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The Secretary

By Tim Hayes

“The Secretary is coming.  The Secretary is coming!”

It marked the first time I ever saw grown men panic in a professional setting.

My first foray into public relations, after three years working as a newsroom journalist fresh out of college, occurred with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, or PennDOT in the state vernacular.  PennDOT, for as long as I could remember and for decades before that, had remained atop the listing of state agencies most reviled across our beloved Commonwealth.

Accepting a job – a significant element of which included dealing with irate media, taxpayers, and elected officials – certainly afforded me with an avalanche of immediate trial-by-fire experience in promoting and defending an organization through effective messaging and strategic communications.  One would be hard-pressed to find a first PR job more daunting than as a spokesperson for a PennDOT district located squarely in the mountainous snow belt.  Hair, pants, shoes, soul – set on fire daily.  Or so it seemed.

The fact that such a job existed at all, however, could be attributed to the Secretary of Transportation, a former civil engineering professor from Penn State who challenged the governor to do better with the state’s transportation system of roads, airports, and waterway traffic.  The governor took him up on it, in effect giving him free reign to either put up or shut up, so the Secretary got to work.  Greater accountability across the board, no more political patronage, careful budgeting, establishing clear measures of success, and creating a system of PR representatives to keep travelers informed at all times.

About two weeks after I had joined the district office, my boss sent me to the state capital to meet the PR staff at the central office.  Having been introduced to the press secretary and others on the headquarters team, I was shepherded to another office on the top floor of the PennDOT building, where I met a woman with what struck me as a rather vague title.  “Special Advisor” or something similarly gauzy and ill-defined.

Her actual duty soon became clear, however, when she picked up her phone, asked “Is now a good time?”, smiled at me and said, “Come on.”  She escorted me down a long hallway, knocked on the door, got the go-ahead to open it, and waved me in – and who should be sitting at an enormous desk, with large windows behind, setting him in silhouette?

The Secretary.

He stood up, all six-foot-whatever of him, came from around the desk, shook my hand, and asked me to have a seat at a side table.  A deep, resonant, authoritative voice issuing from his throat, he cut quite the imposing figure.  Plus, he had the power to send guys like me packing whenever he felt the need.

But for all of that, what I recall from that initial introduction was a person genuinely interested in making a new team member feel welcome and valued.  And while I only worked for the Department about two years, that sense of mutual respect and the incredible blending of pride in the work, high expectations, and a little bit of fun carried through any interactions I had with the Secretary.

In just one example, PennDOT each year conducts a community service day where volunteers help pick up litter along state roadways.  I had done my best to inject more excitement into our district’s participation levels, which had been moribund, putting it mildly.  The Secretary made a point to visit our district on that Saturday, and it fell to me to pick him up at the small regional airport in my state-issued Chrysler K-Car.

As we drove northward to join a cluster of adults and kids performing their litter pickup, I made sure I adhered to the posted speed limits.  He leaned over and said, “Tim, you know I’m the Secretary of Transportation, right?”  “Yes, sir.”  “And you are transporting me, right?”  “Yes, sir.”  “Well, then, I guess there’s only one question left.”  “What’s that, sir?”

“Can this crate go any faster?”

It could, and it did.  And about a week later, I received a letter from the Secretary stating his appreciation for my work on the community service project, and the fact that what our district did would serve as the model for all other districts moving forward.  That letter got framed and sat on top of the living room TV for months in my house.

In the many years since, I’ve had either the pleasure or the pain of working with many CEOs and other top executives.  I’ve never told any of them this (until now, I guess), but I would silently gauge their tone, their demeanor, their approach to professional respect, and their ability to relax and enjoy their interactions, with that of the Secretary of PennDOT.  Fortunately for me, nearly all have measured up pretty well against that sterling standard.

So when the engineers and other professionals in our district office got the word that “The Secretary is coming!” – they let it shake them, make them nervous and anxious.  But I just smiled.

Yeah, the Secretary – my friend, my role model, my idea and ideal of a great leader – was coming.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Magic Puck

By Tim Hayes

Gosh, we really thought this idea would work.  Ah, to be young and foolish and fearless again.

We – meaning my fellow members of a corporate communications team and I – had somehow convinced a regional executive to don a hockey sweater and gloves, grab a hockey stick, and slap-shot a puck into a hockey net, all while on stage in front of about 200 employees as part of an annual sales rally.

This borderline-screwball idea flowed from the theme of the event, “Make the Goal!” – one of those trite, forced-enthusiastic clichés so common across corporate America.

Our executive, a very nice older gentleman who relished one-to-one connections but who disdained speaking to larger crowds, agreed to this particular piece of performance art based on pressure from the C-suite to boost sales in his region.  Otherwise, our proposal would never have stood a snowball’s chance in Hell.

But agree he did, so it was Game On.

The day before the event, as our Corp Comm team worked on setting up the ballroom, testing equipment, making final tweaks to speeches and materials, the regional executive came by at the appointed time to rehearse.  He practiced his speech, using the teleprompters stationed along the foot of the stage.  So far, so good.

Then came the clincher.  The real stemwinder.  The big payoff of his presentation.  The moment when 200 jaded salespeople would shake loose the shackles of their cynicism and burst out of the doors alive with the fire of increasing sales.  And all based on the regional executive shooting the puck the length of the stage into the waiting net.

But he needed to get his bearings, line up his mojo, find his touch to make the shot.  So he wound up, swung the stick, and sent the first puck into the fifth row.  Hmmm.  The lawyers might not like the liability issues that presented.  We teed the puck up again, and this time he missed the damn thing completely.  Becoming irritated with himself and embarrassed at his lack of athletic prowess, he took another shot and clanged the puck off of his ankle.

This obviously was not panning out the way we had foreseen.  Our executive, red in the face and with a swiftly swelling ankle, threatened to throw all of this hockey nonsense into the trash, along with all of our careers.

Then someone in our Corp Comm cohort had a blaze of inspiration, a stroke of genius.  Or so we all thought.

The A/V guys on our team rigged up a system whereby a thin piece of clear fishing line was taped onto one edge of the puck.  Standing off in the wings of the stage, one of those crew members would wait until the exec took his shot with the hockey stick, then yank the fishing line, thereby pulling the puck straight into the net.  Talk about your risk management!  The engineering that went into this astounds me today, decades later.  A guaranteed goal, every time, right?  Yeah, right.

Ever heard of “chaos theory?”  Well, we saw it in action the next day.  Up close and personal.  In living color.  And in front of 200 witnesses.

At the event, our executive finished his formal remarks just fine, then slipped on the hockey jersey and picked up the stick.  Because he had been so anxious about being in front of all those people, his hands had become sweaty.  Because he was so relieved to almost be finished, he forgot to put on the hockey gloves.  Hilarity was about to ensue.

He grabbed the stick, lined up the shot, swung the stick back – and felt it slide right out of his slippery hands.  Backwards!  Behind him!  Clanking loudly and unmistakably onto the wooden floor of the stage.  Just as the crew guy offstage on the other side tugged the fishing line and sent the puck into the goal.  A puck that sped some 30 feet without ever being touched.

The laws of physics blown to smithereens at a corporate sales rally!

Lucky for us, this gentleman also had a healthy sense of humor and wasn’t above laughing at himself – which, in this case, meant joining in with the laughter of everyone else in the room.  He walked back to the microphone on the podium and said, “See?  If I can ‘make the goal,’ even with this ridiculous display, so can you.  So let’s go get ‘em!”  That self-deprecating recovery did more to inspire those salespeople than our rigged-up, half-baked, contrived bit of stagecraft ever could.

Moral of the story?  Be yourself.  Nobody else wants the job anyway, because no one else can do it as good or as convincingly as you.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Plum Pudding

By Tim Hayes

Of all the things I miss about Thanksgivings spent as a kid, few can be felt more keenly than going to my Aunt’s house with her family and mine sharing the bounteous feast together.

First off, I loved this Aunt.  She was naturally funny, warm, expressive, and embracing.  I always felt happy around her.  She, along with my uncle and cousins, served as extensions of my own family, since we spent so much time at each other’s homes.  Going out to their house on Thanksgiving – while it obviously fell on a special holiday – still felt familiar.  Still felt comfortable and comforting.  Maybe even more so.

My Aunt and her younger sister (my Mom) would spend most of the early afternoon in a delicate, elaborate, intricately choreographed culinary dance around the tiny kitchen, checking on the bird in the oven, whipping up mashed potatoes by hand, baking yams, heating up the stuffing and vegetables.  When they rang the dinner bell, we knew something incredible awaited us.

Plus, you couldn’t ignore the tempting scents wafting throughout their modest-sized home while all of this food-prep amazement occurred.  We ran to that dining room table salivating and slobbering.

After a prayer of thanksgiving (the best years happening when the adults forgot to make everybody say something they were thankful for individually, which only prolonged the wait to dig in), the food began making its rounds.  So much, too much, turkey, sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows crusted on top, mashed potatoes and gravy.  Even green bean casserole with toasted onions – a dish you couldn’t get me within 10 feet of any other day of the year – tasted like heaven on Thanksgiving.

An hour later, we all sat zombie-like in a tryptophan-induced coma.  In those pre-enlightenment days, the men (me included) waddled off into the TV room to stare incoherently at the Detroit Lions playing some team or other, while the ladies started clearing and cleaning.

Then, as darkness fell outside, another unbelievable smell started drifting out of my beloved Aunt’s kitchen.  A mixture of really rich cake, some kind of fruit, brown sugar maybe, and gallons of melted butter.  Not petrochemically induced margarine, but real butter.  From milk.  From cows.  Like they had a hundred years ago.

Perhaps that’s what made this dish so distinct.  It smelled like something out of a Dickens novel in old England.  I learned later that it, indeed, had been part of a Dickens story – “A Christmas Carol” – when Mrs. Cratchit serves her impoverished family a marvelous holiday treat.

Plum pudding.  Being steamed up in my Aunt’s little kitchen in Brentwood, PA.

She’d bring it out to us in cereal bowls, right there in the TV room, hot and sweet and spicy.  Then she’d follow that up with huge dollops of “sauce” – which always struck me as Crisco infused with sugar or vanilla or something indescribably sweet and delicious – to mix and let melt over the mound of marvelousness.  I never asked what the plum pudding or the accompanying sauce were made of, since the part of the brain inducing curiosity had shut down, turning complete control over to the pleasure center.

A website on plum pudding says that, during the Puritan reign in England, this dessert had been outlawed as “sinfully rich.”  Damn straight, Puritans, you uptight sticks in the mud.  If you want to sin richly, what better way than to shovel piles of steaming, sweet ecstasy down your throat every November?

This Thursday, I’ll sit down with my wife and family for another wonderful Thanksgiving dinner.  Sharing food, thanks, and love.  But at some point later that evening, I expect my mind will travel back to my Aunt’s house, where the sights and smells and tastes of Thanksgiving – and her incredible plum pudding – still live on.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Celebrating the Second Fiddle

By Tim Hayes

“Oh, for cryin’ out loud, you have got to be kidding,” I said to no one, while driving down the highway the other day.  “This is getting to be just stupid.”

The thing that got my dander up?  An announcement on the radio that around-the-clock Christmas music was about to begin.  The second week of November.  Ridiculous!

I assume that somewhere in the deep recesses of radio conglomerate corporate offices, reams of research attest that more people want to hear Christmas music before we change the clocks back.  I can’t imagine who these lunatics might be, but what the heck do I know?

So we get inundated with “Silent Night” on Veteran’s Day.  Nat King Cole warbling about roasting chestnuts on Election Day.  “Mary, Did You Know” that we’re still six weeks from the big day?  I doubt that she and Joseph, safe there in Nazareth, had the slightest idea that they’d even need to travel to Bethlehem at this point, but here we sit today, getting plowed under musically over it.

And the worst part?  Thanksgiving gets shoved off the stage almost entirely.  A recent opinion column in the Washington Post by Alexandra Petri said that the modern Christmas season “is waging a slow and brutal war on Thanksgiving.”  What a great line.  I wish I’d written it, but I’ll have to remain content giving Ms. Petri credit.

Our far-wiser predecessors established Thanksgiving as a day to do just that – give thanks for all of the blessings and opportunities and advantages we enjoy as Americans.  No other holiday has been designed in quite the same way specifically to bring families together.

Instead, the fourth Thursday in November has been permitted to morph into a staging area for maniacal consumerism.  A chance to get one’s feet securely in the starting blocks, waiting for the starter’s pistol to fire at midnight, unleashing credit cards, layaway purchases, and full parking lots at the mall.  It ain’t right, I tell ya.

Lucy, in the annual Charlie Brown special, laments that Christmas “is run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”  As a child, I had no idea what that meant.  Today I do, and it makes me sad to think she may be right.

How did Thanksgiving get relegated into becoming the George Harrison of holidays?  The one you know is there, and holds its own just fine, but somehow never draws the same wattage of attention and interest.  Poor George.  When Frank Sinatra performed live concerts in his later years, he always included the song, “Something,” and took special effort to thank John Lennon and Paul McCartney for writing such a lovely piece of music.

Just one problem.  George Harrison wrote “Something.”  Sigh.  It had to be tough living in second-fiddledom all those years.

Here’s a way to give Thanksgiving its proper due.  This year, in between the big New York balloons and the Dallas or Detroit football games, take a second to think and thank all those folks whose work and expertise typically go unnoticed and unrecognized.  The mechanics who keep airliners functioning properly and safely – even though the pilots get all the glory.  Maintenance workers, maids, and sanitary engineers, who keep our lives clean and safe and comfortable.

And, perhaps most important of all, those teachers who spend innumerable hours before and after the school day, and who invest their own salaries to purchase supplies for their students’ use, all to achieve the best educational opportunities for each child in their charge.  The way that teachers have been mischaracterized, vilified, and scapegoated in this society is a disgrace.  They deserve our full-throated support.  Pupils spend more time with teachers than their parents!  Teachers help to shape the future.  We need to respect, stand beside, and thank our teachers, without question, without hesitation, and without fail.

I won’t be listening to that all-Christmas music station for a few weeks.  There’s another holiday coming up that deserves attention first.  And for that, I’m thankful.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

The King and Queen of Halloween

By Tim Hayes

The trick-or-treaters will soon be upon us, primarily elementary-aged urchins chaperoned by their parents, politely ringing doorbells mostly in the fading sunset, while local police cruisers slowly make their rounds to ensure safe passage.

It’s all so…uneventful.  Rote.  Predictable.  Shrink-wrapped for your protection.  Some communities have parents drive their cars into big parking lots, and the kids go from car to car for their candy.  “Trick-or-trunk,” I think they call it.  Seriously.  What is that?  It’s nothing like the old days, I can tell you.

Halloween used to be a bonanza.  A free-for-all.  A chance to go over the top with your costume and make the rounds of the entire municipality at least once, scarfing up as much sugar-laden booty as your pillow case could hold, and then some, if you had the chance to stop at home and dump it out for the second round.  And it all happened after dark, with every house participating, ready with bags and boxes and barrels of candy bars – the BIG ones, not those sissy Fun Size pellets.

We went out every year, going door-to-door unattended and free, from grade school up through high school, the dragnet widening with age from just our block to as far as our feet could take us.  A few of the better costumes for me included the classic “hobo” (with authentic charcoal beard), a marching band player (super-easy – I just wore my actual high school band uniform), and the crowning achievement of my trick-or-treat portfolio – a housewife, complete with wig, housecoat, and sensible shoes.

In the halcyon days before straight pins in Snickers bars and razor blades in popcorn balls, before American society became convinced that perverts and criminals hid behind every neighborhood hedgerow, we had the run of the borough and knew a raging sugar high awaited us over the next few weeks.  Once home again, we’d empty our pillow cases, separate the peanut butter cups from the Hershey bars, prioritize which treats would be gobbled up first, which would be saved for a special moment, and which ones you’d try to trade with a sibling for something better.

Yeah, Halloween back in the day was something else.

But even amid all the excitement and enthusiasm of those old-time Halloween excursions, one stop on the way always stood out.  It may have partly explained why parents on our block knew to stock up for throngs of kids each year.  About five or six doors up from my house reigned the King and Queen of Halloween, and every trick-or-treater knew that was THE go-to destination.

And why?  For one simple reason.  Fresh homemade caramel apples on a stick.  Good gravy, they were unbelievable.  Why the gods of trick-or-treating chose to bless us screwball kids with such wax-paper-wrapped perfection baffled me then, and baffles me still today.  All we knew is that those caramel apples on a stick were the greatest All Hallows Eve prize in the world.

I don’t know what kind of production system the mom and dad up there had going, or how far ahead they started manufacturing those hand-held diamonds of deliciousness.  But every Halloween night, every ghost or goblin or hobo or marching band member or hairy housewife got one plopped into his or her bag, and suddenly all was right with the world.

It reminds me of how a really popular business generates customer traffic for the other businesses nearby.  People came – kids we never saw before, in school or anywhere else – from all over to get one of those caramel apples on a stick.  And while in the neighborhood, they picked up a candy bar from the other houses on our block.  The original win-win scenario.

Why Kraft never got wind of this phenomenon, I’ll never know.  They could have filmed a commercial – wait, no, scratch that.  They could have made a documentary about how their caramels, melted down then dunked by apples, created Halloween memories that old codgers like me can still smell and taste, decades later.

Hmmm.  Maybe I can find somebody passing out caramel apples on a stick this year, who knows?  Now, where did I put that wig?

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Fudge

By Tim Hayes

As a professional writer, I place a special priority on the proper use of the King’s English.  It’s how I’ve made my living for more than three decades, raising a family on it.

Most words we all use in life float by, unremarkable, unnoticed, serving their purpose and quickly forgotten, tossed down one’s mental rabbit hole into oblivion.  Some words, however, crackle and spark.  They won’t – they can’t – just slide by without notice.  They demand attention.  They generate reaction.  They won’t be denied their unique shock value.

There’s one word in particular that had reigned supreme atop this mountain of verbal valedictory.  Its supremacy had been long established.  Its record of high-impact use unsullied and untouched for generations.  You know which one I mean.  Come on, don’t play coy with me.

Just to prove it, let’s revisit the holiday movie classic, “A Christmas Story.”  One snowy night, Ralphie and his family are driving in the car when one of the tires blows out.  As his Old Man works feverishly to fix the flat, he accidentally knocks the hubcap-cum-bowl out of Ralphie’s hands, sending lug nuts flying into the night’s inky blackness.

To which 11-year-old Ralphie says, “Oh, fudgggggge.”

Adult Ralphie, narrating the scene off-camera, then explains, “Only I didn’t say ‘Fudge.’ I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the ‘F-dash-dash-dash’ word!”

Yeah.  That word.  And I wonder whether its impact – as played to hilarious results for Ralphie in that movie – remains quite as forceful as it once had been.  In other words, has “fudge” (wink-wink) been so overused and watered down, to the point where it has entered into acceptable polite conversation today?  Has what had once felt like a verbal punch in the mouth now been worn down as smooth and harmless as an image in a stained-glass window?

That notion may not be as crazy as it sounds.  When I was in third or fourth grade, the dad of a classmate who lived down the block from me rode the two of us home one day after school.  Sitting in the back seat, I couldn’t tell what happened, but the car suddenly came to a screeching stop.  Whether a careless driver or a dumb kid running out into the road caused my friend’s dad to slam on the brakes, it didn’t really matter.

What I most remember about that episode is how the dad shouted, “Fudge!” (wink-wink).  He immediately realized his incredible faux pas, a churchgoing Catholic father cussing so vehemently with two impressionable young gentlemen riding along.  He turned around and said, “Don’t you boys ever say that word!”

“Oh, no, we won’t,” we replied, sniggering like crazy as soon as he faced forward again and continued driving.

We knew that word represented the Hope Diamond, the Mona Lisa, the Lunar Landing of swear words.  That’s what made it so surprising, so forbidden, so irresistible, so dangerous.  It stood alone.  It stood apart.  It was just absolutely infamous.

My, how times have changed.  If you watch any show on HBO today, you’re guaranteed to hear that word five times in 10 minutes.  Movies used to get rated “R” if that word got uttered even one time during the picture.  Now “PG”-rated films can get the f-bomb dropped into them with regularity.  It’s in magazine articles, popular music, and in mainstream TV shows covered up by a ubiquitous “beep.”  But we know what’s being said.  We’re not stupid.  We’ve been around the block.  This ain’t our first rodeo, Cowboy.

My concern rises because, in the process of this mainstreaming of what had been a uniquely nasty and powerful word, two things happen.  We lose even more of our ability to be shocked.  And society becomes just a little bit coarser.

Call me old school.  Call me a traditionalist.  But some things should always retain their original purpose, their original function.  When someone speaks that word, other people should still stop in their tracks and either be offended or guiltily amused.

I don’t see either of those happening much anymore.  The world keeps changing despite my best quixotic efforts to slow it down or stop it altogether.  It’s a tough pill to swallow, let me tell you.

Or, stated another way, “Oh, fudgggggge.”

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death

By Tim Hayes

You’ve seen it.  Hanging there, suspended in space and time.  Rotating, revolving, silently mocking you and your foolish plans.  Ha-ha!  Bathed in the primary colors of the rainbow, seemingly full of fun and mirth.  As if.

But you know better.  Oh, yes.  You understand.  This is nothing to toy with, even though it looks like a toy.  This mute little circle has come to hijack your day, locking up your laptop, never telling why, striking without warning, a silent assassin.  Worse, it will stay there as long as it damn well pleases.  And there’s not a blessed thing you can do about it, you Bill Gates Wanna-Be.

Computerized condolences, my friend.  You have been visited, violated, and victimized by The Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death.

The most frustrating part of these episodes comes in the fact that they happen seemingly out of the blue.  You’re buzzing along, getting stuff done, working away, feeling good about life – and then, everything comes to a full stop.  Noooo!  Then starts the waiting for whatever circuitry or software to reconnect or repair itself.

And all you can do is stare at The Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death.  Open another tab?  Nope.  Get out of that program while things sort themselves out?  Uh-uh.  Take a ball-peen hammer to the keyboard, or perhaps run screaming out into the street?  Maybe.

Or just shut the stupid thing completely off and start over, hoping against hope that whatever you’d been working on will miraculously reappear in a fully formed and pristine state?  Yeah, that’s probably the way to go.  Although you really don’t expect your work to come back so cleanly, do you?  Nah, didn’t think so.

Hopelessness and helplessness never make for a fun pairing.  Even so, there is much we can learn from The Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death.

For example, life can be an unending process of handling crap you never expected, considered, deserved, or prepared for.  But you still have to think and pray and act and fake and maneuver your way through it.  Try getting fired, with a young family and a mortgage in tow.  You find out pretty fast what you’re made of in that scenario, trust me.

Some people discover peace in patience.  I have never counted myself among that lot.  But the older I get, the value of this practice becomes more apparent.  When technical interruptions occur, the temptation to fly into a rage at an inanimate object with no sentient feelings to be hurt has lessened greatly.  Now I go make a sandwich and just wait it out instead.

Stupid stuff happens.  Life isn’t fair.  Little aggravations shouldn’t blow up into big problems.  Everything works out eventually.  Everything gets done.  Let’s all just relax, okay?

It helps to think that it had been somebody’s job, somebody got paid, to invent that little ball of chromatic torture.  He or she spent days, hours, weeks, figuring out a way to let users know that something funky just happened inside their laptop – and that they would be in for a wait.

Is that icon meant to hypnotize?  To lull you into a state of dreamy nonchalance?  To have you flip the switch in your brain onto auto-pilot, so that the irritating situation becomes less irritating?  If so, it’s rarely worked that way for me.

It’s happened twice already today, and I know it will happen again.  That little jagoff on my screen, slowing me down, speed-bumping my train of thought, having a good laugh at my expense.

But that’s okay.  You do your thing, Spinning Beach Ball of Digital Death.  We have plenty of fresh bread and lunch meat in the kitchen.  Time for a sandwich.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

I Don’t Think So

By Tim Hayes

“Is this really necessary?” I asked my boss over the phone, one Sunday morning.

“Yes, I expect you in here this afternoon,” came the unmistakably unsympathetic reply.

“How about after dinner?  We’re having people over this afternoon,” I pleaded.

“The pitch is tomorrow.  We’re not ready.  Get in here as soon as you can.”  And with that the call abruptly ended.

So that evening around 5, I walked out of a house full of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighborhood friends, to drive into the office downtown – and miss most of my first child’s first birthday party.

Twenty-six years later, and it still makes me angry.  When it doesn’t fill me with shame and heartache, that is.

And the best part?  The agency I worked at back then didn’t even win the business the next day anyway.  What a waste.  What a crock.  What a mess.

At the age of 30, a young father and a brand-new member of the agency team at the time, a stinging sense of powerlessness pervaded every corner of my professional life.  Low man on the totem pole, and all that.  I was certainly on the ladder and slowly climbing, one hard-earned rung at a time, but instances like missing that special milestone birthday party really hurt.  I didn’t yet have the confidence, the track record, or the guts to say “No” to such unreasonable demands, I suppose.

But I do now.  And, damn, does that feel good.

A few weeks shy of 57 today, with nearly four decades of ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies behind me, I know that turning down unfair or time-wasting requests won’t be the end of the world.  I lost my Panic Button a long time ago.  Even as a self-employed professional for the past 18 years, I know that dry spells don’t last, not every engagement will be perfect, and good work done at a fair price always wins.

Jerry Seinfeld once said on a late-night talk show something to the effect of, “It’s so nice getting to a certain age, and just being able to say no to things you used to feel obligated to say yes to when you were younger.”  Amen, Jerry.

None of this means that I have, in any way, changed my approach to client service.  Sometimes an inconvenient obligation simply can’t be worked around, and that’s okay.  But it does mean that I’m much more confident about talking things over to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution about scheduling or deadlines or any other variable.

And people typically understand.  We’re all flexible and accommodating.  We’re all professionals who deserve to give and receive respect.  When a bump in the road comes up, being honest and asking for a fresh take on the situation has proven pretty successful, at least in my experience.  There’s always a way between people of goodwill.

Because some things should always come first, like family.  The busyness of business will always be there.  But it all seems to get done, even amid the pressures, both real and imagined.  If you need space, ask for space.  If someone you’re working with needs space, let him or her have it.  Even Christ had to get away by himself every now and then, for heaven’s sake.  Literally.

You shouldn’t have to short-change the important people in your life, in pursuit of an unreasonable, unfair, or unattainable workplace objective.  The power to stake that claim increases with age and reputation, no doubt.  But even for younger professionals, the best supervisors understand this concept and try to make it real among their teams.  And believe me, those teams will value and remember that consideration for a long time.  I wish my boss from long ago had lived by that rule.

Because I’ll be damned if I’m going to (someday) miss my first grandchild’s birthday party.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Stencils No More

By Tim Hayes

From behind the louvered doors of an inset bookcase in our dining room, my sisters and I would occasionally pull out a reference book.  Not to look up anything of interest, mind you, but instead to draw all over it.

Actually, that’s not right.  We wouldn’t draw on the book itself.  First, we’d rip a piece of notebook paper out of our school bags, place it over the cover of that book, and lightly rub a pencil point back and forth.  The book cover featured raised images, you see, and it yielded some really great stencils.

The flag raising at Iwo Jima.  An astronaut.  Abraham Lincoln.  A cowboy riding the range.  I’ll be damned if any of us can remember just what that book was called or what it contained inside, but the cover was absolute dynamite!

The stenciled images looked great.  Nice clear lines, easy to decipher and appreciate, a basic framework of a fuller picture.  If we had anything longer than the attention span of a flea, we would have colored in those stencils and finished the job.  We would have created some terrific, fully fledged, full-color portraits.

But we were grade-school kids, so it soon was on to other things.  And the stencils, impressive as they may have been, remained stencils.

This memory came crashing onto the shoreline of my consciousness about a week ago, as I attended the first-ever reunion of my college’s Journalism Department – the launchpad of my career some 35 years back.

I got to tour the new offices of the student newspaper.  Pretty plush, compared with the basement cinderblock gulag we had to work with – and within – all those years ago.  Large bound binders containing copies of every issue ever published of that newspaper lined the conference room in the new office, and a couple of us old-timers dug in to see how green our initial forays into actual journalism had been.

Pretty damn green, as it turns out.  Fluorescent lime green.  Greener than Ireland in springtime.  But we were college kids.  We were learning the craft.  And at that point in time, we had a long way to go, trust me.  I can show you the evidence, now that I know where it can be found.

As more alumni gathered at happy hour, then at the football game, and finally at a special dinner that reunion weekend, it became clear that our alma mater had done a fine job.  We had turned into accomplished professionals, some still in pure journalism, others in public relations, some in corporate leadership, others with non-profits or government, and even a handful like me as independent consultants.

But we all came from that same place.  We all had the same professors in that department, pushing, cajoling, frustrating, encouraging, molding us into capable, confident writers and thinkers.  It was those skills that enabled each of us to leave that campus and make our marks, even as all of my fellow alumni’s paths may have gotten tricky, complicated, and unpredictable along the way.

It reminds me of sitting in church during a wedding.  The reason folks get teary as they watch two young people make those incredible promises to each other, I’ve come to believe, is not because the bride’s dress shines like an angel, or because the sight of the couple’s devotion is so inspiring.

It’s because people in the congregation, especially those who’ve been married for a while, know that the two moony-eyed individuals sharing those rings and repeating those promises have absolutely no clue about what life will throw at them in the years to come.  People cry at weddings because they care, because they want to believe that the love they witness will be enough to handle the joys and heartaches sure to arrive down the road.

The wedding is the stencil.  The marriage is the full picture.

In much the same way, as we worked those long production nights at the newspaper, and struggled through classes and projects as 20-something college students in journalism, we made friends and formed the basic foundation to start a career.  We were still in stencil form, in other words.

As jobs materialized and vaporized, career paths opened up, spouses and children came along, obligations of all sorts expanded, and illness and issues arose and were overcome, the color and shading got filled in.  So much so, that by the time we all met up again decades later, we each had a much fuller, richer, more interesting portrait to share and enjoy together.

I still love my school.  I still love my Journalism Department.  And I still love my college friends.  The only difference now is that they’re so much more fascinating.  We are stencils no more.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Have We Met?

By Tim Hayes

In the late ‘90s, December posed a special challenge.  Three kids under the age of 10 and Christmas on everyone’s radar.  My wife and I would make at least one, usually two, trips to the only store that to this day can wrench me from a dream state into wide-eyed alertness at 3 a.m.

Toys R Us.  I shudder even as I type the name.

Frantic, frazzled parents and grandparents clogging every aisle.  Unwieldy plastic shopping carts slamming against display racks.  That stupid giraffe smiling at you from every direction.  Waiting for bicycles to be assembled and hoping they’d been done properly for the extra charge.  That freakishly pink Barbie section.  And the checkout lines!  Dear God, the place was a circus, a zoo, a test of character.  But we went.  Over and over again.  Every year, every Christmas, every birthday.

And now, Toys R Us teeters on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy, along with that other uniquely American retail legend, the Sears, Roebuck Company.  The Amazon effect rolls on unabated.

When you can make a few taps on a cell phone and have just about anything you want brought to your door, what could be easier?  Faster?  Better?  But, wait a minute.  Let’s think about this a little more.  Hmmm, I wonder.

Back when I first moved to college, I can remember walking down to the large communal bathroom in my robe and slippers, along with the other freshmen on our dorm floor.  There’d be a line of four or five of us, each standing at his own sink, looking into the giant mirror that ran the length of the wall, shaving before getting a shower.

The water rarely remained hot.  The windows leaked cold air into the space in winter.  It was a pretty tough way to start a day.  But guess what?  Because we had no other choice, it actually worked to our advantage in the long run.  By sharing that experience with a bunch of guys who, on Labor Day, were complete strangers, by Thanksgiving we had made some good friendships.

The secret came in being in the same place at the same time.  Going through something together.  Getting to know other people, learning how to hold a conversation, appreciating new perspectives and new points of view.  Building a society, one dormitory floor, one morning shave at a time.

I fear the value of that sort of shared experience gets more lost with each passing year.  Why go to the movies, when you can see the same picture on your pay-per-view TV at home?  Why go shopping at the mall, when you can have your heart’s desire brought to your house?  Why send your kid to school, when he or she can have a personal tutor via Skype?  Why go through the hassle and humiliation of seeking a mortgage at a bank, when you can apply on your phone and get an answer in less than a minute?  And speaking of phones, why use yours to actually call and converse live with another human being, when you can text or e-mail or tweet or post?

Why?  Because our society is forgetting how to live as human beings.  Because a generation has come of age without fully appreciating the charm and functionality and necessity of human, in-person, face-to-face interaction.

When decisions about people’s jobs or finances or education or anything else depend only on data, we’re in trouble.  Banks used to make “character” loans, based on a personal knowledge and familiarity between banker and customer.  Merchants would extend credit on nothing more than a person’s word, because people knew each other.  Do those things still happen?  Maybe, but they’re the exception now.

That impersonal veneer that seems to hang over and cling to our lives today, while convenient and easy and seemingly an advancement?  We may have to pay for it down the road in ways we can’t imagine right now.

I’m glad we fought our way through Toys R Us all those years ago.  I’m glad I shared an ice-cold shave with my dorm mates as a college freshman.  I’m glad of the hundreds and hundreds of shared experiences that have helped me and others like me learn how to survive and thrive alongside other people.

The enclosed, impersonal, online electronic life can be amazing, no doubt.  But it’s not really living.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes