Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Go away…go far away

The terrorist attacks in Paris, on November 13, were a cruel reminder how so few can cause so much harm. The ripple effects, no doubt, were intended to send a message to the greater, global population – to keep people scared and off balance.

Just two weeks later, my husband and I would be flying overseas. To London. The trip had been planned since spring. There was no way we weren’t getting on the plane. Still, as the caution on global travel intensified, people asked – my mother, my chiropractor, my running buddy – whether we would cancel our trip.

We promised to be careful, but we were going to stick to our plans. And so we revisited the city where, decades earlier, we had honeymooned. Even back then there had been safety alerts in airports and public areas, both in London and in U.S. cities, about bomb threats and the need to report any unattended packages. Apparently “the good old days” weren’t as innocent and idyllic as we might like to remember them.

While we were away, more terrorist attacks did occur, not in London, but in America. First it was news of a gunman storming the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Then coverage of the San Bernardino attack, which came just two days before we were to leave London. Two days after we arrived home, there was a knife attack deemed a "terrorist incident" in the London Underground, which we had used extensively.

I don’t feel we were lucky to be out of harm’s way during our travels. It's hard to know when you’re going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I just don’t want to live my life in fear or in reaction to possible negative outcomes.

So go away. Make your plans. Take whatever precautions necessary to be more comfortable while away from home. Check the State Department website for specific travel alerts and warnings, and sign up for its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to make it easier for U.S. embassies and consulates to contact you and your loved ones in case of emergency.

Then pack your bag and go see the world. You’ll find it’s bigger on the outside. It's real HD – even better than it looks on the Web. And it's so much more fun when you experience it in person.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Why I (still) blog

“The world doesn't need another blogger.” That’s how I began my very first blog post, in 2008. Then I clarified my view: “At least it doesn't need another ‘the world according to me’ blog. Instead, I intend to share interesting and thought-provoking articles, sites, and ideas in this space.”

And that’s what I did every few weeks. Personally, I was testing this  format, trying to get a handle on what blogging entailed. As I became more familiar with the medium, I began to rethink the purpose of my posts.

There were any number of bloggers curating content. The trend in content marketing was beginning to grow, and eventually platforms like LinkedIn became flooded with people publishing posts to share the latest and greatest ideas.

I needed to take a different tack with my blog if I wanted to stand out from the crowded field of voices vying for attention. So I went back to basics. The world didn’t need another blogger, but my clients, and prospective clients, needed a way to assess my writing skills.

If someone was going to hire me to write a speech, or magazine articles, or an annual report, they could read samples of my work on my website, amyink.com. But if someone wanted to get a feel for my writing, if they wanted to get to know me as a writer, I would need to engage them with stories. My posts would give them bite-sized examples of different writing styles and subjects, while entertaining them on a range of topics. And, because I tend to publish every few weeks, the content would be current, so they could tell I was still alive and writing.

There is another important benefit to writing these posts: it helps me wipe the cobwebs from my brain and loosen up my writing skills. Like stretching before a run or prepping the soil before planting in the garden, these posts are my writing warmup.

As I transitioned from sharing the content of others to featuring my own writing, I changed my blog description to better describe the new direction: Me? I write. You? Read and enjoy.”

I can’t prove this blog has actually gotten me any new clients, but I don’t think it has turned any off. At the very least, my posts – and LinkedIn and Twitter links to the posts – remind people that AMY INK is open and ready for business.

The feedback I’ve gotten tells me my friends enjoy reading the posts. And I enjoy writing them. If I get even one new client as a result, I consider that gravy. For now and into the near future, I will continue blogging unless and until technology delivers something even better for me to use.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Driving the social agenda

With the abundance of social media sites, it is understandable that each would adopt a sticky, if not aggressive, strategy to develop loyalty among users. The stream of emails and offers might work with some people, but it does nothing for my car.

Yes, my car has its own social media page. I created it in advance of a possible sale. The page features a large photograph of the car, with an accompanying paragraph that gives the relevant details.

The very next day after posting, and at regular intervals after, my car began receiving emails from the site. Each one starts, "Hi Volks." The first one was notification about the page being favorited by the team behind the social site.

At first, I laughed it off. Then I became intrigued. How far would the site go before it realized the subject of the page was a car?

A couple dozen people have already viewed the Volks page, according to site statistics. And now the car is being encouraged to create collections of similar pages, to compliment other pages, and to share its backstory.

Such a welcoming social strategy would be more, well, welcome if intended for and received by a human. But the fact that the process has been so automated as to not recognize an inanimate object is being featured is telling.

Unless, that is, the automated robot saw a kindred spirit in a mechanical driving machine. Then these emails make perfect sense. Although so far Volks has been too shy to reply.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Saving Amy

Suddenly I’m surrounded by the past. Old 8mm movies. Childhood pictures. Audio tapes of my days in college radio and my brother’s first band. My mother was a saver, and now that she is downsizing, she’s giving her children all their mementos.

The quality of these remnants isn’t always the best. You have to strain your eyes or your ears to discern detail, and the gist is really all that comes through.

The problem with much of the media is that it’s old technology. My husband had to scavenge two 8mm projectors to get one that works semi-reliably. Some of the pictures have adhered permanently to their album pages. And the audio tapes are either reel-to-reel, for which machines are a rarity, or cassettes, for which I still have machines, but the cassettes themselves have their own playback issues.

At one point, years ago, my father edited and transferred his trove of home movies from film to VHS tape. Then he must have thrown out the original film, because we haven’t been able to find it. As for the VHS, well, when I was able to find a player, the tape was in such bad shape that all I saw was snow.  One VHS tape had a promising title, about a holiday family dinner back before I was born, but that had been recorded over with some old television show. So much for preserving memories in media.

At first I bemoaned the loss of the sights and sounds of family and the way we were. Then, when this last batch of memorabilia surfaced, and I could hear my old newscasts, and my brother’s saxophone solos, I wasn’t so sure they were worth preserving. Things sounded so much better in my mind. I remember the circumstances around each recording, and the memories are kinder and clearer than these saved snippets.

I really don’t need to be reminded about the imperfections. I’d rather focus on the experiences I had and how they motivated me to continue discovering new things. Passions for radio and photography have faded, but other interests took their place. And then they faded as newer interests came along.

Over the years, I tried my hand at learning Hebrew and French. I entered 10k races and a half marathon. I rode bicycles. I hiked. I went to concerts and plays. I lived in the city and then the suburbs. I traveled overseas. I gardened. I took up yoga and mindful meditation.

There’s only so much time in the day, so it makes sense that interests would wax and wane. The lesson I’ve learned is to just keep learning, to find whatever that next thing may be.

And there’s only so much space in my house, so I really don’t want to save all the ephemera of my life. There’s much more room in my imagination to store memories of people and places and interests gone by – with lots of room left over for what’s ahead.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Moving pictures

My husband has taken on the project of transferring old home movies into digital video. We’ve had
some good laughs, and refreshed memories, over the old films. We’ve also taken away a few tips for those who seek to preserve today’s occasions for future memories.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re using a digital camera, smartphone, or other type of technology, as these apply to style and content:
  1. Forget the food. There may be a sentimental reason to feature a shot of a birthday cake or holiday spread, but don’t bother featuring food in your movie. We’d much rather see grandma’s smile or Aunt Sylvia’s wave than what was served at the wedding.
  2. Move in for the close-up. Long shots are good for establishing a scene, but then move in. The relatives in your movies won’t be around forever, or won’t look so fresh and young after several decades, so treat your audience with big close-ups that reveal how sis and baby brother looked at that moment. And, crucially important, most small cameras can’t capture good audio from a distance. If you want to be able to understand what they’re saying, it’s got to be shot from seven feet or closer.
  3. It’s a “moving” picture, so don’t ask people to stand still. Let’s see how mom danced, the tangle of little kids playing soccer, or the family rocking in chairs on the porch. Don’t stage a group shot, as you would with a still camera.
  4. Slow down. Camera movement is great as you pan around the room or field, but slow and steady will help your viewing audience keep their lunch. Moving too fast or herky-jerky while filming can have a nauseating effect on viewers.
  5. Be sneaky when necessary. Some relatives hide when the camera comes out. Back in the day, it was hard to avoid knowing when the camera was on, what with bright movie lights and loud camera mechanisms. Now it’s easier to capture the parents before they wave you off.
  6. Record the fun. What we’ve found is the wish to see relatives look natural and at ease with one another. But, having said that, there’s nothing like the unguarded joy of siblings or friends having a good time. It might just be a hot day with a garden hose, or a sneak snowball attack on your sister. Make the camera inconspicuous (point 5 above), stake out a good spot to start, and don’t hesitate to move around to get the best angles.

  7. Record and archive in highest quality possible. For the first time in the history of motion imagery, many of us have cameras in our pockets that could, in the right hands, shoot pieces of a Hollywood movie. The first rule is to shoot at the highest resolution and quality available on your device. And learn how to transfer the raw footage to your computer for long-term storage. Don’t count on saving the clips you loaded up to social media, because that footage is usually highly compressed in the process, with great loss of quality. Yes, you’ll probably want to learn how to do some basic editing in iMovie or Premiere, throwing out the junk, and always saving at the highest quality once you’re done. You will end up investing in external storage drives, which are relatively cheap and plentiful, but archiving carefully is key to future generations being able to enjoy what was going on way back…now.
It’s great to look back through photo albums, in hard copy or digital, but in 30 years or so there will be nothing like seeing Mom making pasta or your brother going to the prom with his future wife.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Flying cats and parallel paths

As my parents entered their ninth decade, they decided to adopt two kittens. The year was 2008. Since then, those two scrappy cats have occupied dedicated space in my head. My brother would tease me saying, “You know what I call them? YOURS!”

I knew at some point, some day, I would be involved in their lives. That time came last week, when my brother and I flew from Florida with the cats and my widowed mother, as she relocated back to New Jersey.

For months I had been anticipating, planning for, and dreading this flight. I had called dibs on doing everything to help with the move except for being on the actual flight with the cats. I enlisted my husband to be my stand-in cat-flying companion. But when push came to shove, I knew I had to put on my big-girl pants, stop whining, and get on that plane.

The only traveling I had done with cats was to bring mine to the veterinarian. Even though these were short car trips, the yowling was constant and insistent. I couldn’t imagine a two-hour flight with noisy felines under the seats in front of us, and I was anxious about the potential side effects of sedating the cats.

The only thing to do was to plow ahead. The day began early, before dawn, because no one could sleep. My brother and I wrangled one cat and then the other into the bathroom to pill, harness, and secure in carriers. My mother sat quietly in the living room, and we put the first cat-filled carrier on her lap. By the time we completed the second one, the first cat was already in mid-escape. We caught him just in time, and secured all the locks.

We were well prepared for airport security, with leashes at the ready, so we could remove the cats from carriers to put them (the carriers, not the cats) through the X-ray scanner. Then we settled at our gate to await boarding. There was a moment, pre-boarding, when we noticed a bad smell emanating from one of the carriers. So my brother and I locked ourselves in the companion bathroom to change out the pet pee pad we were using as a liner. I don’t know what was stranger, changing out a cat pee pad or kneeling on the bathroom floor in an airport with my brother.

The flight itself was a non-event, except for some soft meowing and half-hearted clawing at the carrier. Between the crying babies and a barking puppy on the plane, the two cats were model travelers.

The next day, I began the task of notifying people of my mother’s change of address. One of the first emails was to her financial advisor, who immediately emailed back with a near-identical story.

While we were flying from Florida to New Jersey, he was flying his mother and her cat from Denver to California. Halfway through the flight, her cat figured out how to open the carrier and began climbing out. “Clearly the cat isn’t gonna run away, we are on an airplane for goodness sake….but my mom goes into full panic mode. Pretzels are flying off the tray, her purse dumps out, and basically hilarity ensues.” Fortunately, the guy in the next seat was a cat owner and helped retrieve the cat, which he then locked into the carrier using his keyring.

Mission completed for both flights, both sets of cats, and both moms (and their kids).

For me there was the added bonus of sharing what I thought was a rare experience with an insider of my mother’s affairs. As he wrote after we both related our stories: “Best….email…chain…ever!!”

The only thing better is having this adventure well behind me.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Give and you will receive (whether you want it or not)

My mother saved everything and now wants to send it all back
The idea occurred to me several years ago, when shopping for my parent’s anniversary gift. I had no idea what to buy a couple who needed nothing, had everything, and never agreed on anything.

I decide to buy something I liked for myself, figuring I would probably end up with it someday. I didn’t know how prescient that thought would be.

Now that my widowed mother is moving across many state lines into a retirement community, everything I’ve ever given her is coming back to me. Or it would if she had her way. I’ve been fighting off the return flow of goods as best I can, but sometimes it’s easier to take whatever is offered and drive to the nearest Goodwill Donation Center.

Some of my handmade projects should never have survived this long, and yet my mother hesitates to throw them away. Nobody needs a lopsided clay pitcher that proved pottery class wasn't for me. Likewise the carved plaster turtle that looked more like a moving truck.

My mother saved everything that came from the hands of her children, whether bought, crafted, drawn, or published.

I spent many phone calls trying to convince my mother she could get rid of a career’s worth of my writing samples. I had my own copies of the annual reports, magazines, brochures, newsletters and newspaper clippings. It took some doing, but she finally agreed to recycle them. The paper, if not the content, was worth something to someone.

Some arguments have been harder to make than others. In the 1980s, I was hooked on Frostline kits for making down-filled vests and jackets. They came with pre-cut fabric, pre-measured packets of down, all the notions and tools, and easy instructions. I must have made a dozen of them, including a navy jacket for my dad. He wore it for years and then moved to tropical Florida. That was 25 years ago, and he passed away in 2014. The jacket, however, remains, and my mother wants me to take it back.

Lately, my mother has been getting sneaky about returns, mailing me packets of memorabilia. The current batch had postcards and newspaper clippings she kept by her sewing machine. She couldn’t bring herself to throw them away, but I’m not as sentimental.

Sure I enjoyed rereading the 2005 postcard I wrote while sitting in Monet’s garden in Giverny. As for the 1998 newspaper clipping, I barely recognize the corporate me, sitting in my office at Hercules, featured in a round-up article on brief cases. And the sports column I wrote in 1991 is not only relevant but more appropriate today, with the title, “If we run for fun, why does it hurt so much?”

Maybe that’s the whole point of returning gifts and giveaways. It brings back memories, allowing you to mark time gone by. I admit it’s fun to see these archaeological items from my past, but nothing is slowing me down from a trip to the recycling bins.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Living on the sun

As summer winds down, I look forward to cooler days ahead. And not just in a “wouldn’t it be nice” way. I am seriously craving a cooler environment. I used to have a greater tolerance for hot weather. Now, I just melt. I get slow and sleepy. Cranky. And good hair days are few and far between.

My frequent travels to Florida to visit family don’t help. Snowbirds – people who migrate to Florida during the cold winter months back home – actually get some wonderfully livable weather. Me? Too many August trips have tipped the balance. All I seem to get is intense heat, which brings intense storms, followed by more intense heat.

The way I see it, the Florida summer is like living on the sun. I realize I might have a different perception if I were lying on the beach sipping margaritas. Instead, I’m usually doing work around the house or running errands.

Too many times I’ve left my water bottle in the car while dashing into the grocery store. What I return to is boiling water fit for a tea bag. By the time the car air conditioning gets up to speed, I’m back in the garage. I rarely get a chance to blast the cold air anyway, because I’m usually driving with my mother. With her thinned Florida blood, she starts shivering at 75 degrees.

Summers in the Philadelphia area can be scorchers, too, but at least I can count on changing seasons to bring relief. When I’m prepared to sweat – while running, practicing yoga, or exercising in some other way – heat is a bothersome but short-term discomfort. It’s when I’m dressed for some occasion, or fresh from a shower, that I pine for air conditioning.

I’ve been to Arizona, where the lie of dry heat being easier to handle is exposed. Hot is hot, whether dry or humid. There may be less frizz to hairstyles, but it can still feel like standing in a giant oven.

When the temperatures hit the 90s, I become the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. I look green, and I frequently cry, “I’m melting, melting.”

In Florida, I just get condescending looks because this is exactly the weather that attracts vacationers and retirees. The locals say you get used to the heat. The experts say it takes about two weeks to acclimatize to hot weather. I say, on the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

If the dress fits…

My go-to plan is to start each day with exercise. Some days I run. Some days it’s strength training at the gym. And there’s one day of Power Yoga.

Not only does this regimen set structure for the open schedule of my freelance life, it keeps me in the same dress size I’ve had for just about ever. And I’ve been proud of that. My baby boomer body fits well in the size 8 clothes tucked in my drawers and closet.

Then I read an article about “the absurdity of women’s clothing sizes.” The first line of the story gave me pause. It cited these facts: “A size 8 dress today is nearly the equivalent of a size 16 dress in 1958.”

I immediately felt bigger, more like a size 16, even though nothing had changed from moments before when I was a happy size 8. That’s the power of body image and of the printed word. I read something new, and I take the information to heart. My perspective changes. I should know this. I write for a living.

At least I’m not so worried about the personal trainer I interviewed last month for an article. She dropped from a size 22 to a size 0. What is size 0? And, more important, what happens if she loses more weight?

I’m not fixated on weight, really I’m not, but I was happy to finally find a pair of skinny jeans. That satisfaction was short-lived after reading an article titled “'Skinny Jeans' Linked to Woman’s Nerve Damage.”

As the subhead explained: “After spending the day squatting in too-tight pants, she temporarily couldn’t walk.” This woman ended up in the hospital. Her injury came from emptying cabinets. Her feet became numb. She had difficulty walking. She tripped and fell, and it was hours before she was found lying on the ground. It took four days of treatment before she could walk on her own and was able to leave the hospital.

And that’s when I stopped worrying about trying to look skinny. I’d rather walk. And run. And do yoga. I will focus less on the size outcome of exercising and more on the health and well-being that comes from being active.

And whatever the size, if the dress or jeans fit you well, wear them in good health.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Why TV news makes me sick

How do you keep up on the news? If you’re a millennial, the answer is probably an online website or social media feed. If you’re a baby boomer, you might read the morning paper over a cup of coffee, although that paper may be delivered electronically to your tablet.

When it comes to evening newscasts, audience erosion has been ongoing. While polls and surveys try to determine the cause, they're looking in the wrong places. I don't believe it's about the number of interviews, live reports, or story length.

I’ve been a steadfast viewer of national TV news, but I don’t know how much longer I can keep on watching. The problem is this: TV news makes me feel sick, and it doesn’t matter which network I’m watching.

It goes beyond the violence and vindictiveness and treachery of politics and world events. It’s what happens between news segments that is turning me off. Commercials are the easy fall guy for losing viewers, but it’s more the type of ad that plays during the dinner hour.

The other night I counted 17 commercials and three network promos in one half-hour program, with 10 of those ads targeted to medical maladies, and most of those related to senior citizens.

The reason I may abandon Lester Holt, Scott Pelley, David Muir, and other evening anchors is the fatigue factor of commercial breaks, most of which echo the refrain, “Ask your doctor whether X is right for you.”

Even worse than hearing the gritty details of toenail fungus or gas bloating during dinner is seeing the disturbing animations. And what about all those wistful, unsatisfied women lounging about, hoping their men will pop a little pill to provide up to four hours of pleasure.

I always wonder what households with little children do, as kids are quick to pick up on and ask about things you wish they hadn’t overheard. “Mommy, what is that lady talking about? Are you experiencing vaginal pain during intercourse due to menopause?”

It’s not a matter of being squeamish about discussing medical issues. It’s more a matter of assumption. It seems advertisers assume only older, infirm people watch the news. That’s when they gang up ads for joint pain, erectile dysfunction, cancer treatments, COPD, depression, nutritional supplements, denture adhesive, heartburn, arthritis, menopause, dry eye, dry mouth, and so on.

Nearly every commercial includes a long list of potential side effects that must be mentioned, usually at top speed, in the last few seconds of air time. Hearing all that could possibly go wrong is enough to convince me the “cure” could easily be worse than the disease.

I would feel a whole lot better, and TV news might benefit too, if there were healthier commercial breaks.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Why I don’t quite trust my GPS

I have a difficult relationship with my GPS. She’s like my mother; I only listen to her sometimes. She thinks she knows best, but only I know what’s right for me (referring to my mother) and which roads I like to travel (referring to my GPS).

Yesterday, my GPS once again proved the difficulty in total reliance on her voice for direction. It was a classic example: two cars leave from the same starting point and plan to meet at a nearby destination. The other car knows the way and makes a stop first. My car uses GPS and goes straight to the destination, arriving last after traveling the scenic way.

My experience with GPS  proves it's best used when you already know where you’re going. When I’m in familiar territory, I can flag when GPS is taking me the long way, or through traffic-prone areas, or through industrial areas. That’s when my own autopilot takes over, driving favorite routes with the GPS voice prompts turned way down. Somehow it's impossible to turn her voice completely off, and I can still hear her whispering, pleading for me to turn RIGHT NOW.

I typically turn GPS on, even when driving locally, because road closures and construction are the order of the day. If forced to take less-known roads, I can quickly get back on track. It’s when I don’t know where I’m going, and rely solely on GPS, that I know I’m going miles out of my way. Some websites even warn not to follow GPS, and offer their own directions instead. Most times, I’ll pre-map unfamiliar routes online, print out the directions, and also take a roadmap.

Roadmaps are useful because they provide a bigger picture of the journey than the small GPS screen with a you-are-here view. Although with maps it's best to have a navigator beside you, as they're hard to read safely while driving. With GPS and maps in hand, I have Plan A and Plan B, because you never know what you’ll run into on the road.

My favorite GPS story comes from “The Office,” when Steve Carrell as Michael Scott follows his rental car’s GPS directions precisely – and drives right into a lake. My own GPS makes me laugh when she says, “Danger! Water!”, when approaching a bridge, or “Warning! Tollbooth!”, which sounds more like Toe-booth.

One reason I bought a new car was for its navigational system, but I still keep my glovebox stuffed with maps, just in case. As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. But I’d rather get there sooner than later.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Pull up a chair

Office assistant takes a seat
When I first joined the corporate world, my dream was to have a desk. Instead I had partial use of a drawer, a place to stash my pocketbook while I worked in a photography lab.

When I got my first writing job, my dream was to have an office. Instead I had a cubicle, a place where I could hear three conversations, sometimes simultaneously, as I tried to write.

When I joined a corporate communications department, my cube shrank in size and was directly outside the men's room. The only good to come of the location was a strategy to catch executives as they were headed in, to get quick answers on copy questions.

As I moved through jobs and companies, I eventually got my own office. And with the office came expectations about wardrobe, with even business casual putting more of an emphasis on business than casual.

For the past 15 years, I've had the ideal work environment: my own office, outfitted the way I like it, with two windows, and no dress code (other than to change from PJs). I thought my home office was perfect, until I began to read about the hazards of sitting at a desk all day.

What's a writer to do? Well, I could use a standing desk, but standing all day has its own risks. I could add a Level from FluidStance, which keeps the body in subtle motion using a mashup between a skateboard and a balance board. Or I could get a treadmill desk, but space and coordination requirements put the kibosh on that for me.

If I wanted to go with the latest corporate trends, I would close my dedicated office and work from anywhere -- the dining room, the patio, the coffee shop. I would work from any space currently unoccupied, so as not to waste assets on a single-use office. That's just how I worked in the photo lab, grabbing a seat where and when I could. And you know what? I didn't like that at all.

At this stage of my career, I think I've earned my seat at the table -- and the desk. And I'm not giving it up anytime soon.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Survey me not

I fear that, as a culture, we’re losing our confidence. Why else would we be continually asking others: How am I doing?

That used to be the question the late Ed Koch would ask everyone and anyone when he was mayor of New York City, from 1978 to 1989. I still think of old Ed whenever I’m asked for feedback on a survey, which is every other day or so.

When one person asks for feedback, you respond. The second request? OK, maybe. But the daily barrage tells me it’s time to find a new feedback mechanism.

Some recent examples:
  • The bank that holds my personal accounts and one business checking account invites me to “Voice Your Opinion” by participating in a brief online survey about business banking needs. Me? I just need a checking account, which I already have.
  • The vet would “greatly appreciate it” if I would complete a survey on my cat’s dental cleaning. They should really be asking my cat, although based on his yowling there and back, he wasn’t a happy camper. 
  • An industry executive community selected me to participate in an exclusive survey of its magazine readers. I’m not an exec in that industry, and I don’t read the magazine. 
  • A confirmation email for a product purchase alerts me I will be receiving an email survey within two weeks asking my opinion of service. Forewarned is forearmed; it was deleted immediately. 
  • The latest request came from an airline, with one email asking about my flight out and a second asking about my flight home. I don’t think any amount of feedback will give me more leg room, greater transparency on pricing, or guaranteed space in the overhead bin for carry-on luggage.
The automatic nature of feedback requests remind me of dining out. At some point, shortly after serving the main course, the wait staff will breeze by the table to ask something along the lines of this: “You guys OK?” And because I’m not dining in four-star restaurants, unless the food is truly horrid or includes something unidentifiable or inedible, I’ll usually give a nod so they’ll go away.

There is another reason behind my reluctance to publicly review all matters great and small. One of my clients was a small PR firm, and the principal died suddenly. As I was searching for information about funeral services, I came across his online review of a wastebasket he had purchased. He gave it a positive rating, and that rating kept popping up on subsequent searches as the days went by. I never discovered any funeral or memorial service for him, but I sure know how pleased he was with his wastebasket.

I’d hate for anyone’s last memory of me to be a review of some mundane piece of office furniture. So to all my vendors and service providers, unless you hear differently from me, you’re all doing just fine.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Six secrets to freelance success

The reasons for becoming a freelancer run the gamut, from entrepreneurial bent to downsized job, from desire for more freedom and flexibility to no better options at the moment.

No matter how you come to freelancing, or for how long, there are a few secrets to make the most of your experience. Following are the top six that come to mind based on my 15 years of experience as a freelance writer:
  1. Get dressed. There is no freelancer uniform, but you really need to get out of your pajamas. I know it’s tempting to roll out of bed and start tapping away on your computer. But even if video calls are unlikely, it’s hard to feel professional wearing bunny slippers.

  2. Brush your teeth. Getting dressed is only the first step. If you don’t brush your teeth first thing in the morning, you’ll delay until after breakfast. Then you’ll have a big cup of coffee to sip, so you’ll put it off even longer. By that time lunch looms, and who brushes their teeth before eating? You can see where this is going. A day without brushing that leaves you open to cavities and dental disease (and what freelancer carries great dental insurance?).

  3. Create a brand. When I first began my freelance writing business, I didn’t have a lot of billable hours. What kept me busy was creating the tools and materials to present a professional image to prospects. I branded my business AMY INK, with the name and logo carried across letterhead, business cards, website, and social media sites. Sometimes new clients would find me via Internet search, but more often I pointed prospects to www.amyink.com, where they could read writing samples, get more detail on my background, and get a general sense that I was a “real” business and not just killing time during a job search.

  4. Use professional tools. Most of my clients come from the business world, and so I created my in-home office with as many professional tools as possible. I bought the same software my clients used. I installed equipment with the same capabilities. I used the same courier delivery services they did. Basically, I wanted them to see me as an extension of their office, not some homespun writing service that would deliver copy and cookies.

  5. Buy go-to-meeting clothes. The wardrobe from my corporate days became terribly outdated in what seemed like months. These two words should tell the whole story: shoulder pads. So each year I try to stock a few outfits that will work in the boardroom. The need to be prepared became apparent when a meeting with executives was scheduled on short notice. Because there was nothing appropriate in my closet, I had to make an emergency run to a classic-clothing retailer. I’m sure the client didn’t really care what I wore, but I wanted to show that I cared and could fit in with the culture I would be writing about.

  6. Schedule workouts first. My Outlook calendar is filled with colorful blocks of time scheduled for gym workouts, yoga classes, and running. This visual reminder keeps me, and my fitness schedule, on track. There are times I will schedule business calls for my normal gym morning, but it’s not my first preference – and I make time for the workout later. The point here is that taking time for fitness is important. When you’re healthy and feeling strong, you can perform better in life and on the job.
These secrets are not so much hidden knowledge as what I consider good common sense applied to business. I’ve been freelancing now for 15 years, which is a dog’s age in this business. Those joining the freelance ranks today can probably rely on digital tools instead of the fax machine, second landline, and branded mailing supplies I needed back in 2000. And they could probably add many more secrets about the best uses of social media. 

Still, what matters most remains the same: providing clients with quality work, even going beyond their expectations, while being reliable, creative, and an easy partner to work with. If you’re going the freelance route, for whatever reason, treat it as the great opportunity it is – both for you and your clients.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Just breathe

The irony is not lost on me.

I am a communicator by trade. I spent years in corporate communication roles before striking out as a freelancer in 2000. My days are filled writing content intended to spur readers to think or do something in a particular way.

I don't know whether it's because of my background or in spite of it, but the most meaningful experience I've had in a long time is a recently completed workshop in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

In 27 hours, over nine weeks, I learned a new kind of communication: engaging with my inner self as I focus on paying attention to the present moment, without judgment. Those concepts -- paying attention, present moment, without judgment -- come hard to a hardened communicator.

My work involves frequent interviews, during which time I split my attention between listening and deciding which follow-on questions are necessary to draw out the information needed for whatever I'm writing. I have to make quick judgments about whether or not I've gotten the right level of detail, so I don't waste the interviewee's time or my own. I also work on deadline, so my mind is always racing into the future. The tension is to complete Steps A, B, C, and D so I can deliver final copy by a certain date.

All those productivity skills I pride myself on have led to an active mind that makes it hard for me to relax and, sometimes, to fall asleep. I've become a "human doing" instead of a human being. So when the MBSR program came to my yoga studio, led by someone deeply committed to his own mindfulness practice in both meditation and movement, I was among the first to sign up.

Most of what we did was to sit. And breathe. Yes, I know. We all sit. And we all breathe. But few of us pay attention, on purpose, to our breathing in the present moment. And that seemingly small change isn't so small after all. It makes a huge difference in the ability to focus the mind when it wanders, as mine does again and again and again.

I've been breathing my whole life, but I've done so on autopilot. Now, post-workshop, I'm paying attention. I'm taking time each day for mindful meditation, using the breath to find focus. I walk away from each session with a greater sense of peace and well-being. At night, I use mindfulness techniques to help me fall asleep. And the mind-body connection is evident, with lower blood pressure readings being a welcome outcome.

There's not much to it. Just sit. And breathe. But I find this simple practice to be both deeply satisfying and always available, allowing me to communicate better, with more clarity. And to be truly present for whatever arises in my life.

 * * *
Links for more information:

Monday, May 4, 2015

When negatives prove valuable

This story begins with a picture taken decades ago and ends this week, following a funeral, a mystery, and a mix of technologies. 

I was attending the funeral for a beloved aunt. While paying respects to the family, I glimpsed a photograph that looked familiar. It was taken in my parent’s home. By me. More than 30 years ago.

In the photo, my aunt and uncle were sitting together, looking happy and peaceful. But who was the woman at the end of the couch? This was one of the few photos of my aunt and uncle together at that time -- he died not too long after -- I was determined to find out what I could about the third party.

To unravel the mystery of an early 1980s color print, I snapped a picture of the framed photo with my smartphone and emailed it to several family members. A cousin confirmed it was taken at her bridal shower, and the unknown woman was from her father’s family.

I shared this information with the grieving family, glad to put a date, occasion, and name to the photo. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. I had taken the shot, so surely I must have more photos somewhere from that day.

I visited my photo archive, also known as the top shelf of a rarely used bedroom closet. I combed through boxes of photos, but couldn’t find anything. I flipped through pages of slides; still, no success.

Finally, I dragged down an overstuffed binder of negative sleeves and contact prints. Depending how young you are, that previous sentence probably made no sense. Let’s just say I went through my old photography paraphernalia and found exactly what I was looking for.

So now what? I really wanted my cousins to have a nice picture of their parents, just the two of them, without the unrelated woman crowding in. I pulled the negative and handed it to my husband, who's more tech savvy. I thought he could erase the third person from the couch through some software wizardry, but I’ve been watching too much CSI on TV.

He took an old-fashioned approach using much newer technology. Basically, he scanned the negative into PhotoShop, adjusted color and contrast, cropped in close on my aunt and uncle, and then saved it as a .JPG. I emailed the new version to family members and, if they wanted, they could get an actual print to replace the old framed one by sending it to anyone from Walgreens to Shutterfly to Mpix. 

Only later did I reflect on the technologies involved in bringing new life to an old photo, taken with a 35mm SLR camera. Again, depending on your age, you may not know the camera reference, but you could always look it up on your smartphone.

I had been tempted once or twice to throw away all my old negatives. I couldn’t imagine ever printing them again. Now I know they’re a valuable resource and a tether to my past. As for printing, well that has taken on new meaning when you can email images and have prints ready for pickup or arrive in the mail.

Once again I find new technology never really replaces old technology. Drawing on the strengths of each, you get the best of both worlds. In this case, a positive negative.

Friday, April 17, 2015

No quirks in owners manuals

My first car was a VW Squareback, with a very Zen stick shift. The shifter knob outlined four forward gears and reverse. The owners manual included a similar illustration, with additional tips that never mirrored reality.

There was no telling where second or third gear would be found on any given shift. The only way to drive this car was to get a feel for the general vicinity of each gear and then be playful.

My smartphone has similar quirks not found in the manual. It would have been helpful to read something like: “Place the phone down gently, or it will spontaneously reboot. If this is a problem, jam a piece of cardboard next to the battery to ensure a secure fit.” The troubleshooting section could be one sentence: “When something stops working, turn the phone off and on again.”

When my vacuum cleaner started to misbehave, I searched the online manual for instructions. I found the illustration for disassembling the lower plate to get to the beater brush, which the manual calls the “agitator.” What was more agitating than this brush was the sparse drawing overlaid with arrows in all directions. The few words of description were useless, and only after significant yanking and cursing did I find the tiny locking tabs that were the secret to success.

Other clues I wish were provided in owners manuals:
  • To reset the low-tire-pressure gauge in my car, press the well-hidden button in the glove box.
  • To restart my mother’s cable box after a service outage, hold the power button for five seconds.
  • To restore service to my Internet radio, unplug and replug the power cord.
Simple solutions? Definitely. What made them difficult was finding the answers, which sometimes came from online chats, from calls to service departments, or trial-and-error approach.

I don’t envy technical writers who work on owners manuals. They don’t know much about their audience or how much their audience knows about their product. They don’t know which details to include or how detailed to make their answers.

One thing technical writers do know, and practice quite well, is to appease company lawyers and make sure any potential liability is clearly identified. Take this sentence from my car manual: “If you are in a collision in which airbags deploy, wash your hands and face with mild soap and water before eating.” Personally, I’ll go to the hospital first; I think my appetite would be ruined by the crash.

As much as I love to hate owners manuals, I like having one for reference. They may not tell me what I really need to know, and often offer too much unnecessary information, but you never know when they just might come in handy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Now everyone is doing it

The Internet is like high school. Someone shows up with something shiny and new; pretty soon everyone wants or has the same thing.

Website design is showing just as much trend envy.

Splash pages used to be the big thing. Then flash animations. Now it’s the BIG PICTURE.

More and more websites spread a single photograph or graphic across the top half of the screen. There might be a few words, maybe a title and subhead in a large font. To find out more, you have to scroll down. Even then content is sparse, because, you know, people don’t like to read anymore.

Note to big-picture Web designers: Your pages are pretty. Your pages don’t tell me what I want to know. Ironically, the big picture approach doesn’t give me the big picture on content. A photograph isn’t always worth 1,000 words. Sometimes a photograph is just a photograph.

Granted, I’m a word person. Writing is what I do. Depending on the medium and the message, I tailor my approach for more or less content. Either way, content is key.

Words matter. People do like to read if it’s content they’re interested in, that engages them, that tells them what they need or want to know.

The first few big-picture websites I saw were intriguing in their novelty. And they were visually attractive, with beautifully done, professional photographs.

Now that more people are borrowing this design approach, using similar templates, the cracks are showing. The photos aren’t always so great; maybe they’re low-res or straight from a phone app. The content is sketchy. There’s no “there” there.

If I were just surfing the Internet for fun, these sites would be eye candy (at least the good ones would). But my surfing days are over; I click to find answers, information, content.

The good news is everything on the Internet seems to be a trend. I just can’t wait until the next one comes along.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Can you hear a pin drop?

I love the mobility of mobile phones. They go everywhere, and they’re smarter than ever.  I can get email, surf the Web, make transactions, and conduct business from anywhere.

The one thing I can’t do – or rarely do – is hear calls clearly.  I guess I’m showing my age by wanting call quality so good I could actually hear a pin drop.

Sprint boasted about pin-drop quality in its late '80s TV commercials. Closer to reality were the Verizon Wireless “Can you hear me now?” campaign, where Test Man drove me crazy with repetition. It was particularly annoying because I had to ask that same question almost every time I called someone. With unreliable cell phone service and poor sound quality, I often couldn’t hear the other person. At least I had an easy out if the conversation entered awkward territory: What? What did you say? You're breaking up.

I spend a lot of my working hours interviewing people for articles, and the conversations take place wherever the client happens to be. I’ve conducted interviews with people in airports, in a cab in Sweden, on Amtrak high-speed trains, and at the hospital. For my part, I got caught short and ended up on client call while walking my dog in nearby farm fields.

For all these conversations, at least one party was on a mobile phone, and none had pin-drop quality. Mobile access is awesome; the call clarity abysmal. Don’t even get me started on speakerphones.

I have gotten used to stopping conversations when something doesn’t sound quite right. Otherwise I get results like misheard song lyrics. No, Jimi Hendrix did not sing “Excuse me while I kiss this guy,” in Purple Haze. And the executive did not just say “That’s a lot of poo”; it was “That’s a lot to do.”

There was a time when I could ask for a callback using a landline. Now landlines are the exception; mobile phones are the rule.

Even my mother has a mobile phone. She uses it to call my mobile. Then we both have trouble understanding the conversation.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Today's forecast is...pretty

After watching snowstorm after snowstorm hammer Boston, Philadelphia finally got its biggest snowfall of the season.

And it's a beauty. Fluffy white stuff. Bright blue sky this morning. Deep shadows for contrast.

Mother Nature finally got it right. Enough of the two-inch tease of flakes, only to be washed by rain into a slushy, slippery mess.

The timing and forecasting for this one worked out well, with enough advance notice that event cancellations and work-at-home arrangements could be made. It was much better to watch the storm from a warm and toasty house than stranded somewhere on the road.

Still, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I know plenty of people who are too tired of winter to care how pretty the landscape looks.

They probably would have preferred a view I had earlier this week. Something like this. It's tough to beat a sunny day in Southwest Florida.

But the trip wasn't all fun and games. There was a significant element of chore-cation involved, and I was anxious about a growing pile of projects back home on my desk.

Even so, it was a nice break from winter's chill and what had been a string of missed forecasts back home of snowstorms that always dumped the fun stuff somewhere else.

I was skeptical when Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, signalling six more weeks of winter. But it looks like that little groundhog was right on the money.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Warding off winter with a spring fix

Three degrees. Just three teeny tiny degrees. That's all my dashboard read during this morning's drive.

My hands were bundled in down-filled mittens. My body likewise encased in a down-filled parka. My neck was triple-wrapped in a long scarf. And my car seat heater was turned to broil.

I kept contact with the elements to a minimum, with mad dashes between car and destinations. It wasn't until my last stop when I could actually straighten up and smell the roses.

Well, not quite roses, but something just as special because they herald the start of another growing
season: miniature daffodils, known as Narcissus Tete-a-Tete, and primroses. It was like walking into the Philadelphia Flower Show, but without the crowds or hefty admission charge.

These early, early spring flowers don't mind a little chilly weather, although it's certainly too soon for planting in the garden. They'd do fine on a window sill or tabletop. Except if you have pets.

It's tempting to buy the first flowers of spring, especially while winter is making such an impact. But do yourself, and your pets, a favor. Check the list of toxic and non-toxic plants on the ASPCA website before you buy.

I know my cats are curious about plants and like to nibble, so I'll hold off buying these flowers until I can leave them outside.

For now, it's good to know there are a few places where I can go for a spring fix, if only to stop and smell the primroses.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Happy Trails to You

Well before Roy Rogers was a fast food restaurant, the man himself was a singer, actor, and America’s favorite cowboy. He and his wife, Dale Evans, had a TV show that aired before most people on social media were born.

I wasn’t around when “The Roy Rogers Show” started, and I don’t remember the reruns, but the theme song sticks in my head: Happy trails to you until we meet again…

Maybe, just maybe, that song has something to do with why I enjoy running on trails. Or it could be that pounding the pavement mile after mile can grow stale if not mixed with some off-road adventure.

I find trails rejuvenate my running by lifting my spirits and providing an ever-changing backdrop of scenery. Even winter trails are better than streets, with YakTrax on sneakers providing similar traction as snow chains on tires.

Some runners turn to treadmills in the winter, but if I’m not outside, I’m not running.

I know I’m not alone because the top spring race listed on Philadelphia magazine’s Be Well Philly is the Tyler 10K Trail Run at Tyler Arboretum, a Delco RRC event directed by John Greenstine (full disclosure, John’s my husband). Each year the 400-spot race sells out, and right now the April 11 event stands at more than 300 registered runners.

I have run this race several times, but these days I have more fun behind the camera watching runners navigate the course. Some runners hurdle the streams, some tippy-toe across, and others splash right through.

Me? I’m happy to record it all, sharing the trails that keep me running week after week, all year long.

Happy trails to us all.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Snow news is no news

I feel so silly sitting here waiting for Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon or whatever portmanteau the weather wizards have dubbed the coming storm.

I’ve cancelled plans. My husband has set up a temporary office at the kitchen table. We have gas in the cars and food on the shelves. All we’re waiting for now are the flakes.

Last Saturday’s storm turned into a non-event, and we really didn’t need to cancel our plans to visit friends. At least we got to eat the chocolate cake I bought for dessert.

For tonight’s storm, which was supposed to be last night’s storm, there’s talk of feet of snow, or at least a foot or more. So far there’s been a dusting.

It was enough for me to do a quick pass over the driveway with the shovel. It was more of a warmup than a necessity. And, because I had shortened my gym workout, I wanted a little more exercise.

It’s not that I want snow to blanket the region, making travel difficult, causing cabin fever, and making commutes treacherous. Although it would be nice to have some “play inches” for some local snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

What I really want is less nonstop coverage of snow that has yet to fall. Yes, forewarned is forearmed, but surely there must be some real news to cover in today’s world.

There may well be a major state-of-emergency, Nor’easter, blizzard, severe storm ahead. But for now, as I sit here waiting, snow news is no news.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Headlines that get noticed

Headlines have taken on great importance in today’s content-based, social, digital, marketing world.

Their job is to grab the attention of readers, search engines, news aggregators, and digital algorithms. They’re supposed to be simple, use keywords, and meet some need of readers. And, it seems, they should always provide 5 tips or 3 secrets or 9 points or 6 ways to do something.

Well, maybe. I write this blog to keep in touch with colleagues and to continually provide new writing samples for potential clients. I don’t worry so much about SEO or Google Search. What I do worry about is making sure my headlines are nothing like the ones below.

These are just a few I’ve read recently that cause me to roll my eyes and say out loud "Really?":

Headline: “Why it's so hard to pick oil's bottom”
Who hasn’t heard the saying, You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose. Do we really need to update this to include picking something’s bottom?

Headline: “Chinese media to soak in Southwest Florida”
Soak? Maybe if by soaking you mean immersion in an uncomfortably hot, humid environment. At least that’s how I feel during my visits to the area. I would hope the headline writer would want to evoke a more positive image.

Headline: "Your Buying Auto Insurance Wrong!"
And this Internet ad headline is written wrong. Confusing your and you’re is a common error easily remedied by remembering you’re is a contraction of you are, while your is a possessive pronoun (it’s your turn).

Headlines: “Dow closes down more than 300 points as oil nosedives” (AP, Jan 5) in the same weekly roundup column with “Dow roars ahead 300 points after rough start to year” (AP, Jan. 8)
The way I understand math, and markets, if the Dow falls 300 points and then “roars ahead” 300, you’re back to square one. Even Steven. No loss, no gain. So why the drama?

I'm not saying any of these headlines is wrong (excluding the misused "your" headline). I just think they could be written better. Or at least in a way that doesn't distract the reader from the main story.

Now that I've had my say, I'm almost afraid to look back over the headlines I've written throughout the years. Well, any missteps will just reinforce my belief that every writer needs a good editor. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.