Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Write Stuff

Before delving into today's topic, just an update: My last entry was rather gray, reflecting the stark reality of the  four-month anniversary of my departure from the world of the working and the frustration I am/was experiencing at moving onward.

It's an up and down process, hunting for work, and I see now that I wrote in a very down frame of mind.

Suffice to say that my mood has lifted since that post, and although I'm not singing and dancing every time I electronically apply for UC benefits, I'm not quite in a bottomless pit, either.

So if any potential employers are monitoring my online presence and are concerned that, faced with a difficult situation, I'll be prone to burn a superior's eyebrows off, hair by hair, with a hot poker, let me offer the assurance that that is wholly not the case.

Okay, moving on...

Yesterday, I volunteered at our church for a major writing project. It's a daunting task, probably calling for initial caps, so that it's more of a Major Writing Project. It's not the length that will cause me some sweat, but rather, the breadth.

But I'm eager to get going and look forward to a new challenge.

In the process of gathering info about what I'm supposed to do and how I'm supposed to do it, there was a lot of back-and-forth talk between me and the project leader, who knows of my music abilities but not really my writing ones.

At one point she casually asked me: "So, what kinds of things have you written?"

And it got me thinking. I've been writing for a long, long time. I remember creating stories in the sixth grade, where, ScoobyDoo-style, I and my friends would enter creepy houses, run from ghosts, and inevitably uncover a smuggling ring or a counterfeiting operation; I routinely cast myself, yes, as the leader of those "meddling kids," without whom the thievery would have been a snap.

And I've written all kinds of things: business writing, marketing, public relations. But also fiction, profiles, feature stories, and columns.

Along the way, there were some notables:

Top Nine Really Cool Writing Accomplishments

Most of these still exist, either on well-worn paper (loose leaf, in some cases) or electronically. I'll list them and tell you a little about how they came to be. They're chronological, just for convenience sake.
  • 1977 Parish Anniversary Celebration Address, Sacred Heart Church, Manoa, PA
In 1977, the parish to which our family belonged celebrated the 50-year anniversary of its founding. As part of the celebration, a grand and glorious Mass was offered, followed by a parish-wide reception in the school hall. This latter affair was a catered dinner, at which various dignitaries would speak.

It was decided by the organizing committee to solicit three parishioners to offer addresses, one reflecting on the parish's past, one on its present, and one on its future.

I was in eighth grade that year, on the cusp of moving onward to high school. And somewhere along the line, someone had the idea to enable the eighth graders to submit essays on what they thought the future of the parish would look like 50 years hence.

Cut to the chase: I won. My essay was selected, and I got to deliver it at the gala affair. What I remember most about that evening is that my parents and I were comped tickets for the meal; you see, my mother's sense of frugality had put the dinner out of our budget, and we weren't intending to go. The committee was rather horrified at this revelation, and we were given seats gratis.

The speech elicited the intended chuckles, especially as I mentioned the sale of jet packs, ala The Jetsons, as a fundraiser. And my theory that confession would be administered over the telephone, 1-800 style.

None of my predictions came to pass, except one: I did envision that girls would be welcomed eventually as altar servers. How prescient!
  • 1984-1985 Columnist, The Hawk, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia, PA
In January of 1984, I took advantage of the opportunity to study abroad, travelling to London with 25 other SJU students for a semester. It was a six-month period that I'll never forget.

The 25 of us naturally got very close, as we lived in a large residence together. Among them was the E-in-C (that's Editor in Chief, by the way) of our college newspaper, The Hawk. She was looking for writers to encapsulate the London experience for a special edition of the paper back on campus.

I wrote a very lengthy and in depth piece on what it was like to leave Philadelphia on a blustery January day, fly across the ocean for the very first time, and try as best as possible ton integrate into British culture. It was the ultimate fish-out-of-water story that touched on all our experiences: the school, the surroundings, the history, the food, the people, the academics, the pubs, even the bouts of homesickness. All of it.

I told her that it could be cut. That it probably should be cut, especially if it covered ground that was already covered by others who were tackling the assignment.

What I didn't know is that nobody else was tackling the assignment.

My article, therefore, was the lead story in the paper that edition. It started on page one, jumped inside, and ran four columns.

Upon returning home, the E-in-C tapped me again. I was offered a role of columnist.

I wrote on anything I felt like -- parking issues, study pressures, current events -- and my material appeared in every issue.

This was the first time my writing was recognized by readers I never really knew. I was shocked after the appearance of a piece to be stopped on campus and acknowledged as not only being read but being enjoyed.
  • 1985 Entertainment News, Berwyn, PA
In an attempt to bump up the content of an eventual resume I would soon be needing, I undertook an internship my senior year of college.

I landed a job at a small entertainment-themed newspaper. It was about 75% ads and 25% copy, so I had no aspirations of Pulitzer-style investigative reporting.

But I did manage a very memorable and interesting interview that resulted in one of my favorite articles.

Gone with the Wind was coming out for the first time on videocassette. I pitched a story idea to my editor to track down, find, and interview Cammie King, who, as a girl, played the role of Bonnie Blue Butler in the film. I knew that in all likelihood she was still alive, and it was just a matter of finding her.

The editor agreed that it sounded like a good story, and I began the hunt.

The exact details of how I found her -- especially in a pre-pre-pre-Internet world -- are lost in my memory, but find her I did. She agreed to a phone interview and, at the appointed time, I called her, she answered, and we talked for quite a while.

She spoke of her memories of the film and the cast (barely recalled Vivien Leigh at all; remembered that Clark Gable had a scratchy beard in the scenes where they had to hug) and her excitement at its revival on video.

Cammie King (Conlon) is gone now. But in my memory -- and my portfolio -- she'll never be gone with the wind!
  • 1989-1996, The Montgomery County Post, Film Critic, Valley Forge, PA
I took my interest in movies and married it to my interest in movies and pitched to a slew of local newspaper editors the idea of joining their staff as a film critic. I wanted no salary, just enough of a stipend to cover expenses.

The Montgomery County Post, a small, local paper, bit. The editor agreed to give me space and a byline, which is all I really needed, and reimburse the cost of movie tickets and gas to/from a theater.

I was in heaven. Eileen and I were newly married and not exactly rolling in dough, and the opportunity to enjoy entertainment on someone else's nickle was truly appreciated.

Plus I got the chance to play Roger Ebert and write about the movies and my reactions to them. It was a dream job if ever there were one.

Eventually, the paper began to pay me for these reviews. Not a princely sum, as I recall, but something in recognition of my efforts. We began receiving comps to attend movies at their critics' screenings in some of the larger theaters downtown, and it all became very heady, sitting with some of the film reviewers from The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News.

Sadly, the plug on this assignment was pulled quickly when the paper changed management and the new owners wanted to purchase syndicated film reviews -- along with crossword puzzles, horoscopes, and marital advice -- from a service.
  • 1990-1994, Editor, Robert Morris Associates, Philadelphia, PA
This was one of my first legit jobs out of college. Robert Morris Associates is a trade association -- now called the Risk Management Association -- for commercial bankers worldwide. I was hired as its newsletter editor.

As such, there were three assignments that really stand out among all the banking and lending issues I covered.

The first was an interview with the Ombudsman from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), one of the regulatory agencies that oversees banking in the U.S. The mind-blowing thing about this interview is that it took place in conjunction with a speech he made at the National Press Club.

So yes, I traveled to Washington, attended his speech, and questioned him as an official member of the press. Just seeing that podium -- as I had seen it on MSNBC and countless other news shows -- was a thrill

The other story at RMA that has stayed with me involved the Meridian Bank Fire in February of 1991. The bank building had its 38-stories gutted by a fire that claimed three Philadelphia firefighters. Couching the story as a reminder to readers about the importance of disaster recovery, I was invited by the bank's director of security to the site (weeks after the fire was extinguished) and shown some of the less-damaged, more secure floors. 

The third was an interview with one of the presidents of Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh. I flew out and back the same day for this interview, which led to some nail-biting scheduling at the airports. But the real challenge was that he scheduled the interview during a lunch at an exclusive downtown club (think The Union League in Philadelphia, folks). And one of the rules a this club was that while at the table, there were to be no recording devices and no note-taking.

So I prepped all my questions in advance and memorized them as best I could.

And during the interview -- while trying to eat -- I did my best to lock his responses into my brain as he was talking.

When it began to become a little too much for me to handle, I excused myself and went to the men's room. Shuttered in a stall, I took out an errant scrap of paper and scribbled some of his more interesting quotes then and there.

The article came together and was published with his blessing. But it remains one of my most difficult assignments.
  • 1996, Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company, Philadelphia, PA
I was hired as a communications supervisor by Provident Mutual, where my responsibilities included two monthly newsletters, one for in-house employees and one for the sales force across the country.

Provident Mutual had, at that time, a tutorial program with a nearby (and very needy) Catholic elementary school. A few days per week, the company provided employees and transportation to go to the school and work 1:1 with students who were struggling with math and reading skills.

It was an incredibly rewarding experience. I was sucked in by its benevolence and migrated from merely reporting on its successes to participating in them myself; within a few visits, I became a mentor, helping a sixth grader who was struggling to read. It became one of the most rewarding professional experiences I've ever had.

When Provident Mutual began a similar program in its Delaware Service Center, the effort caught the attention of then-Governor Tom Carper. He came to our offices and spent the day talking to our participants and students, culling ideas to plant these seeds with other local companies and schools.

I was there as a representative of the company newsletter and as a principle in the tutoring program myself. So I spent a day talking to, interviewing, joking, and eating with Governor Tom Carper. It remains my only touch in the world of politics -- and a fond memory.
  • 2004, Just Labs Magazine, Essay Contest Winner
In 2000, we welcomed Wesley into our home, our Black Labrador Retriever. Succumbing to my renewed interest in dogs in general and Labs specifically, I subscribed to Just Labs Magazine, a monthly publication of articles, photos, columns, and information all centering around these magnificent animals.

In 2003, the magazine announced an essay contest. It was open to all subscribers, who only had to write something memorable about their Lab, sticking only to a pre-determined word length. The winners would be published and receive a year-long subscription to the mag.

That first year, I passed by the opportunity to participate. I'm not even sure at this point why. But I did not enter.

And I didn't give it much thought until I read the winners' writings in a follow-up issue. They were good -- heartfelt and touching and funny and engaging. But I knew I could do better, and I resolved to keep watch for Year Two's competition.

Eventually, it came around. I knew if I wanted to do well, I needed to take my entry in a different direction. Most of the previous year's material centered on glowing prose about the bond between an owner and his/her Lab. If I wanted to stand out, I needed to do something different.

I read the rules. And re-read them. And confirmed that my idea would work. There was nothing stating that prose was a requirement.

So I rolled up my sleeves and wrote in poetry. I riffed on Longfellow's "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and came up with "A Midnight Black Lab that I Revere."

I also made sure to include some of Wesley's more challenging episodes with us. Owning him was not all rainbows and butterflies, and I made sure to mention, in rhyme, some of the moments he truly tested our patience.

I submitted. I waited. I received a letter back. I had won.

Out of all the entries across the nation, mine had been chosen. A truly proud moment indeed.

For what it's worth, though, Wesley was completely nonplussed at the news. Leave it to a Lab to put you in your place.
  • 2006, 2008, 2010: Saying goodbyes
In 2006, very suddenly, my dad passed away. It was a devastating loss on a number of levels, not the least of which was how quickly he left us. 

I knew one thing: At his funeral, I would not and could not handle the music. It was just beyond me emotionally to spend his Funeral Liturgy up in a choir loft, attempting to do something worthwhile on the organ bench. But I was committed that it would be I who delivered his eulogy.

I chewed on this writing assignment for a long, long time. Many of my early-morning walks with Wesley were spent crafting what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, and when I would dissolve in tears brought on by grief, Wesley never judged, never scolded, never jeered.

Eventually, it all came together and made its way to paper. I delivered it during the Mass --fighting that hitch in my voice -- and was grateful to bring him so clearly one last time to the memories of those who loved him most.

In 2008, we lost Mom. Her's was a more lingering departure, which made us a bit more ready with the goodbyes. But again, I was called upon to write a reflection of her life. Combining her work as a wife, a sister, a mother, a friend, and a nurse helped us say our farewells.

In 2010, Wesley was felled by a massive tumor that ruptured his spleen. No eulogy was required, but I wrote a very fond reflection of his life for an online Lab forum to which I have belonged for years.

That one's online, here: Godspeed, Wesley Matilda Murphy

All three of these writings were among the most difficult of my life. And the most heartfelt. And the most gratifying. 
  • 2012, Ebook to Be Named at a Later Date
I've been contacted by a friend who is professionally involved with an e-publishing business; she queried me about any fiction I have or could produce, wanting to know if I have any interest in publishing online.

As luck would have it, I had a short story, written many years ago, that could possibly fit the bill. I sent it to her for her reaction.

She likes it. It needs work -- especially expansion to a publishable length -- but she sees great potential.

Stay tuned....

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Prospects Are Dim

This weekend -- August 19 to be exact -- I will have been away from full-time employment for four months. That is 120 days. 2,880 hours.

During that time, I have concentrated diligently on re-finding full-time employment. To that end, I have answered more than 100 Internet postings for jobs in my field, corporate communications, marketing, writing, PR, etc.

In response, I've had exactly four interviews. Two were by phone. To which there was no follow-up face-to-face interview.

One resulted in a first interview, which failed to get me the position.

The other resulted in three face-to-face interviews, all of which resulted in my not getting the position.

Job hunting, I've determined, is one of the most soul-sucking, psychologically crippling, professionally humiliating exercises on the face of the planet. Adding to the entertainment is the knowledge that the longer it goes on, the more you get the unique thrill of watching your savings ebb away to nothingness.

Nest egg? Cracked open months ago! We're now slurping the yolk, sopping it off the plate as if we're holding an piece of economic rye toast.

Retirement fund? You're next, meaning that we'll be eligible to retire, oh, somewhere around age 105.

The pursuit of employment basically comes down to this:

Hi, Biggity-Big Corp. (BBC). I see by your ad you want someone with exactly my qualifications. To launch my candidacy, I've got to survive your electronic screening process, which is basically a computer program designed to look for keywords you've pre-entered -- marketing, writing, editing, success, management -- as essential for your opening. Ping on enough of those and I'll advance to the next level.

Where I'll then be subjected to automated searches on esoteric concepts such as social media marketing, Search Engine Optimization, best-practice communications counsel, strategic advancement, skill leveraging, and stakeholder maximization.

And then and only then do I stand a chance of human interaction in this search, albeit over the phone.

And glory be! Should that go well, I'll stuff myself into a suit (have these pants gotten tighter or did I pack on a few pounds from the stress of being unemployed?), drive like mad to the BBC headquarters (Mapquest directions clenched in my teeth), wait in your antiseptic anteroom, and, at the appointed time, finally shake your hand and look at you eye-to-eye.

A period of waiting follows. And waiting. And waiting. During which time I am knock-knock-knocking on other doors, hoping to advance with some other Biggity-Big Corp.

If all of this sounds incredibly time consuming, it is.

It is said that looking for a full-time position is a full-time position. If that's true, the pay sucks. And there are no benefits.

Actually, that is not entirely true. There have been some benefits to the mountains of time this period of unemployment has afforded me. True, none of them involve a traditional paycheck, at least not yet. But hope springs eternal.

The most significant plus to this little adventure has been the additional time with my family. Being summer, I am now home with my girls in a Mr. Mom arrangement, as my wife earns our daily bread working as a bank teller. I am, thankfully, able to supplement her income (and our Unemployment Compensation) with my musicianship, which has had me covering for vacationing accompanists as requested. The time home with my girls has been enjoyable; I know that I will never again recapture them to such an extent in their present realities: Sophomore in college, Sophomore in high school, and sixth grader.

In addition to looking for work and attending to parenting duties, I have spent this summer:

  • Putting the finishing touches on a music composition that has sat fallow since 2010, with the eventual hopes of getting it published
  • Embarking on an e-book publishing project
  • Fantasizing about burning off my former boss' eyebrows hair-by-hair with a hot poker
  • Attending to a number of household repairs and fix-its that have been hanging around
  • Placing an American Kennel Club (AKC) rally obedience title on our dog, with the goal of further competitions
  • Training in earnest for the 75-mile bicycle trek for charity, for which I volunteered to ride
  • Serving as taxi-driver to my non-license-holding offspring, supplying transpo to movies, mall trips, and swimming outings
  • Wasting far too much time on Facebook
  • Fantasizing about burning off my former boss' eyebrows hair-by-hair with a hot poker
  • Volunteering for some copywriting needed by my church
  • Volunteering an additional night as an assistant at a dog training class
  • Fantasizing about burning off my former boss' eyebrows hair-by-hair with a hot poker
But as I watch daylight recede in the mornings and evenings, I realize that the summer is quickly ebbing away. With September in the wings, it is time for the girls to return to school.

And me to return to the world of the working.

I'm trying to keep a positive outlook on this dilemma. To trust in the Lord. To remain prayerfully faithful and faithfully prayerful.

But I may have been talking to the wrong guys.

Rather than the Lord Himself, it may be time to ring the bell of St. Anthony, finder of the lost.

Or, when I'm feeling really blue, St. Jude.

Patron of lost causes....