briar College, a small women’s college outside Lynchburg, that it was closing its doors brought dismay and sadness to many alumnae, and juicy fodder for an equal number of pundits. What got my admiration, however, was the set of FAQs.

They were beautifully written: straightforward, brief but informative, and anticipated just about every question anyone would ask about this sad but stunning turn of events. The questions in bold type, with clear “why,” “when,” “who,” “what” sentence structure were thorough and respectful.

sweetbriar faq

There was the usual pile-on afterwards, of smug opinionators and “thank God it’s not us” press releases from neighboring institutions, but the stark beauty of those FAQs–and the careful and rigorous list of resources for more information–is what stuck with me.

I appreciated the long hours that must have gone into the drafting and rewriting, the circulating for approval, the posting to the test website, the timing of making it live, the bracing for the onslaught of emotion and back-seat driving, all while the communicators–the writers, the web editors, the PR managers, the photographers– were processing the news and the impact on their own careers.

Disingenuous FAQs are the worst. But those that are frank, truthful, polite, realistic, and kind –that’s a thing of beauty. Most will mourn the beautiful campus that is–was?–Sweet Briar. I’ll celebrate the beauty of the college’s communications. May its authors find new jobs that reward them … and may the rest of us honor their work.


“Brad’s Dad Had Half a Shad Salad”

Am I evil for finding this story about the death of the typewriter a bit–or a lot–treacly and predictable? https://medium.com/backchannel/the-last-of-the-typewriter-men-729f150c5083

The photos were handsome, the writing was detailed, the headline was dramatic … even if it did introduce a curious turn of phrase, “to go obsolete,” rather than “become obsolete” …

The headline was the first warning sign, followed by the Bulwer Lytton-esque “Behind his spectacles was a furrowed brow …” It was a tender portrait, and so heart-felt, I guess,  but … so … easy.

There was no mention of the unexpected popularity of Tom Hanks’s typewriter app, or any look at the number of typewriter repair people anywhere else in the country (ah, Manhattan, where the world begins and ends). Or any fun image that comes to mind when you think of typewriters, viz., Jack Nicholson in The Shining:

I shall now do a deep dive, as business-types like to intone, into the data of fogey-ness by recalling my college days (cue eye-rolling and smartphone-checking) … The sound of multiple typewriters, clacking away on a cold evening when the dorms’ enthusiastic radiators had turned a wintry night into steamy summer, or walking home and hearing a lone scholar–let’s call him or her that, instead of a last-minute slacker–pecking away as the hours crept ever closer to the time the paper was due …

I guess I would have liked a little research from this essay, a little curiosity, a little fun, and less predictable sentiment. It read–Fogey Alert!–like it was written by someone who’d never used a typewriter, or depended on one.

Still, it sent me to a cluttered closet to extract two typewriters I still hang on to, just in case the internet ends and I need a fail-safe. Both are Olivetti machines: my father’s from his university days, and the one he gave me for mine.

my olivettis

My father’s (left) crossed the Atlantic multiple times, in elegant fashion. Mine (right) ground to and from Poughkeepsie, in considerably less tony conveyance. I remembered the sounds and smells of both of them, and their handles and weight felt instantly familiar. I admired the simplicity of their transit needs–no chargers, no software updates, no power supply, no wi-fi. Unzip case, machine on surface, paper behind roller, have at it.

I don’t feel wistful about these old friends, but I do love what they made possible. Published scholarship for my father, and earnest but ropey college papers for me. I don’t mourn their passing because they’re still here and they still work. I put them back on the shelf and wondered if there’d ever come a day when the power would out and everyone would be fuming without their electronics and I would be peacefully pecking away in a corner.

I feel for the writer of the essay I found so unimaginative, for perhaps he never had the experience of relying on these beautifully engineered, efficient machines that will never, at least in my small mind, “go obsolete.” He must have never sat in a classroom full of pimpled students pounding out “Brad’s dad had half a shad salad” or sweated through a timed typing test before you could hope for an office job.

Writing is still as difficult and clumsy as it’s ever been, and my tardy blog entries are testimony to that. But I do not mourn the decline of the typewriter industry. Oh dear–I’m hard-hearted. But I do thank the author, however, for this inspiration and for bringing to mind one of my favorite images for motivation:

Embed from Getty Images


P.G. Wodehouse at work: “I just sit at the typewriter and curse a bit.”

Chance Encounters

I’m bracing myself for some rousing debates as we start planning the renewal of Alderman Library, a 1938 building that has finally creaked its way it to the top of the university’s capital projects list. I expect the first argument to come roaring out of the starting gates will be the usual books-versus-technology debate.

In this corner we’ll have the people who love to stroll the stacks and peruse the books, perhaps sink into the book-lined library aura that makes you want to read and think. In the opposite corner will be the folks who say everything is online, they never enter the building, and there’s never enough technology. Both will make their case with great passion, and neither will budge.

I see both sides of the argument but wish we could dig a little deeper before seizing the keyboard. I wish we could take the time to chew on our assumptions a bit before we fling ourselves upon our horses and ride madly off in all directions.

For example: If we keep buying books, where do we put them? How do we afford that real estate? If we focus on online content, what happens when the publisher goes out of business? Or when the hardware evolves and can’t read it?

I work in a research library immersed in these questions. But as I think about this Alderman overhaul, I remember a tour I gave last summer. I was doing my usual book-loving thing, scanning the shelves as we passed them, when my eyes fell upon the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) annual report from 1984.

My mind flashed to when I worked at the NEH then. I was the lowest grade in the government job hierarchy, lived in a basement rental in a neighborhood then known as “the Yuppie Slum” (now re-branded as “Upper Georgetown”), and shopped at the “Social Safeway” (abundant food and politician-sightings) and the “Soviet Safeway”(long lines and scarcity). I developed keen peripheral vision for cockroaches and parking spaces, and made so little money that dinner was often a lone porkchop (and a smoked cockroach, if it had been hiding in the gas burner). It was great.

I snapped back to reality (and attention). The NEH’s annual reports have been online since 1997 but would I have ever sought them out? Should the value of a research library–whose primary purpose is supporting serious scholarship–include its ability to spur your memory, bump you into something you hadn’t thought about in a long, long time?

And is that memory valuable? Is it useful that I can find and read books I read as a child? (Though the U.Va. Library has, distressingly, banished Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, to the offsite storage facility. I am comforted, however, by the catalog record’s pithy summary: “Burt goes fishing, takes refuge from a storm in a whale’s stomach, and decorates a whole school of whales’ tails with striped band-aids.”) Are moments like this silly and fleeting, or do they deliver something deeper? Is that part of a library’s role, too?

burt dow from amazon

I expect we’ll have some fun exchanges among the various stakeholders and, if we’re lucky, a nice, big, loud, passionate debate as we develop the plan for Alderman. It’s gonna be chaos and I can’t wait. I am sure we’ll eventually arrive at a good compromise: something appropriately Jeffersonian, that honors tradition and the future at the same time. And that always keeps Burt Dow somewhere.

From Nest to Nine West

The last time I fell for a print ad was this spring, when, in a perpetual quest to boost my already-dazzling intellectual firepower, I was reading a fashion magazine. There was a series of one-page, full-color ads from Nest, the hipper-than-thou smoke detector that wakes you with a gentle, “Heads up, there’s smoke,” in a sultry female voice rather than the thousand-decibel boat-horn blast that lesser devices emit.

That said, I discovered last week that the Nest still beeps constantly when its batteries are low, and it was curiously cryptic when it sent a red message to my iPad hours earlier. (“Smoke detected. Emergency call made.”) I poked, I sniffed, I opened every door in the house when I got home, but no evidence of fire. My husband suggested that the cat tried to sneak a cigarette.

coal on carpet cropped

Now I spent years practicing the dark arts of corporate advertising, and I pride myself on knowing all–or most–of its seductive wiles. In fact, I study magazine ads more than the articles. I leave the room for more nachos when the game is on, so I don’t miss any commercials. You won’t find me square in a marketer’s cross-hairs.

Or so I like to think. Then I saw a masterpiece of print advertising: the shoe company Nine West’s four-page insert in Real Simple magazine. The creative had concise, clever copy, sharp, clean design, and brilliant media placement (the part of advertising that most people ignore, but is as fine a skill as creating the ad itself).

The first page was this:

9west starter

Note the clear “Hunger Games” (female hunting others with a bow) and the saucy “starter husband” references. Good fun for the young, who might enjoy the worldly idea of a starter husband, and for the old(er), who know full well that divorce is an expensive nightmare but have had years to make a comic anecdote out of it. The pants are cool and the shoes are fierce.

Turn the page and you get the next ad:

9west shoe2

Sweet (pale pink coat, memories of that first day when the world was young and you were adorable) but not entirely (boss heels, edgy zipper, an adult leaving weepy Kleenexes). A combination calculated to get your attention, tastefully but slyly off-beat.

Then the third:

9west eyewear

Hilarious. Exactly how we all wish we could approach a salary discussion: calm, chic, and a force to be reckoned with.

And finally:

9west watch

It’s after work now, you’re out for some speed dating (fun with no commitment!), your sweater matches your flowers (hey, did someone give those to you?), your jeans, figure, and manicure are flawless, and your watch is a pop of stylish blue. Who wouldn’t want to look like this? Blammo. Nine West aimed and got the shot.

So in four quick, clever, colorful pages, placed in the center of “the book,” with minimal copy, a reinforcing URL, and beautiful images layered with sly references to familiar feelings, Nine West delivered a sexy, fun introduction to its fall line.

There’s a lot of bad advertising out there. But print advertising–like any kind–can be done well, and when it is, it’s a blast.

OK, So Here’s My Grandmother’s Famous Recipe

I feel like a heartless mutant when I watch the Cooking Channel. Or read a cooking magazine. For they are awash in tender stories of maternal figures and their recipes. The author gushes about the perfection of the dish and the grandmother has a cuddly name like Nana or Nonna or Bammy or Bubka. “A timeless recipe handed down for generations …” intones the narrator, as I take another swig of chardonnay and wonder what it’s like to have a grandmother who cooked.

Mine didn’t. No big welcoming bosom or kitchen filled with homey smells. “Grandmama”–an intimidating name when your five-year-old paws are struggling to write the required post-birthday thank-you note–wore flowing caftans with exotic jewelry and talked politics with my parents in the living room of her well-appointed house in Princeton, as my brothers and I crashed around upstairs, riding her Exercycle at furious speeds and generally beating each other up.

Dinner wasn’t tender pasta or homemade kugel. It was scary. Aspic or consomme to start, followed by fish with interminable bones that we had to pick apart while pretending to listen to the adult conversation. Then I heard the command: “So, Charlotte, scintillate.”

I froze. Then offered something feeble about a book I was reading. I don’t remember what happened next, but I do know that this terrifying command is finally the recipe that I get to pass down for generations. It’s a recipe for keeping the conversational ball rolling during a meal, a topic rarely touched by cooking shows or magazines. You never find out if those beautiful people sitting in a candlelit field eating flawless food have anything to say to each other, or worse, are having any fun at all.

Years later I was working for Nasdaq and sitting at a dinner table with CFOs of high-tech companies. They were gazillionaires who were perfectly ept at making money but remarkably inept at making dinner conversation. “So, scintillate,” I thought, then went to work extracting their extracurricular interests. This meant asking them questions to get them on a comfortable topic (themselves). I quickly got my ingredients–one loved scuba diving in exotic waters and several collected race cars– then sat back and watched a good antler contest about who drove the fastest car or did the deepest dive.

Seeing if you can make people scintillate is my favorite recipe. It’s served me through business dinners, job interviews, classes, parties, and even jury duty. Thanks to my grandmother, strangers to me are oysters that need to be opened to see if there’s an interesting  pearl inside. So I’ll never be an adored Nana, hands covered in flour, smiling beatifically as she makes perfect pasta, children looking up with tears of gratitude in their eyes. But I can pass on the recipe for making a good time at a dinner table. So scintillate.