Friday, March 23, 2007


In Which I Am A Guest in My Own House...

The Masthead has gone remote tonight. For a change, we're reporting from a portion of the Magazine Mansion you don't usually hear from: the guest room.

Yes, sports fans, I'm sleeping here tonight--possibly longer than tonight--but it's not for reasons you'd think. I'm not in trouble--at least, no more than usual. It's just that Her Lovely Enormously Pregnant Self (Version 3.0) has reached the end stage and it's never pretty. I mean that in an attitudinal way, of course--HLEPS is never so lovely as she is when she's bearing my children. But she's reached a point where she's ready to start pushing yet she's still some weeks away from anything approaching dilation. That doesn't mean that she's not supremely uncomfortable. She's also tired from lack of sleep (HLEPS is a stomach sleeper, so pregnancy is always hard on her beauty rest), her hip ligaments have loosened to the point where she's unsteady on stairs and inclines, the backs of her legs are killing her. The only comfortable position she can find is when she's lying slightly on her side, arms and legs spread, with a giant pillow stuffed under her equally giant stomach. As you can imagine, this takes up most of the bed. We have a queen-size, thank God, but last night, she kept hitting me in the kidneys with her feet and knees and then huffing at me to move as though no other spouse in the world would be so inconsiderate as to kick her in the knees with his kidneys. So finally, I said, "You know, I could make up the bed in the guest room and sleep there so you could have this one to yourself." Which I said in a kind of joking way. But then she looked up at me with those teary eyes of hers and said, "Really? Okay." So here I am.

As requests from my pregnant wife go, this really isn't that extreme (that honor would go to the time I caught the manager of our local Dairy Queen in the parking lot at 10 o'clock one October night and groveled until he opened back up so I could bring two Blizzards back to HLEPS (Version 1.0). And I had to make them myself). And to be perfectly honest, it's nice here. Staying in a different part of the house is always a bit exciting and novel, like getting to sit in the back of the van with the kids instead of driving. Blaze certainly was pleased to see the door to the guest room open for a change. He LOVES the guest room, associating it as he does with my parents, who of course stay there when they visit, and who of course let him sleep on the bed with them.

It's kind of exciting to come up on the final few weeks of what will almost certainly be our last pregnancy, but it's kind of hard too. This is always a difficult phase because this is the time when HLEPS starts to dwell on all the things that are less than perfect in her life and you can bet yours truly is at the top of the hit parade. I try to let all of this roll off my back, and in my experience, HLEPS tends to feel enormously guilty and apologetic afterwards. But I'm no idiot. There's a lot of truth to what she says, and on some level she means a good bit of it.

So for those of you who have tended to view my self-effacing manner as some kind of attempt to be cute and endearing, let me set you all straight with the top 5 on HLEPS's hit parade of my greatest faults:

I am a nigh-faithless heathen. It's true: Despite my confirmation credentials marking me as a Soldier of Christ, I came from a half-Catholic family where the Catholic half wasn't so Catholic to begin with. We almost never went to church. I have catalogued some of my struggles with the faith elsewhere, so the fact that I still attend Mass with my family is an impressive shift and one that my wife should feel proud to have accomplished. After all, it was through her example that I began to reconsider certain aspects of Catholicism and managed to overcome a significant amount of cynicism in order to be with her Sunday mornings. But it's still not enough. I offend her when I joke that I'm giving up self-restraint for Lent; it rankles that I don't jump right up and volunteer to do more at our church.

I am pretty useless around the house. Despite a few examples over the years, HLEPS is at this juncture left with the overwhelming impression that I am a lazy slug who can't bestir himself to do what few minor jobs around the house she's asked me to tend to. Selections from that list of minor jobs include cleaning the garage; painting the stairwell; fixing the screen door at the front of the house; measuring, cutting and installing all-new trim-boards throughout the kitchen; replacing the screen on the back door (the one that Blaze punched out a while back. Okay, a long while back); fixing a crack in the insulating back wall of the fireplace; patching a finger-sized hole in the guest room wall (which Thomas did when he rammed his Thumb of Steel through the drywall, and which I can see clearly at this very moment); repainting the exterior of the house; grubbing up two stumps from the back yard, including the one from the tree that fell over last summer; and taking my turn cleaning the bathrooms. That's just the first third of the list, by the way.

I am practically an invalid. Between my bad back and my more recent bout with pneumonia and the fairly recent development of my doctor prescribing a minor beta blocker for what is turning out to be some fairly impressive high blood pressure for a man my age, HLEPS feels that I have one foot in the grave, and it wears on her, to the extent that I can't complain about so much as a tension headache or a stubbed toe without her rolling her eyes and mentally adding it to the list of Things Wrong with Him. Hmm, wonder why my blood pressure is so high...

I overindulge the children. To be specific: I am constantly (read: at least once a week) bringing home toys, DVDs and other assorted swag for them. This is one of the perks of working for a Really Big Magazine. I get a metric shitload of free stuff. Now, the vast majority of this stuff--a solid 97 percent, at least--never makes it home. I slough it off on coworkers, or mail it out in vast boxes to friends (of which a few readers here have been appreciative recipients). So my kids get a very small fraction of the actual amount of stuff I could be giving them. Nevertheless, HLEPS says it's too much. Apparently, the only way to reverse this is if I stop bringing things home altogether.

I overindulge the dog. I let him sit on the couch with me. I let him sleep on the Brownie's bed. I let him eat leftover food that would otherwise be thrown out. I make him omelets and other food for performing minor good deeds. Meanwhile, I've allowed his training to lapse, to the extent that he barely responds when either one of us tries to speak to him in his language. Most of this is pure exaggeration, mind you. But I suppose that last one is true. I just tried to Grraaaagh! at him while he was laying next to me, eating from a bowl of leftover quiche, and he barely gave me a second look.

Hmm, maybe there's a reason I'm in the guest room after all.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, March 15, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #13: Magazine Man--Year Two

(Part II)

To this day, I don't know whether Z truly intended to accuse me of embezzling 10,000 dollars from the publishing company where we both worked, or if he was just playing the ultimate headgame with me as revenge for finally quitting my job. The thing is, the 10 grand really was gone and I had no idea where it went. Over the years, friends who have heard this story have theorized that perhaps Z--who had really taken the money, of course--was in the process of setting me up to take the fall, but my unexpected resignation had thrown off his timetable, forcing him to just confront me with the fact that the money was gone.

Who knows? There may be some truth to that theory, because once I got over my initial panic, it was clear there were some things I could do right away to protect myself, things that Z should have--probably would have--considered and dealt with if I hadn't caught him off-guard by quitting.

For starters, as soon as he dropped the bomb-shell on me, I excused myself from his office. He yelled at me to come back, but I refused--hey, what was he going to do, fire me? I made a bee-line for the accounting department and there found the accounts manager. I asked her for an audit of my special projects account, something I had never done before. After all, even though the budget was in my name, Z had never allowed me to touch a cent of it without his approval. And he had evidently made plans to prevent me from checking up on the account's activity, for as soon as the manager pulled up the file, a notice popped up that she was not to release to anyone without Z's approval.

But here Z's reputation proved to be his undoing. Fact is, almost no one in the company could stand him, he was such an unpleasant and odious fellow. The manager said, "You know, Z put a block on this account, but I guess if I were to make a phone call right now, there would be nothing to stop anyone from looking over my shoulder," and so saying, she turned her back to me and picked up the phone. I whispered my thanks to her and used her computer to print the file and e-mail it to myself.

The activity of my project account was pretty straightforward. Over the past several weeks, 10 payments of a thousand dollars each were disbursed to one person. The same name--Maddy Terry--appeared 10 times on my balance sheet. There was no phone number or street address to go with the name, which suggested to me that the checks were cut and delivered internally. But when I went back to my desk and looked the name up in the employee directory, nothing was there.

By this time, word had gotten out that I had given my notice. My publisher Jack and our Midwest sales manager Steve both stopped by my office to shake my hand and to inquire about my new job. "Wow, Z must have taken it hard," Steve said. "We heard him yelling, and now his door is closed." Steve pointed over to the far wall, where we could see that Z's office door was indeed shut.

Now Tam poked her head over the cubicle wall as she heard the news. "Did Z freak?" she asked.

"I guess," I said. "He just accused me of stealing money from the company." I figured if Z truly did intend to get me in trouble, the best thing was to blow the secret wide open, to let everyone know. So I showed them the audit of my special projects account. "Anyone know who this Maddy person is?"

As soon as I said it, Jack looked stricken, like a man who had an answer that he didn't want to give.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I can't say. It's personal information and I wouldn't want it to reflect badly on Z," Jack said.

"Are you kidding me?" Steve said. "How could anything make the man look worse than he is?"

"Seriously," I said. "If I'm going to be accused of mishandling company funds, I need to know everything I can find out about the person this money went to. Z obviously gave the money to this Maddy person. Who is she?"

Jack harrumphed. "She's a he. And she--I mean he--uh, Madison, is, uh, mrrrmble mrrrmble."

Brendan had just come around the corner. "I didn't catch that, Jack. What'd you say?"

Jack looked bug-eyed, a cornered man. "Fine! You didn't hear it from me because it's the man's personal life, but Maddy is Z's, um, special friend."

"What?" Tam asked.

"His live-in lover," Jack clarified.

Well, it was a bit of a thunderbolt for us, not because any of us cared that Z was gay or that he had managed to attract a partner to share his life with him. It was just clear how little we knew about the man.

"Now you can't use that against him!" Jack said, pointing at me.

"Jack, Z's lifestyle is the last thing on my mind. I just needed to know where this money was--"

At that moment, the door to Z's office banged open and he leaned out. "MM! You get in here!" he bellowed. Jack gave me another warning look and I went over.

In the time since I'd left his office earlier, Z's attitude had completely changed. No doubt he'd called the accounting manager and found out I'd been over there and, if indeed he'd been planning to cover his tracks, he must have realized by now it was too late for that. So he turned on the charm instead.

"Come in!" he said, whacking me on the back. "Hyuhh-yuh-yuh! You fell for my joke, huh? I guess it wasn't very nice. But you should have seen the look on your face when I accused you of stealing from the company!" he slapped his knee and brayed some more as he closed the door behind us. "Now, you didn't really take me seriously, did you?"

Instead of answering, I waggled my audit at him. "So this Madison Terry person sure must have done a lot of work to have deserved every last cent of my special project budget, huh?"

Z stopped smiling and just stared hard at me, as if daring me to make some further remark. He'd obviously taken some pains to hide all personal details of his life from his coworkers and I think on some level he might have felt threatened that I had any information at all. I can't really say that for sure, though.

"Well, MM, I hope you're not suggesting I did anything inappropriate. As your manager, I have total control over the budget that you're responsible for. Mr. Terry has done quite a bit of freelance research and clerical work for me over the years. His work in this case was completely above-board." Then he gave me another hard look, as if daring me to challenge him.

"You know, Z, I really don't care," I said. "I just didn't think it was very funny to accuse me of stealing money from the company."

"You're right," he said, and admitting this fact threw me completely off-guard for a minute. "Listen," he said, changing tack suddenly, perhaps hoping I'd drop the whole unfortunate subject of the missing 10 grand. "I need some details about this new job before I can accept your resignation."

Oh brother, listen to this guy, I thought. "Okay," I said.

"You're going to another trade magazine?" he asked.

"Yep," I nodded.

"And your title will be?"

"Associate editor," I beamed. It would be nice to get a real title, something higher up the masthead than a lowly assistant, and something not as artificial as "special projects."

"And your salary will be?"

I didn't feel like telling Z that, even though they were giving me some money for moving, I was essentially taking a lateral move for this job. "You know, Z, I'm not sure that's information I care to discuss," I said, and Z made a face.

"Well," he huffed. "I only asked because I thought I would like to make a counter-offer, something that might entice you to stay."

I shook my head. "You know, you never came through with the money you promised me after my first six months on the job, so I think I'll pass on any kind of counter-offer, thanks."

Z's expression became a general glower. "You know, MM, you don't have to be so happy about this. I think it's lousy treatment of me, considering I could have fired you a few months ago for the mistakes you made. This is a fine way to treat someone who gave you your start and who's protected you and guided you during your two years with us."

I didn't trust myself to open my mouth and reply to this, so I said nothing.

Z waited to see if I would rise to the bait, but then, seeing that I was going to stay silent, he finally turned on me and went back to his "Command HQ," his desktop computer that contained so many secrets. "Okay, fine!" he shouted, his back to me. "I don't need your two weeks' notice, MM. You can pack up and be on your way by Friday!"

And so began my final 48 hours on the job. And during that time, Z was absolutely at his worst behavior, bugging me for all sorts of niggling little details about virtually every story I'd ever worked on, making me rewrite my final stories two and even three times, even though there was nothing wrong with them. But it scarcely bothered me. There's nothing like being a lame-duck to change your view of make-work.

It was common practice at the company to throw a going-away party for any outgoing editors, but one morning before I came to work those last couple of days, Z had gone around to my coworkers and told them in no uncertain terms that there would be no party for me. It bothered the friends I'd made during my two years there more than it bothered me, to be honest. So when my last day rolled around, there was little fanfare. I brought in a few boxes and emptied my office. Z left early that afternoon and he made a special point of not coming by my office to say goodbye. He did, however, send over a security guard, who insisted he was required by company policy to go through my boxes and make sure I wasn't trying to leave with any company assets, such as Rolodexes or proprietary company information. I'd seen several people leave in my 24 months as an ASS editor, and I never saw any of them get searched by the guard. It was just Z's way of sticking it to me one more time.

As the guard finished going through my boxes, he noticed a few items sitting on my desk. "What are those?" he asked.

I looked: There were two, small, nondescript boxes, a handful of pens bearing the company logo, and a small tray of cutlery and other items of tableware, including a glass tumbler and a flat, round coaster. Twice a year, Z would hold a little in-office picnic, treating his overworked staff to a pretty decent spread of sandwiches, salad, and a homemade pie (made perhaps by Maddy?). It was just one of those maddeningly, contradictorily nice things Z occasionally did just to throw us off-balance. As a result, I, like the rest of his staff, had accumulated a small stash of forks and knives, as well as a couple of dishes.

"Oh," I said, answering the guard. "These are just some going-away presents. The dishes and stuff are things I need to return to Z."

Under the guard's watchful gaze, I gave one box to Brendan and one to Tam--those were indeed gifts from me: framed photos of the three of us during a corporate retreat up to Wisconsin. As the guard tagged along, I returned all the pens to our editorial assistant. Then, last of all, I trotted over to Z's office to return his cutlery and dishware. Because we were forever dropping stories off in his office, Z, never locked it. So I let myself in and set the tray of cutlery and dishes on his desk next to his computer. There was very little room left on the desk, so I set the glass and the coaster on top of the flat, squat desktop computer in Z's office, then went back to my cube, gathered up my boxes and headed for the elevators, all with the guard shadowing me. At the exit, the guard relieved me of my ID and stood in the doorway until I had loaded up my car and driven from the lot.

I bear the guy no ill will. I now knew all too well the lot in life that security guards had. They were often the button men for managers like Z, forced to do the kind of uncomfortable work this guard had had to do, babysitting me all afternoon, even though it must have been clear that I was going to leave peacefully and without incident.

Well, almost without incident.

Funny thing is, the guard was standing right in the doorway to Z's office when I dropped off the dishware, the cutlery, and the glass and coaster. And when I set the glass and coaster on top of Z's computer, I really thought the guard would hear the unusually loud "KA-KLUNK!" as the coaster landed on top of Z's workstation.

Because, see, it wasn't a coaster.

It was an industrial magnet.

By the time Z arrived in his office Monday AM, that magnet--purchased at some expense at a local scientific equipment house--had totally screwed his Command HQ, not just wiping the hard drive that contained all manner of data that Z prized, but irrevocably ruining the computer. And according to Tam and Brendan, who were around for the squawking that ensued, once the magnet was discovered (and boy, did it take some prying to remove it), Z was so preoccupied with his lost data that he never thought to link it to me.

But from that time onward, I heard, Z kept his office locked.

I guess he learned the hard way just how vital good security was in today's workplace.

Of course, being a veteran ASS man, I could have told him that.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #13: Magazine Man--Year Two

(Part I)

Well, as it turned out, Z didn't fire me for costing ASS Magazine tens of thousands of dollars in lost ad revenue. Firing was too good for me, he told me. Instead, he wanted me around so he could make my life as miserable as I had apparently made his. And that's how I began my second year as a Magazine Man.

One way Z made my life miserable was by sending me out on dozens of little jobs that he was either too busy--or that he found too unpleasant--to do himself. For example, he was part of some kind of odd little speaker's bureau where he was forever getting calls to address tiny luncheon groups--and I mean groups sometimes as small as two people--on various matters pertaining to the security and asset protection industry. I must have gone to a dozen such luncheons on his behalf, and they were just unbearable. Always I would have to endure an oddly quiet lunch with dour-looking middle managers who appeared not to have been out in direct sunlight in years. Then after the lunch, I would have to stand up at the front of the room--me, a skinny 24-year-old guy trying to talk about security issues to a bunch of pasty, beefy, middle-age executives who usually knew way more about the topic at hand than I did. If, when I die, I'm luckless enough to end up in hell, I just know I'll be led into a room to preside over a luncheon at which I have to make a dumb-ass speech about access-control cards or security-officer utility belts. Forever.

Another way Z made life miserable was by promoting me.

I know that sounds a little contradictory, but Z was the master of contradiction. After nearly a year of denying me the raise he had promised me after six months on the job, one day out of nowhere Z called me into his office and informed me that my official title was now Special Projects Editor, a meaningless position if ever there was one (I mean, really, what else would I be? An Ordinary Projects Editor?). But the position came with a grade change, which in turn came with a salary bump to a little under 29,000 dollars a year, so I didn't feel I had cause to complain.

Except of course that Z had his own reasons for granting me the promotion. For one thing, he saw the bump up as an opportunity to load me down with even more work. For another, he wanted me at the higher grade level because staffers at my level could be given a discretionary budget for the development of special projects. In my case, that budget was 10,000 dollars a year. Thing was, Z didn't have me work on the kinds of projects that required any budgetary outlay. And even if I did, I couldn't allocate any of that money anywhere without Z's signature, so I didn't think much about it.

What he didn't expect, though, was that I would come to be successful at the job.

Take my first special project, for example. Z required me to submit a new proposal for a different special project every other week. This was pure busywork, make no mistake, because no matter how hard I worked on these things, Z always ended up tearing up my proposals in front of me, or simply emailing me such helpful and constructive comments as, "Latest proposal sucked. Try again. This time put some effort into it, hmmmm?" But one week, a copy of my latest proposal fell into the wrong hands. I had pitched an idea that was basically a total rip-off from the company where I had served as an intern: I suggested the company promote a line of custom-published wall media, covering workplace security and safety issues. The posters could be done in a series of two or three and each one could feature an ad from the sponsor. This was basically the same model as the wall media the Her Lovely Self worked for when we first met as interns. But I figured, what the hell? Z was just going to wipe his ass with it.

However, when I went to retrieve a copy of my proposal from the communal printer, I couldn't find the draft because it had been accidentally taken away with a sheaf of papers printed out by Steve, our jocular Midwest sales manager. Steve read my proposal and showed it to his boss, our publisher Jack. Even as Z was shit-canning his own copy of my proposal, Jack was already in my office, pressing box seats to a White Sox game into my hands. Her Lovely Self--who I was dating by now--and I ended up meeting Jack and Steve at the game, and there Jack told me that he and Steve had been trying to do a deal with a client that might be interested in something like this.

Well, never mind might be. They were interested. So interested, in fact, that Jack flew me to the company's corporate headquarters down in Florida to make a presentation about it. Suddenly all those mind-numbing hours making speeches to unreceptive luncheon audiences paid off. My presentation went over huge and we left Florida with an order for six posters, netting the company more than twice what I'd lost them in ad revenue from my little mishap with the camera company.

Boy, was Z pissed.

But there was little he could do about it. Suddenly I was in demand within the company to make internal presentations about wall media. In truth, the concept didn't go very far beyond the confines of ASS Magazine, but that hardly mattered. Z suddenly found it very hard to piss all over me and my work. Instead, he tried to make the most of it by taking credit for my accomplishments, accompanying me to my internal presentations and interrupting my spiel and telling people afterward that he had been grooming me for this kind of work (which in an insane sort of way, he had).

It was pretty galling, I admit, but I found a way to channel my annoyance. As soon as I hit the 18-month mark at the magazine, I knew I'd had enough. More than enough. Her Lovely Self and I used to spend our evenings dreaming up other jobs we could jump to, since she too was getting sick of the grind at her trade magazine. We both thought we'd end up jumping ship and working elsewhere in trade magazines in Chicagoland, but I didn't think I could stand to work in the trades anymore, especially if it meant working for another boss just as awful as Z. So I had started freelancing for consumer magazines, hoping to use that work to wedge my foot in the door of a "real" magazine.

Except that no real magazines ever called.

Instead, I got a call one day from an editor who was the friend of a friend. She was in charge of a house organ, an in-house publication for a healthcare association based in Washington, D.C. It was still a trade magazine, but because the content focused on health and medical care, I saw it as a stepping-stone to consumer magazines. After all, most consumer mags had at least one page of health news or information in a given issue, never mind that there were several popular magazines that specialized in health entirely.

Well, I interviewed for the job and, for the first and what I am sure will be the only time in my life, I was offered the position on the spot. Some long-time readers recall what havoc that wrought with my personal life, but the truth is, I really was desperate. I can't tell you how many afternoons I sat in my cubicle at ASS, staring at the clock, willing the minutes to move by faster. I can't tell you how enthralled I had become at the idea of telling Z to stick ASS in his ear.

And so, after sorting out some niggling personal details--like proposing to Her Lovely Self--I marched into Z's office bright and early one Wednesday morning in June and handed him a letter in a sealed envelope. He took it from me, his heavy mustache whiskers twitching as he did.

"Ohhhhh-oh! Oh! Ohhhh!" he moaned. "Am I going to be happy about this, MM?" he asked.

"You tell me," I said, and left him to read the letter in peace.

Any other boss would have called me right back in, but I'd worked with Z for almost two full years and I knew it was his nature to make me wait. He'd call me in some time after lunch. So instead of waiting to find out what his reaction would be--and really, what difference would it make?--I proceeded to get some work done.

Surprisingly, it was only about 20 minutes later that Z did call me back to his office. When I walked in, he was puffing away on his pipe, his back to me, as he clacked away at his "Command HQ." That's what he called his computer, by the way. Our office was networked, but Z liked to keep as many files as possible on his local hard drive. "I have lots of dirt on people in this company, and I like to keep it where only I can get it, not on the network where it can be compromised or erased," he said once, and I thought at the time he was joking. I should have known better.

"Wellllllllllp," Z said, his back still to me, his head shrouded in acrid pipe smoke like some kind of demonic halo. "You really threw me, MM. I didn't think you had the gumption to just up and leave me, after all I did for you. Letting you keep your job after losing so much money for the company. Giving you a promotion and an opportunity to recover that money. And this is how you thank me, you ungrateful shit? You leave me in the lurch? You leave without even giving me J.D. Salinger's phone number?" Now he turned slightly and gave me a look out of the corner of one eye.

I smiled back. I was home free. "Z, you got your money's worth, I think," I said.

Z smiled--I could barely see the teeth under his mustache--and nodded. "Funny you should mention money," he said, tapping the screen of his Command HQ. "Accounting was just asking me about some money with your name on it." I looked over his shoulder at the screen and through the wreath of pipe smoke could just make out a spreadsheet file with, indeed, my name on it.

"What is that?" I asked, suddenly wary.

"That, MM? That is your Special Projects budget. You got 10,000 dollars for development costs at the beginning of the year. Here it is, June, and it's all gone." He tapped the screen insistently. "And what accounting is wondering is: What did you do with the money?"

I felt a cold prickle on the back of my neck. Surely Z wasn't--

"You're joking," I said. "You know very well I didn't touch any of my development money. I couldn't do anyway--not without your signature."

Z made a simpering face. "Oh, MM, I don't know about that. I never signed off on any expenditures. All I know is, you're responsible for this money, and if you can't account for it, why, you better have ten grand lying around to replace it."

"What?!?" I said. This was not happening.

"That's assuming the company will just let you pay them back," he went on, smirking at my dismay. "They may just decide to file charges. Embezzlement is a felony, you know."

All of a sudden, the room began to spin. I thought I knew just how miserable Z could make my life. But I had underestimated him by a factor almost too large to calculate...


Sunday, March 11, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #13: Magazine Man--Year One

(Part III)

No doubt about it, getting to travel was just about the single best perk of working for ASS Magazine. The system for deciding who got to travel was very simple: whoever was writing the cover story (always about some interesting security installation or application of security methods at an unusual location) got to travel to the location of the story and direct the photo shoot. The cover story was picked based on whoever had the most interesting and visually compelling idea for a story. And I got to be very good very quickly at pitching colorful story ideas. Which meant I got to travel about once every six weeks.

And oh, the places I went! There was Austin, Texas, where I got to spend my days learning about security at a large manufacturer of international business machines, and my nights listening to great music and gorging myself on BBQ. There was--oh boy!--Detroit, where I got to tour a brand-new prison and ended up spending quality time in one of the brand-new cells because the lockdown sequence accidentally tripped while they were trying to show off the security system to me. There was Las Vegas where I got to lose lots of money playing blackjack, but then got our publisher to show me how to expense all of it. There was--wahoo!--Topeka, Kansas, where I spent a hot afternoon in a vast railyard learning how a certain railroad company was preventing thieves from stealing the contents of their box cars and even the box cars themselves. "Really?" I asked the dour security director. "Who would steal a box car? How? Somebody hook it to their pick-up and turn it up a dirt road?" The director just stared at me. "It's happened. I can't tell you how. I can only tell you it won't happen again."

But I often got peach assignments too. I went out to California twice--once to ride a chase boat in the America's Cup race. I went to Florida three times--all in the dead of winter, and all for assignments that took no more than a few hours to complete, leaving me with an entire weekend (to save costs, we always reserved flights with a Saturday stayover) to play tourist or lay on a beach, soaking in the sun on the company dime.

My trip to the Oscars--my second visit to California--was another such trip. Of course, it wasn't to the actual Oscars, but I did get to sit in on a rehearsal, where I got to see a good many stars, although I can't remember them all now. Almost no presenters actually showed up to rehearse their presentations, which didn't surprise me, but Billy Crystal was there (he was the emcee that year) and Jack Palance was too (that was the year he did his one-handed push-ups on stage, something he didn't rehearse, at least not at the rehearsal I sat through). Afterwards, I got to interview the head of the security team that was guarding the show. That was the shortest part of the day, since it mostly consisted of me asking questions, and him saying, in a practiced monotone, "I can't answer that."

Security guys were always answering questions that way, which made it great reporting and writing practice for a young pup like me. After all, how do you write a few thousand words about a security installation when the people you interview aren't allowed to tell you anything?

I'll tell you how: you write a lot about the equipment they use, which is all a matter of public record. At least the specs of the equipment are. And of course, that was how ASS made its money--we wrote stories that were essentially multi-page ads touting the virtues of security equipment.

See, in the magazine world there are your consumer magazines--magazines written for everyday folk about a broad range of everyday interests--and then there are trade magazines. In some circles they are known as controlled-circulation magazines, or B2B (business to business) magazines, or niche publications. But it all boils down to the same thing: Trade magazines are written for a very specific reader, and usually that reader gets the magazine for free. Why? Because no person in their right mind would voluntarily pay for such a magazine, of course. But the bigger answer is: we give the magazine away to qualified readers (in the case of ASS, security professionals who managed mid- to large-sized installations and who, most importantly, had purchasing power over security gear) because we promise advertisers that they have a direct route--a captive audience, if you will--to the readers who are most likely to buy what the advertisers sell.

Which meant my salary was paid entirely by advertisers, not by newsstand purchases (you couldn't find ASS on a newsstand no matter how hard you looked) and certainly not by paid subscribers, since there were none.

Those of you who are still awake at this point may realize that I was on the horns of an ethical dilemma: If advertising paid the bills--and my rent--then wasn't there pressure to write stories that featured the companies who advertised in the magazine? My answer is: No, there was no pressure at all. It was simply understood from Day One that we would seek out stories that featured the products and systems made by our advertisers. In fact, nine times out of ten, we got the leads for the stories we did because the PR for the advertisers would call us up and hand us the stories.

For my entire time at the magazine, I tried to convince myself that I could maintain a certain ethical remove from this situation, that I could write compelling stories for our readers without clogging every other paragraph with several dozen lines of technical gobbledygook about the pan/tilt radius of the new Sony camera or the infrared threshold of the new passive intruder alarm system put out by BeamBoy or whoever. But of course, we all know I was kidding myself.

My boss, Mr. Z, in his usual contradictory style, encouraged us to be journalists, to tell true stories about the places we visited, but if we didn't write enough about the products in the places we visited, he was the first to add them into our copy. He was also the first to volunteer his editors to accompany the publisher's regional managers on sales calls, easily the most unpleasant part of my job, even more than having to deal with Z. Because when you were on a sales call, all pretenses were dropped. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that you were there to offer free, friendly editorial to whoever you visited, which gave the sales manager some leverage in securing a purchase order for ads in the magazine. It was a pretty simple--if ethically shaky--gig.

Oh my, but even I managed to screw that up. On one trip to California, I ended up spending a day with the West Coast sales rep as we made the rounds to various companies. The manager had set up several appointments for us that day, but I was amazed at how many people blew us off. In the course of 10 stops, we only met people at about three companies. One of them was a small manufacturer of really nice color cameras such as were installed at banks. The company was also developing a camera system for use at ATMs. One of their early set-ups had been used at an ATM in New York, where there had been a notorious robbery, all captured by this company's camera system. I thought it would make a great story and I asked one of the company's manager's about the case. Unlike so many security professionals, the guy was friendly and candid and I recorded the exchange and took copious notes as he talked to me about the case. At the end of the visit, we were all happy: I had a story with an actual news hook; the company got positive coverage; and the sales manager thought he'd get a sale out of the visit.

But then my story actually appeared in the magazine and the head of the company hit the roof. Apparently, there was a pending lawsuit against the company because of this particular ATM crime (don't ask me the details, because I honestly don't remember them), and all company employees were under a gag order to discuss the situation. So the head of the company went to the manager who had spoken to me and he did what probably anyone would do in his situation: He covered his ass. He said he'd made it clear the information wasn't for publication (he hadn't) and that furthermore I had taken liberties with what few quotes he gave me (I most certainly fucking hadn't).

Thus it was that a week or so after my story saw print, I got copied on a bitchy letter that was sent to my publisher, Mr. Z, and the head of the publishing company we all worked for. The letter, written by the corporate communications manager for the camera company, accused me of "fabricating" a story, and misquoting the manager in such a way that he "felt he'd been made to sound like a bumbling idiot."

The upshot was that we had to promise them a full retraction, all kinds of free ad space, and I personally had to write a letter of apology.

It was that last condition that stuck in my craw. I admit that I've always been prone to exaggeration, but such was not the case at this job. After all, I had recorded my interview with the manager, plus I had our own sales guy as witness to back me up on what had really happened. But the sales guy didn't want to lose a client and so rather than stand up for me, he simply suggested I get with the program and write my letter of apology.

Here's what I wrote, more or less verbatim:

Dear Corporate Communications Manager,

Thanks ever so much for your recent and shrill letter, explaining your concerns about my story of the latest issue of ASS. You weren't present at the meeting that took place between myself and your manager. However, I was, and so was a member of our sales team. Oh, and so was my tape recorder, which captured everything your manager said. It is from those recordings that I compiled my story. So let me clarify a few details for you:

At no time were any quotes "fabricated" nor was it revealed to me at any time that the quotes were not for publication. It had been made very clear that we were there to do a story about your company. Believe me, I would never have visited otherwise.

As for your manager feeling that he had been made to sound like a "bumbling idiot," I can only reiterate that I drew his quotes verbatim from the recording made of the interview. Any perception he may have of himself as a "bumbling idiot" is, alas, entirely his own.

Nevertheless, at the instruction of my manager, I do offer an apology for any trouble this story may have caused. Thanks again.


I can't imagine why, but for some reason my sincere letter only made the incident worse, and within short order, the company not only refused our offer of free ads, but canceled the one ad they'd promised to buy in the next fiscal year. Word got out about what happened and apparently a few more companies canceled ad contracts too.

I didn't find out about this until a few weeks later, when Z came storming into my office, a copy of my letter in his crumpled hand.

"If you wanted to be fired, MM, all you had to do was come to me and say so!" he boomed...


Friday, March 02, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #13: Magazine Man--Year One

(part II)

Well, it was a speedy few weeks between the time I got my first official job offer to become a dyed-in-the-wool magazine man and the time I actually started the job. I filled the time by finishing my magazine project, graduating, finding an apartment close to the office, driving back to New Hampshire to gather up whatever belongings I thought I would need to fill out the apartment. Nothing fills the idle hours like fucking big change.

Of course, one thing that remained constant was my abject poverty. I have never felt so elated and desperate as I did during those weeks when I had absolutely no money, yet knew that in a few weeks, I'd be making 25K a year, which was great money in my field at that time. I managed to convince my old landlady to keep my security deposit in lieu of my last month's rent in the garret on Dempster Street. But in order to come up with the security deposit at the one-bedroom place I found in the Edison Park section of Chicago, I had to do something I knew I shouldn't, and which I would have plenty of time to regret over the next decade: I took a cash advance on my Visa to pay the deposit, and I was 10 years paying that off. But what else could I do?

My moments of desperate elation were only beginning, alas. When I got back from New Hampshire and began my job the first full week of July, I was informed by my boss, Mr. Z, that because I had started work in the middle of a pay cycle, I would have to wait three weeks for my first paycheck, instead of the usual two. I had something like 10 dollars and whatever change I could fish out from under the seat cushions in the car to sustain me for that period. And nearly all of that paid for my gas to and from work.

I refer to that strange period, so bright and so bleak, as the Potato-n-Onion month, because that's what I lived on. My parents had no money to lend me, but they weren't going to send me west empty-handed, so instead they provisioned me. I had a basket of fresh produce from Dad's garden, which lasted about four days. The rest of the time, I subsisted on the contents of a 20-pound sack of potatoes and a 10-pound bag of onions, also provided by my parents. For breakfast I had hash browns and onions. For lunch I had a baked potato, topped with onions and seasoned with packets of Horsey Sauce stolen from Arby's. For dinner I had...potatoes and onions. Chop and repeat. And so it went for the next 21 days. I sure learned a lot about how to prepare potatoes and onions, I'll tell you that.

I also got my first glimpse at what my boss was really like. A few days before my first payday, I had to drop some paperwork off at the corporate human resources office. The HR team had had some kind of lunch seminar and there were a few leftover sandwiches, so the HR manager offered me one. After watching me bolt the thing down--I was ravenous for anything that didn't taste like onion or spud--I told the manager, with a certain amount of pride, how I had been living until I got paid.

"Oh no!" she cried. "Didn't Z tell you? We could have advanced you a week's pay. We do it all the time for incoming employees who start between cycles. I'm so sorry you had to do that. I'm really surprised Z didn't tell you."

"So am I," I said, remembering how Z had looked when I expressed dismay at having to wait three weeks to get any money. "That's life, MM. Nothing I can do about it," he said with a smirk. Clearly there had been something he could have done. Why would he deliberately withhold that information from me? What possible benefit could it have done him?

Well, as I would find out all too soon, there was often no rhyme or reason to why Z did things. He was, at best, a whimsical fellow, whose whims unfortunately led towards making those around him uncomfortable. I think Z believed that the more you kept your employees disquieted and off-balance, the more you could manipulate them. Of course, it could just be stupid of me to try and apply reason to the motivations of a man who turned out to be exceedingly unreasonable, often unpleasant, and to this date the standard by which all other asshole bosses have been judged in my professional life.

The staff of Asset Systems and Security--hereafter referred to ASS Magazine--was a small, lively, dysfunctional one. I was at the bottom of the masthead, a lowly assistant editor. Just above me was Tam, a brilliant but quiet woman who was just a few years older than I and who took me under her wing and showed me the ropes at ASS. Our art director, production manager, and layout artist was a one-man ball of fire named Brendan. When he wasn't pasting our pages together, Brendan played drums in a punk band, shot amateur porn with his gorgeous wife Jackie, and was the editor and publisher of his own popular city 'zine, a free monthly that started as a handout to friends, but ended up with a citywide circulation of 250,000 readers.

Our sales team shared offices with us, which is not common at most magazines. The sales manager was a jovial, lantern-jawed ex-jock named Steve. Steve was very popular on the staff because he was one of a very few who had an expense account and he wasn't afraid to use it to take us editors to lunch or even to a Cubs game. Steve's boss, the publisher of ASS, was a friendly but somewhat jumpy fellow named Jack. Before becoming the publisher of a magazine for the managers of security guards, Jack had been the Midwest sales manager for a huge liquor distribution outfit. Not sure how that was a valid pre-req for the job he now held, but I didn't mind. Jack still had lots of buddies in the old business, and he was a man who firmly believed that booze and business went together.

And then there was Mr. Z.

Z stood about my height, but he always seemed taller somehow. No doubt this was because I found him more than a little intimidating, although as I analyze it, it's hard to pin down exactly what about Z made me timid. It might have been his tendency to stomp around the office--he never walked or strolled, but came barreling into your cubicle when he needed you. Perhaps it was the fact that he had no sense of personal space and was constantly invading mine. If you were sitting at your desk and he came charging in to speak to you, he didn't do it from the doorway; he would come and stand over you, practically straddling your chair. The fact that he smoked a pipe only intensified this effect--he had the sourest breath, and unfortunately, when you were in conference with him, you couldn't help but breathe it in.

Z must have worked in the security industry himself at one time--or at least liked to visually imply that he did. For one thing, he always wore dark suits. For another, his hair was in a perpetual crew cut. Well, at least the hair on his head was. His mustache was a different story--perhaps even a different being--altogether.

After first meeting the man, I wrote to a friend that Z's huge handlebar mustache "may have been the hip facial accoutrement in, oh, about 1863. But here in 1991, it's just balls nasty. I think his face agrees, for it certainly seems to me that his mustache and his skin do not agree with each other. Aside from seeming to have a perpetual rash on his cheeks and mouth, I noticed that his mustache hair, instead of curling inward in the habit of most well-groomed facial hair, instead grows outward, away from his mouth. This gives him the overall effect of looking like some kind of sea mammal--a manatee, perhaps--in a cheap suit. Or maybe his mustache is just as grossed-out by his fetid pipe-breath as I am."

But there is no doubt that in all metrics of eccentricity, his personality far outweighed his appearance. As I learned almost within my first week on the job, Z could be a total fucking ogre. One Friday not long after I started, I had been invited by my graduate school to come back and give a lecture to a group of summer session students. I was, after all, a recent success story, having been hired right out of my program. The lecture was scheduled for late afternoon, after which I was invited to go out with the class and the instructor for a little happy-hour socializing. I had cleared the whole thing with Z, incidentally; had sent him more than one e-mail about it, and had even poked my head into his office about an hour before I left early that Friday to let him know I was going. He gave no indication whatsoever that he had any problem with this.

But as you can probably guess, I found out differently Monday morning. When I walked in, there was a note on my chair, a note in what I would come to recognize and dread as Z's crazy chicken scratch.


And so Brendan, Tam and I found ourselves in Z's office, sitting quietly while he roared at us like a dragon. Thanks to his pipe, he even had puffs of smoke coming out of his mouth while he roared.

"I think we're all getting a little too lax around here. And we're setting a bad example for the new pup in the litter!" he brayed, starting in on Tam and Brendan. Tam caught the blast first, being drubbed by Z for having the temerity to arrive 10 minutes after 9 AM on three separate occasions over the past month. I hadn't been at ASS long, but even I could see how grossly unfair Z was being. Because, see, Tam never left the office, so far as I could tell. She regularly put in 12-hour days--and remember, she was a salaried employee, not an hourly wage earner--so I would have thought the least Z could do was grant her a little flexibility coming in in the morning.

To make matters worse, during the dressing-down, Tam never once tried to correct Z or speak up for herself. She just sat there and took it, with the slightly glazed of someone who has been here before.

Brendan was the next target and, kick-ass kind of guy that he was, I expected this to be a heated exchange. But Brendan just sat there with a half-hearted little smirk on his face as Z accused him of using company time and equipment to print out his 'zine. What precisely that had to do with Z's original stated topic for the meeting--too much time out of the office--was never clear. Nor was the reason behind Brendan's silence. He too just soaked it up.

Then it was my turn. Naif that I was, I thought, Well surely he's not going to be pissed at me for going to do that lecture last Friday. But we all know I was wrong, don't we?

"You're brand-new to this magazine and, it seems to me, to any kind of real job MM, so let me give you some advice right now: Do NOT start developing bad habits like the one you exhibited last week," he said, blowing noxious clouds of pipe smoke at me.

"I don't under--" I started.

"Do NOT INTERRUPT me!" Z shrieked, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Brendan give me a look that said I should take this advice rather seriously. I chewed my lip to keep it shut.

"No, you want to toddle back to your old school and show off for your teachers, that's fine, MM. But from now on, you do it on your own time, hmmm?" He stared at me over the rims of his glasses--heck, over the rim of his mustache.

Well, I never said I was smart. However, I was raised by parents who told me to always speak up when I saw people being treated unfairly. Especially if I was the person being so treated.

"Then why--" I began

"Are you INTERRUPTING ME AGAIN?" he howled.

"Why did you--"

"DO YOU HEAR ME AT ALL YOU UNGRATEFUL SHIT HACK?" he bellowed, standing up behind his desk now.

"shut up!" hissed Brendan.

"Why did you tell me it was okay to go if it so clearly wasn't?" I finally blurted, then braced myself to be beaten to death with Z's pipe.

But Z just stared at me in mock amazement, then looked around and Brendan and Tam. Finally, he fixed me with a glare. "You're dismissed from my office. Go on, get out while I talk to the rest of the staff. Without you."

I'm sure I had a look of amazement then. What was this guy's damage? To that question, I guess I should end the suspense now by saying I never found out in my entire tenure at the magazine, let alone that morning. So, shaking my head slightly, I got up and left. I don't know what was said, but Z kept Brendan and Tam in his office for a few minutes longer before letting them out. Brendan came straight over to my cubicle.

"Hey, the big dog wants you now. But do yourself a favor and shut the fuck up, okay?" he said, not unkindly. "Then afterwards meet me in Jack's office. We'll raid his liquor cabinet."

Z pretty much had the same message for me--except for the part about the liquor cabinet--when I walked back into his office. And I never did get a straight answer as to why he first approved my absence from the office the previous week, but then backpedaled. All in all, it was an eye-opening experience and it strengthened my resolve not to be one of those guys who got so comfortable with his job that he never left it. Luckily, Z made it impossible for me to have the slightest sense of comfort on that job.

Ironically, I realize now that I ended up defying Z after all. Because not too long after this blow-up (the first of many, covering a wide and flabbergasting array of topics), we as a staff embarked on the reason I was hired: the magazine was about to undergo its first major redesign in years. While this meant we were guaranteed many late nights in the office with Z, it also meant that we got a larger travel budget from corporate. The suits had decided that we needed to start running some great stories (great for a trade magazine, that is), and the only way to do that was to send staffers into the field to report on temporary and permanent security situations first-hand. And also to direct photo shoots, which was cheaper than hiring someone new for the task.

Everything else about the job was just so many potatoes and onions. But getting to travel on assignment, getting to get out of the office, away from Z? Now that was some serious Horsey Sauce, let me tell you.

And one of the first places the magazine sent me?

Give you one guess...



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