Wednesday, January 05, 2005


In Which I Will Be More Careful What I Wish For...

As a kid, life as a magazine editor struck me as incredibly cool and important. Like most kids whose lives will someday be ruined by endless magical thinking, I naturally imagined that by becoming a magazine editor, I would likewise have coolness and importance conferred upon me. Also, I would become dashing and handsome and smart and funny and spend a lot of my time jet-setting around the world and going to parties and rubbing elbows with famous people, such as Lee Majors or Randolph Mantooth, the two coolest celebrities I knew of at 10.

By the time I was in high school and actually started pitching stories to magazines, my imaginings had changed, insofar as the famous people had become swimsuit models. Otherwise, it was all pretty consistent in my head.

Here's how a typical day would go:

As a key guy in the office, one of my fellow editors would be waiting for me when I came in. Like most of my coworkers, he looked to me for answers ("Hey, MM, I need a headline for the news story on incontinence." And I'd reply, "How about 'Looking Out For Number One'?").

Nubile young editorial assistants (NYEAs) would linger around my office, hanging on my every word, watching me while I edited layouts with one hand, conducted important telephone interviews with the other, and typed a last-minute story with my third hand.

I would live life like a character in a movie, and my day would be the line in the script that says: MONTAGE--Shots of Magazine Man at the office (on the phone, writing, taking time to offer guidance to a NYEA, running out the door to chase a story (dramatic sweeping shot as he dashes into traffic), doing a guest spot on a talk show (cutaway when the host laughs), settling in for a quiet evening, martini in one hand, beautiful woman in the other. SOUNDTRACK: Some cool, funky 70s number. Loop and run forever.

And then I actually got my first job as a magazine editor. At a trade magazine. In the warehouse district, where dashing into traffic meant getting crushed by a vegetable truck. The youngest editorial assistant on staff was a grandmother. And as I slaved away over my first story--about the tensile strengths of assorted chain-link fences--it dawned on me that I might have ended up in the wrong movie. Which always struck me as a terrible injustice.

Until today.

I came in late, so I'm hurrying along to my office. I was out Monday, and one of my department's stories blew up yesterday, so here's one of my editors, actually following me to my desk, layout in hand. Complete rewrite needed. Layout changes. And the issue closes in 5 hours.

"I've got to finish another story," he says, looking pained.

I hold out my hand. "Give me the layout."

As he leaves, he says, "Copy desk needs a headline for that story yesterday. The chief hated the first one." I get to my office, call the copy desk, blurt out the first thing that comes to my mind, hang up, turn on the computer and get working on the rewrite. While I'm typing, the phone rings.

It's the editor-in-chief's editorial assistant. "Did you get the chief's email?" she asks. Of course not. Haven't turned email on yet. Promise to do it as soon as I finish the rewrite. But of course, curiosity gets the better of me and I open my email to discover the chief wants me to fill in for her, doing a little human-interest spot.

On the 6 o'clock news.



Oh dear God.

I haven't done a TV spot since my book tour, and that was 7 years ago. It's not that I don't like going on TV. It's kind of fun. If I have, oh, a week to prepare. If I'm talking about something I know cold, like, say, a book that I spent a year of my life writing. Instead, I'm being asked to do something about winter and cabin fever and cool products and fun videos. Tonight!! Already I'm in a flop-sweat.

I need time to prep talking points. I need time to do the rewrite. I need time to make layout changes. I need a vitamin B shot.

I keep plugging away at the rewrite, when the phone rings. It's the head of the magazine's PR department, calling to go over tonight's segment, which the chief has already told them I'll do. As we talk, I see something in the layout pages I didn't see before and start jotting notes and move-here lines, while listening to the PR guy with half an ear. I get off the phone, grab the layout pages and spring out of my chair to run it over to a designer. I almost knock over our new editorial assistant. She's a pert young woman, fresh out of college, with great ambitions in magazines. I don't usually interact with her, but she's been trying to come up with some story ideas and she has one that she thinks would work in my department. Can she bounce them off me?

"In a minute," I say, then dash off to layout, while she waits in my office.

I come back, we bat ideas around. Ninety-eight percent of my mental functions are thinking about the rewrite and the prep work for the TV segment. I have no idea what I'm saying to her, but she's laughing a lot, so that could be really good or just plain godawful. I remark that watching me slowly turn into a smoldering husk must be quite a thing to see up close, and she laughs some more. While we're talking, here comes another editorial assistant: the chief's assistant again. She wants to know what I'll be talking about on the segment tonight. I answer honestly, soberly, "I haven't the vaguest idea." It's not funny, but it gets the biggest laugh of all.

The assistants leave. I finish the rewrite, merge the story document with the new layout and file the story with 14 minutes to spare before the issue closes. I work on the talking points. I field four more calls from various PR people as well as the producer over at NBC for tonight's segment. She tells me to prep enough material to fill 2 to 4 minutes. That's a LOT in TV time. And to get to the studio in time for make-up and sound check, I have to leave the office in about...20 minutes.

While I'm working on my notes, the PR assistant comes in. She has a cover of the current issue that she wants me to bring to the studio so they can use it as a graphic. The assistant for the Web site is on her heels. She has a unique URL she wants me to plug, or give to the producer so they can put a link on their site. The chief's assistant comes back with a couple of important you-better-mention-this-or-else notes from the chief. By now I'm rocking in my seat, tugging at my hair. The young women all get very quiet, deposit their notes for me and leave.

Time to leave! Shit! Shit! My talking points consist of the following:

Nxt ish on sale nxt wk.

Winter? Snow!

Cool products
List here

Kids get cold. Moms too.

Cookies and Bambi!

URL is [can't read my own handwriting here]"

I dash to my car. Thank God I drove to work today! won't start. Car actually will not start. Do a little freakout dance, then remember something: the studio is actually just across town. I'll never get a cab this time of day, but it's only a few blocks--okay, quite a few. I still have time. If I run.

So there's me, sprinting down the sidewalk, cutting across parking lots and finally weaving between not-quite-stopped cars in the middle of a very busy street at rush hour. One driver has his window rolled down and I can hear the absurdly funky strains of the song "Rubber-Band Man." Six hours later, I can still hear it.

Defeating all odds, I reach the studio lobby only three minutes late. They whisk me up to makeup, where they brush frozen flecks of spittle off my face and hold a hurried conversation with wardrobe as to whether or not the enormous sweat stains will show on TV. No time! "Keep your arms down, honey," says the wardrobe lady, pushing me out the door.

And then I'm on a set. Far from the anchor desk, in the set that looks like the fake living room of a morning show. They mic me and pop an earplug in my ear.

"Thirty seconds," a voice says in my ear.

"What?!?" I shriek.

The cameraman says, "That's the producer telling the anchors when the next commercial is. She'll talk to you by name when it's your turn."

"Oh thank Christ," I mutter.

"OH THANK CHRIST!" booms my voice from a nearby control room. The sound engineers cackle, then give the thumbs-up. "Mic checks okay."

Now the producer's in my ear again, telling me I'm up after the commercial break. Silently, I utter the Astronaut's Prayer ("Dear God, don't let me fuck up.")

And suddenly I'm live in millions of homes (maybe even yours). And a correspondent (not the anchor) is talking about winter doldrums and lifestyle blather, and here's our resident expert at the Really Big Magazine to give us some tips for making winter fun for you and your family.

And suddenly, a wave of dead calm descends on me. I've been here before. I've done this a million times (okay, a dozen). And I smile. And I project Real Warmth. And I mention my own kids by name and talk about some of the things I've done with them. And I tie it back to a story I just-that-second remembered is in our latest issue (on newsstands now).

The anchor interrupts me: "But tell me: everyone wants to go sledding this time of year. My son wants to go downhill really fast. Any hints to help him out?"

And I'm like, Wha? Sleds? Hunh? The producer didn't say anything about this.

And in the same instant, I see myself at the age of 5, and I see my dad spraying the barest mist of WD-40 on the bottom of my old plastic sled and winking at me.

And I hear myself say: "Well, if you want to go like the dickens, try a spray-on lubricant like WD-40 on the bottom."

I freeze. Did I just say "SPRAY-ON lubricant" or "STRAP-ON lubricant"?

And then we're out of time and the anchor is signing off. I was on the air for 35 seconds. Walking back to the office, my wife calls on the cell phone. The kids are screaming in the background. Daddy was on TV! And said their names! And I gripe: Four hours of prep time and fretting about my performance and I'm in and out in 35 seconds. My wife diplomatically refrains from making a sex joke, and promises to fix me a drink when I get home.

Back at the office, I'm the only one there. Except for our new editorial assistant, fresh out of college. She wants to know what it was like, being on TV after a long day of being an editor. "I can't wait to do what you do," she gushes.

And I hear myself saying: "Be careful what--"

Aw hell, you know the rest.

From Somewhere On the Masthead

Damn! Damn! Damn! I missed it!
Great read. I only wished I saw you on TV too, you know, so I could have checked for sweat stains.
You had me laughing so hard I had to explain to my officemate what was so funny.

Ahhhh... the imagininings of childhood and the cold hard reality of adulthood.

Wow, what a great story.
So what was your drink when you got home? Martini,Bourbon, Scotch? Rum and coke?

I ask because I think I would need a least a gallon of each to calm to calm down after that.
In fact, it was a martini, but a Cosmopolitan, not a traditional. (My wife has a thing for Citron vodka) But by the end of that day, I would have taken anything with an alcohol base: vodka, Scope, nail polish remover...
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