Some voice-over casting sites have an interesting way of dealing with members complaining that they haven’t had much luck. Here’s what these sites say:
“Auditioning is great practice! Even if you didn’t get that 100 dollar job, at least you’re honing your skills.”
Oh, please… Give me a break!
WORDS OF WISDOM
At the end of a two day “voice-over intensive,” the trainer looked at her students one last time. By the expression on her face they could tell she was about to say something significant.
Her velvet voice had sold millions of sheets of the softest bathroom tissue known to mankind. Anything that came out of her mouth was as good as gold. Star-struck, the students all listened like attention-deprived orphans, waiting to get one last bit of tough love.
Read the rest of this story in my new book. Click on the cover to access the website and get a sneak peek. Use the buttons to buy the book.
The voice-over market is a buyer’s market. Voice-talents are exposed; voice-seekers are protected. As voice-over pros, we want to work. We need to work. Sometimes we’re so happy to be picked out of a pile of 100+ auditions; it’s tempting to say “YES” when we finally get a break. But would we have done so, had we known the facts?
The World Wide Web has put me in touch with the wonderful, the wacky and the weird. Anyone can pretend to be anything on the Net. That nice guy you met online might very well be the next “Craigslist Killer”. Or he could be Prince Charming! How can you be sure?
THE VOICE-OVER AS P.I.
I have a question for you: do you think you should have to play Sherlock Holmes if you audition for a job on a site like voices.com? Aren’t you paying the staff to do their homework to make sure you’re not connected to some creep?
If you’re a member of voice123, you might have seen the following disclaimer:
Legal note: Although Voice123 tries to establish the legitimacy of all voice seekers, you are responsible for conducting your own investigation into any and all claims made by prospective voice seekers, agents and/or clients. You assume all liability for use of any information you find through Voice123, LLC, or any of its publications.
Good luck, especially if the voice seeker is purposely hiding his or her identity! As we have seen in the case of the founder of Newspapers for the Blind, the voice123 team responded after members had complained about the way they had been treated. Make no mistake about it: at the end of the day, “You are responsible for conducting your own investigation.”
Here’s the good news: the Internet is not only a place for con-men and convicts. With so much information in the public domain, we might as well use it as a tool in our fight against the frauds, the fakes and the phonies. My story of Newspapers for the Blind is the perfect example. Before I get into that, I have an admission to make.
A GOOD CAUSE
When I was young, idealistic and hopelessly naive, I honestly believed that people involved in philanthropy must be good people. It never occurred to me to do a background check on a charity. What can I say? Even Steven Spielberg thought that Bernie Madoff was a nice guy…
After my story about Will May, some of you wondered: Is his organization a real charity?
On its website, Newspapers for the Blind (NFBT) says it’s a 501C-3 Corporation. This is a type of incorporation that is used to set up a charitable corporation, founded with the intention of providing a service to the community, rather than making a profit.
Incorporating a company makes it a legal entity, responsible for its actions in the community. This is important, because it removes a great deal of the responsibility from the person who is starting the company.
One source puts it this way: “If you start a 501(c)3 company, you want the legal liability for possible damages to be the responsibility of the 501(c)3 corporation so that your personal possessions are safe from creditors.”
So, how do you separate the chaff from the wheat? The IRS web site has a search engine that makes finding a registered charity a piece of cake. The Better Business Bureaus* have a similar function on their website. In both databases, Newspapers for the Blind does not come up as a registered charity, and I have asked the IRS and the BBB to look into this. I also checked the Maryland Charities Database (the state where NFTB is based). Again: nothing came up.
But there’s a catch: Elisabeth Leamy, the ABC News Consumer Correspondent warns:
“ (…) even if the IRS really has granted non-profit 501C-3 status to a group, that’s no indication of quality. The IRS doesn’t have the time or staff to really scrutinize those who apply for charity status. I once investigated a company that earned 501C-3 status. The IRS overlooked the fact that the founder was a convicted felon who kept most of the group’s money for himself and didn’t even register with the state as required by law.”
In her article “How to Identify a Fake Charity”, Jamie K. Wilson recommends we carefully examine a charity’s website and look for the following signs:
A board of directors numbering at least six people, with their credentials or regular job titles and place of employment listed
A permanent street address in the United States or your own country
A 501(c)3 statement
An outline of this charity’s goals
Downloadable financial statements that detail where money has been expended in the past
Accurate statistics with verifiable and legitimate sources
Good writing, spelling, and grammar
“Any charitable website lacking two or more of these traits is suspect. That does not mean the charity is fake. On the contrary, it might be very new and very legitimate, but without a track record. However, fake charities generally lack at least two of the above items.”
Steven Lowell of voice123 had this to say about Will May, the founder and editor of NFTB:
“Truth is… if he is rough to deal with, and pays, that is one thing. You get your money and never work with the person again. But to pose as a charitable organization, then not pay, and pull the routine that the people who delivered work must be the problem, when he in fact hired them… It is not a better business practice, and to some extent, illegal. I am not up to date on laws governing posing as false charity, but he did promise payment, and never came through.”
WHO IS WILL MAY?
Again, using what is in the public domain, what can we learn about the founder and editor of Newspapers for the Blind? Let’s first see what Will May told us about himself on his 2010 LinkedIn profile:
Interests: I like to sail boats and fly aeroplanes
Groups and Associations: Chief Medical Examiner of the Lesbian Fighter Pilots Association
In 2013, his interests are still the same, but his Groups and Associations comment was no longer there. His LinkedIn Summary consists of the following quote:
“I like to make money, so I can be ‘A river to my people.’ ~Auda”
May still lists himself as the owner of Nevis LLC. A Nevis Limited Liability Company is based in the Caribbean tax-haven of Nevis. For $1495 USD, you too could become the proud owner of a Nevis LLC. It has a few benefits:
Nevis does not impose corporate tax, income tax, withholding tax, stamp tax, asset tax, exchange controls or other fees or taxes on assets or income originating outside of Nevis.
The owners and managers are not registered anywhere, which provides for complete secrecy.
A Nevis LLC allows you to shield your assets from lawsuits, agencies, and financial creditors.
Owners can manage the company without becoming liable for company financial obligations or legal liabilities.
THE LAST TYCOON
Voice-over colleague Juliette Gray worked for Will May and never received a penny. She confirmed what I had suspected when I questioned where the money for Newspapers for the Blind was coming from. Juliette wrote:
“One long conversation I had with him he told me that he had put a lot of money himself into it and he was a retired real estate tycoon from NYC.”
This is confirmed by the information May listed in his 2010 LinkedIn profile under “experience”:
“Chairman of Wm. B May & Company- Real Estate from 1982 – 2006”
This is not your average local realtor. The William B. May Company once was the nation’s oldest real estate brokerage firm, and it has been in the hands of one family for four generations. The website of the New York Real Estate Institute states:
“William B. May’s impeccable reputation has been built on a singular philosophy of integrity, trust, full accountability and integrated service. To this day, we pride ourselves on unwavering ethics, steadfast client loyalty, and competitive endurance.”
In a December 2000 newsletter, the company boasts:
“With age comes wisdom. The development of 57th Street at the heart of New York City was what first put William B. May on the map in the late 1860’s. At that time, we sold property to the Carnegies, the Fricks and the Vanderbilts.”
Today, the company is no more. Only the brand William B. May has survived. The business concept is owned by Broker Services Holding, LLC and it is operated as a franchise.
On his LinkedIn page, Will May concurs that the company as it had existed, ceased operations in 2006, after -as he put it- “a tumultuous take-over fight”.
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
Gabriel Sherman is contributing editor at New York Magazine and a special correspondent for the New Republic. Prior to 2006, he was the media reporter at the New York Observer. In April of ’05, he witnessed the demise of the venerable family firm.
When I read his article “William T. May Sues Agency On Century 21 Ads”, a few things fell into place. This is how it begins:
“William Talcott May is the co-chairman of the storied real-estate brokerage founded by his great grandfather in 1866 and inheritor of the New York real-estate dynasty that bears his father’s name, William B. May.
But when the 44-year-old eccentric bounded into City Bakery on West 18th Street on a recent Thursday morning, wearing a fire-truck-red Scottish kilt and a navy-blue wool sweater, his broad, leonine cheekbones streaked with charcoal-hued face paint, he looked more Braveheart than businessman.”
If you don’t have time to read the entire article, here are some of the ‘highlights’:
Mr. May studied economics at Duke University. He dropped out in 1982 after two and half years. At Duke, Mr. May was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, played rugby and co-founded the school’s polo club with 40 ponies he said his cousin won in a craps game in South America.
After leaving Duke, Billy May -as he was known- returned to New York and worked in William B. May’s brokerage business while managing some of his own buildings. On the job he was stabbed and shot by tenants.
As he was flying his private plane on 9/11/’01, he witnessed the entire disaster from 10,000 feet above New York Harbor. He told Gabriel Sherman: “I was on the radio to McGuire Air Force base in 20 seconds saying there had been a terrorist attack.”
In December of 2001, the FBI and police arrested Mr. May for leaving six fake bombs at the New Castle County Airport in an attempt to highlight lax security.
Between trial and sentencing, he served 31 days in solitary confinement. Mr. May received a felony conviction and four years probation for the incident.
Mr. May’s attorney at the time, Penelope Marshall, said in reports that Mr. May was not medicated for his bipolar disorder.
Sherman ends his report from 2005 as follows:
“Mr. May, who says he has already spent $1 million of his own money to stanch the attacks on his family’s business, said he will not surrender until his family wins its name back. “I’m like a one-man pack of wild dogs when I get angry,” he said.”
You don’t have to be a psychologist to realize that past behavior can -to a certain extent- predict future behavior. In the case of William Talcott May, knowing about his background made me understand where his Mr. Nice and Mr. Nasty type of behavior was coming from. I just hope that he doesn’t unleash his ‘one-man pack of wild dogs’ on me. I’m more of a cat person.
As I said before: I think that Newspapers for the Blind offers a terrific service. I sincerely hope that it will survive Will May’s erratic actions. Eventually, his karma will catch up with him.
As for our friends at the voice-over casting sites (sometimes known as Pay-to-Plays)… we realize that you don’t have the time or the resources to conduct extensive investigations. However, it would be very helpful if you would publish information on those individuals who have pulled a fast one, and share it with your members and with other voice-over casting sites. That way, scammers who are exposed on one site, won’t be able to set up shop at another site.
Instead, you have left it up to our trusted colleague Mahmoud Taji, to come up with a Scam-Alert for our industry. As much as I applaud his hard work, this should not have been left to the efforts of one blogging voice-over talent in Egypt.
As voice-seekers, we pay you in order to take advantage of your internet voice-casting service. We don’t want to be taken advantage of, because you choose to protect your voice-seekers from our phone calls.
Come to think of it… isn’t that how we used to do business? We simply picked up the phone and introduced ourselves to a prospective client. What would Sherlock Holmes call that?
*The BBB Wise Giving Alliance has developed Standards for Charity Accountability to “assist donors in making sound giving decisions and to foster public confidence in charitable organizations. The standards seek to encourage fair and honest solicitation practices, to promote ethical conduct by charitable organizations and to advance support of philanthropy.”
Posting jobs under false names, not paying invoices and Jekyll and Hyde-treatment of voice-over talent… these appear to be the trademarks of William May.
Mr. May is the founder and editor of Newspapers For The Blind Organization,Inc, a web–based service, offering a daily selection of newspaper articles for the vision impaired, read by voice-over pros. The site was quietly launched during the last quarter of 2009 (and should not be confused with NFB-Newsline®).
The idea behind Newspapers for the Blind (NFTB) is not new but certainly noble. The other two people involved, Dr. Edward E. Boas Jr. and Noelle Mills Adler, have impressive credentials. Dr. Boas is a Professor of Computer Science, Data Processing and Electronics at Cecil College in North East Maryland. Ms. Mills Adler is a past president of the Ladies Christian Union of New York City (now known as the LCU Foundation).
But it’s the voice-over professionals known as “newspapercasters” who are at the heart of NFTB. Newspapersfortheblind.org raves:
“Our three dozen readers, culled from 3000 auditions, bring the precise vocal skills to reach and meet our unique audience.”
At the beginning of September 2010, I became a member of this “elite team,” after auditioning for the following job posted on voice123:
Newspapers for Blind This is a daily long term commitment to read a newspaper article into an MP3 for webcasting and free-phone service to the blind and hearing-impaired.
The files would want to be recorded from roughly midnight to 6AM US Eastern Time, so, geography may be important to readers.
The pacing of the delivery is painfully S-L-O-W, and the voice resonance is highly critical for the hearing-impaired. Tenors and sopranos need not bother; it won’t work for the hearing-impaired. Professor Henry Higgins diction is important; bite the words.
Voice-seekers name: confidential Company name: hidden
I was absolutely thrilled to have made the cut. Regular gigs are hard to come by in this industry, but there was another reason why I was so excited. Some jobs we do for the money; others because it is the right thing to do. This was the best of both worlds!
THE AMAZING MR MAY
On top of that, the founder/editor seemed to possess an incredible drive and contagious enthusiasm to make things happen. His initial emails were personable, funny and encouraging. After I started reading leads from The Independent and The Times, he commented:
“My Cat; BraveHeart, loves your voice. She always perks up when I play your readings. You have a fan.”
One day, I shared with him that I wasn’t feeling too well. He responded:
“Paul, hope you shake the cold…..just don’t shake this perfect voice, W”
This was clearly a man with a heart! One thing bothered me a little, though. Whenever I asked May if he intended to formalize the relationship and how payment would be handled, it took him months to come up with something that came close to a straight answer.
A month or so into the job, I had yet to be paid. Then I noticed that May had placed another job posting on voice123. Why would he be looking for new recruits? When I asked him about it, he answered:
“Please don’t worry about not enough readings for NFTB. Stick with me; I have to keep a Chinese Wall between the not-for-profit and other activities. There will be plenty of other activities to follow.”
He was right. Not only would I be recording and editing at least two articles a day, Will asked me and four other colleagues to record public service announcements for NFTB (a 501C-3 Corporation). I was tickled when he told me:
“Out of the 5, they chose your Public Service Message on 970 AM, New York.”
By that time I was on a roll. The only thing that was missing was a regular paycheck and eventually, that became an ordeal. I had to send out countless reminders, only to hear that my “address was lost” or that someone would be looking into it.
GIVE ME A BREAK
On November 15th, May surprised me with the following message:
“Lets let your money catch up with your readings; take a break.”
“(…) As you know, I am very supportive of your charity, and I don’t understand why I should take a break. (…) If you do not have the money to pay me, you should have said so from the beginning. As a professional, I made my commitment based on your commitment. Financially, I plan ahead and make future projections based on assurances that have been made by my clients. Knowing that payment would not be forthcoming or would be seriously delayed, would have given me the opportunity to reconsider my commitment to NFTB, and possibly spend my time and energy generating income in other ways. (…)”
“I had interpreted your last mail as unhappy. I was simply saying lets let the accounting, our weakest link, catch up with you. We have enough money, just not enough accounting bobbins.”
But on November 20th, I received the following email:
“Don’t count on any more readings in your planning; nothing to do with you. We’ll catch up the accounting, and probably just wind things up. May try to limp along at half or one-third normal see what happens.
Also, frankly, not enough users to merit all of the work; I’m working 18-20 hour days to throw 8-10 k out the window each week…what for.
I think we made sliced bread, when the world wants baguette.”
The truth is that it was business as usual at Newspapers for the Blind. They didn’t miss a beat, and never have. I was sidetracked for no apparent reason, while waiting for my checks. And I was not alone:
Voice-over colleague Juliette Gray picks up the story:
“I was hired in November. They required reading articles (in my case from the London newspapers). These articles were long and the editing took ages. Then the person in charge decided because these people were also partially deaf that I needed to change my sound system. I did this willingly because I thought I had a steady job.
At quite a bit of expense I was ready to start working again and it was then he turned out to be a complete nightmare. We exchanged numerous e-mails, phone conversations, etc. and then he did a 180 degree turn – sort of like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Became impossible to communicate with and finally did get nasty in his final e-mail. Needless to say I never got paid.”
VOICE123 JUMPS IN
At that time, Steven Lowell was the “community manager” for voice123. This is what he said when I asked him about NFTB and Will May::
“When I first saw the job posted a while back, I was very excited because in NYC, I got some early voice over practice in the 90’s doing charity by reading books to the blind at a local church. It was something a coach recommended I do for practice.
The job made me think, ‘Wow! Good to see something like this again! Yet, what followed was an unpleasant experience of several talents with decades of experience, complaining to me that he was harsh and unfriendly to work with.
When reaching out to Mr. May to present that there have been problems, merely as a way to communicate feedback, his reply to me was, ‘Who complained? I don’t have the time to coach every talent to perfection….’
Before hearing my side of the story, voice123 heard from Juliette and 2 other voice-over professionals; one from the US, and one from the UK. As I was researching this article, I got in touch with other newspapercasters. Without exception, they asked me not to reveal their names, because they’re still hoping to get paid and they want to keep their job. But all of them told similar tales about Mr. May, and I wondered if voice123 had taken any action.
As a rule, voice123 only investigates non-payment matters that are 60-days old. Steven Lowell: “This is because we do not get involved, and most payment disputes are resolved quite easily with a reminder email from me.”
Having examined concrete proof from email correspondence as to what had happened, voice123 banned Will May from the site. Unfortunately, that was not the end of the matter. Lowell:
“Mr. May posted the initial jobs under his own name. Once removed from the site, he began to use different names. During verification efforts by our staff, it was discovered who was posting the job. The staff at Voice123 has not changed in 2 years, and we have become very aware of ‘who is who’, and as such, have been able to catch people easily trying to repost after being banned.”
Juliette Gray is still waiting for her paycheck, and she’s not the only one. I was lucky. Even though Mr. May still owes me a substantial amount of money, I did get paid for approximately two-thirds of my work.
For months, I asked May to pay the remainder of the balance, but he was MIA. When my knocks on his door became louder, he finally sent a very unfriendly email, accusing me of “futzing the dates” on my invoices. He wrote:
“I am in no great rush to go through hours of checking to deal with whatever might be outstanding to you. Checking truth versus falsehood is a nuisance.”
“The invoices were sent on November 9th of last year, so you have had over two months to figure things out. I resent your remark that I “started futzing the dates”. My invoices accurately and faithfully reflect the work I have done for your organization at your request, and that’s the work I deserve to be paid for.”
I think that Newspapers for the Blind offers a terrific service. The newspapercasters are dedicated and talented readers who can be proud to support their families by bringing the news to the blind and vision-impaired, day in day out.
The website has an impressive list of reputable institutions labeled as “dedicated listeners”. There is no doubt in my mind that the energetic editor has moved mountains to realize this project. Based on my email exchanges with him, Will May works night and day to keep the service up and running. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that he has invested a substantial amount of his own money into this worthy undertaking.
I also believe that people are not their behavior. From time to time, all of us do things that we are not proud of, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t know any better. Just because we do something crazy, doesn’t mean that we are crazy.
Having said that, it is not okay to treat people the Will May-way, and voice123 was right to ban him from the site. Other sites have been alerted to make sure he doesn’t pull the same stuff. Furthermore: May needs to pay his talents. Without them, there would be no Newspapers for the Blind.
For now, I am left with one question: why would someone who is clearly invested in and dedicated to such a noble cause, turn from Mr. Nice into Mr. Nasty?
Mahmoud Taji is not only a Cairo-based Creative Director, he’s also a successful Arabic voice-over talent and blogger extraordinaire.
Taji recently relaunched his Voice Emporium, and on this site you will find thought-provoking articles, but also a very valuable Voice-over Directory of 231 casting websites and a Scam Alert for the Voice-over industry.
Taji is a man on a mission. A mission to create a monster. He writes:
“Let’s (for the sake of argument) say that you and I are partnering together on a business venture. We are going to build the perfect Voice Over Casting Site.
It’ll be a Pay-To-Play site… and it will be an amalgamation of the best parts of all the voice over casting websites that are on the market these days… so it’s a Frankenstein’s monster (remember Frankie was the doctor… his creation was the monster) consisting of the best from Voices.com, Voice123.com, VOplanet.com & Bodalgo.com.
What would it be like? What would it have?”
Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation. These are some of the elements my ideal Pay-to-Pay site would have:
Organizational structure: a cooperative. The site is owned and partially run by its members. Every member pays a relatively small membership fee to cover operational and promotional costs.
Decisions. Members have a huge say in how the site is run and who is running it. Every year, they receive a detailed account of the state of the cooperative. Members vote on major decisions and they monitor (and can vote on) the performance of the site manager. One person, one vote.
Earnings: the site takes 10% of the earnings of each job. This money will pay for staff salaries. What’s left after deduction of operational costs, salaries and overhead, will flow right back to the members at the end of each year.
Rates. The site and its members promote and practice fair trade: every project posted has a minimum budget based on industry averages (to be adjusted every year). That means that the minimum budget for an audio book will be higher than the minimum fee for a one page narration. No project shall be less than $250 and underbidding is unacceptable.
Accountability. Every single project posted will be accounted for. Members will know when the job was awarded and for how much. Voice-seekers who find talent on this site, must book the talent through the site. Demos will no longer disappear into a black hole.
Standards. In order to be eligible for membership, each prospective member has to agree to uphold and promote certain standards of ethical business practice and professional conduct.
Quality. Before being accepted, members are screened to ensure that they meet minimum professional criteria in terms of vocal and technical delivery. Throughout the year, auditions are monitored to ensure that quality is maintained. The reputation of the site rests on quality; not on rock-bottom rates.
Openness. Voice-seekers are expected to do business openly and honestly. They cannot hide their identity. This allows the voice-talent to conduct his/her own investigation into any and all claims made by prospective voice-seekers, agents and/or clients.
Specificity. Without a clear map, it’s hard to reach a destination: voice-seekers must clearly and specifically define what type of voice-talent they are hoping to hire. They must clearly outline the terms of the contract, listing and limiting the use of the end-product.
Auditions are open to any member; as long as this member fits the criteria for a particular project (see 8). This is left to the discretion of the talent.
Payment. Talent will be paid 50% of the agreed rate after a contract is signed, and the remainder upon delivery of the audio file(s).
Joint venture. Overall, this cooperative is characterized by quality, cooperation, transparency and accountability. It’s a place where professional talent is working with each other and for each other, rather than against each other.
Well, those are my two cents. I think Taji’s right. This ideal Voice-over casting site is probably going to be an intelligent version of Frankenstein’s monster; a patchwork of positive elements from existing Pay-to-Plays, combined with some brand new features. Is it a pipe dream? Not really. Revisit my article “What Pay-to-Plays don’t want you to know” . You’ll find out that this cooperative model is used to run one of Holland’s most successful multi-billion dollar businesses.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT
One thing’s for sure. This imaginary Voice-over casting site is going to be radically different from the current Dracula-model, where competing voice talents are sucking the life blood out of each other by low balling, undercutting and underbidding on bargain basement projects posted by cheap, anonymous voice-seekers.
Read my lips: eventually, only voice-over virgins will fall for this scheme, and this model will implode when it’s held up to the light, just like the illustrious Count from Transylvania.
If you’d like to join vampire-slayer Taji on his quest for the best Voice-over casting site, wake up out of your slumber; bring your cloves of garlic and have your say today!
Today, I went to “La Scala” in Milan, the most famous opera house in the world. It took me half an hour to get there. Rossini’s “Il viaggio a Reims” was shown at the same theater as where I had seen James Cameron’s two dimensional 3-D monsterpiece “Avatar”. In case you missed it: it’s that hyped-up, masterfully marketed mix of cinemagic, eco-babble and Blue Man Group against Giovanni Ribisi.
LIPSTICK AND PORK
Now, every “Iron Chef” aficionado knows that great plating does not make a perfect dish. Put differently: lipstick on a pig doesn’t make the pork taste better… even if that lipstick happens to be a groundbreaking multi-million dollar special effect. As for leading man Sam Worthington’s acting…. it was so flat; I found myself longing for Leonardo DiCaprio. Believe me, in my world, that’s not a good thing.
So, today I opened Pandora’s Box and ended up in Milan. The story of opera in cinema is the story of a great medium reinventing itself. If people don’t come to the opera, the opera will come to the people. Some skeptics said it would be easier for Montagues and Capulets to get along, than for opera and cinema. But I believe that this love story will have a happy ending. As a matter of fact, so do most episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” (how’s that for a smooth transition to my last installment about this show?).
If your voice-over career could use a makeover, Gordon Ramsay might just be the man to model. You may not like his style or his methods, but his ability to turn ailing eateries around has earned him a reputation. It’s based on a few key ingredients: expertise, experience, gut-feeling and market research.
Ultimately, it boils down to this. Whether you run a restaurant or a voice-over emporium, you have to feed a need. You have to see yourself as the solution to a problem. You are the pleasure that relieves the pain. But before you present your remedy, it is your job to identify your client’s needs, problems and pains to make sure that you are the aspirin that can take their headache away.
THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL
One of the reasons why many so businesses fail, is because they’re trying very hard to be something they’re not, or they’re offering something nobody wants. A brush is not a comb, and it’s useless to try to sell a comb to a bald man. Bald men might need Rogaine or a rug.
Gioachino Rossini -who, by the way, was an outstanding cook- knew what his customers wanted and he gave it to them. When Italian opera went out of vogue, he turned to French librettos. No more pasta. Boeff Bourgignon instead! How did he know that Italian was out? Because he knew his market and he was flexible enough to adjust his sails. It made him a very rich man. And famously fat, too.
Back to another culinary giant and to “Kitchen Nightmares”. At some point in every episode, Chef Ramsay leaves the acrimony of the kitchen behind and hits the street. His mission is threefold:
to find out what people really think of the restaurant he’s trying to rescue
to scope out the competition
to identify a hole in the market
Armed with that information, he starts devising a plan for the reinvention and re-launch of the business. Translated to our voice-over world that means:
get an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses from an independent expert. Pick a person who will tell you what needs to be said; not what you’re hoping to hear
go online and spend a few days listening to the good, the bad and the ugly in this industry. The ugly will teach you what not to do. The best will tell you what has shaped their career and how they are selling themselves
find out where you come in; what’s your unique selling point; your niche?
Then, ask yourself two things:
“If I would be the answer, what would the question be?”
“What do I need to do today to get to where I want to be tomorrow?”
It’s easier said than done, but please avoid making the basic beginner’s mistake of trying to be everything to everyone. Even someone as talented as Robin Williams has his limitations.
CBS news didn’t hire Morgan Freeman because he sounded like James Earl Jones. We all know he doesn’t. Freeman followed in Cronkite’s footsteps because he sounds like Morgan Freeman.
This does not mean that you shouldn’t have a range. However, that range should come from a place of “being” instead of from a place of “pretending” (if that makes any sense to you).
NEW & IMPROVED
Once Ramsey presents the restaurant with a new identity, he takes a good look at all the resources he can muster. It’s a cliché, but change has to come from within, and in this case it starts with the kitchen.
If you’ve seen the show a few times, you know that this almost always involves training or re-training the staff. Most often, this means back to basics. Hand-made super sharp German blades aren’t going to make a difference if your knifing skills don’t cut it. In your hands, they’re probably dangerous.
I’m pretty sure the kind folks at Sweetwater will happily sell you this Manley Reference Cardioid microphone. But let me ask you this: if you were a budding singer, would a new mic make you sound significantly better, or would singing lessons be a wiser investment?
Instead of spending a small fortune on gear, why not spend your money on quality training before you do anything else? I have seen colleagues go under, not because they lacked talent, but because they had the wrong priorities.
Next, Ramsay usually simplifies the menu, basing it on fresh ingredients grown in the area. He also makes a point of forging a relationship between the restaurant and the local (business) community. He often invites neighboring opinion-leaders to the table. Instead of waiting for customers to come in, he forces the staff to be pro-active and reach out to potential patrons on the street and offer them a sample of the new menu.
With a new identity comes a new look. Restaurant owners who tell you that people are only coming for the food and not for the decor, are like voice-overs who insist that it’s all about the way they sound. The thing is: if you are a professional, you have to come across as one.
If you don’t feel comfortable putting your headshot on your landing page, fine, but at least make sure your website is easy to find, easy to navigate and that it whets people’s appetite. There’s a reason why the interior and the exterior of each restaurant get a thorough makeover on “Kitchen Nightmares.” If you want to get the part, you need to look the part.
Like a scrumptious desert, there’s one observation I reserved for last. It’s perhaps the most revealing part of this whole series.
It occurred to me that Chef Ramsay never suggests the owner take on the competition by lowering the prices, unless the items on the original menu were ridiculously overpriced.
It’s always about carefully and passionately prepared quality food. It’s about setting and maintaining high standards. It’s about value for money.
You don’t turn a business around by giving in to the lowest common denominator.
Ramsay might tell an owner to be less pretentious and offer simpler fare reflecting the skill set, experience and imagination of the person preparing the food. But he knows that it is perfectly reasonable to sell a good product at a good price. In fact, most people are willing to pay more for an outstanding product. It’s yet another sign of professionalism that you know what you’re worth and that you’re not afraid to charge accordingly.
THE RIGHT RECIPES
As I was leaving the movie theater, a lot was going through my mind. Mostly music. In a way, Rossini’s lavish operatic productions were the equivalent of today’s cinematic blockbusters. His sopranos and tenors were the celebrities of their day and age. Everywhere, people were humming his arias. We still do.
Even if you don’t know anything about opera, I’m sure you can sing one of the melodies from Rossini’s “Wilhelm Tell”, better known as the theme from “the Lone Ranger”. And if you happen to be a foodie, you’ve probably heard of the famous “Tournedos Rossini”, a French steak dish named after the culinary composer. No special effects or 3-D glasses required. And meat lovers say it’s out of this world.
Take that, Mr. Titanic! And hats off to you, Mr. Ramsay!
“The success of your business is equivalent to the strength of your relationships.”
It almost sounds like a slogan from one of those inspirational posters, doesn’t it? You know… the ones with pictures of eagles soaring over pristine mountain peaks. You can find these pearls of wisdom on coffee mugs, calendars and on mouse pads.
Because some of these truths are so trivialized, we’ve become as immune to them as to the violence in video games or human suffering on the evening news.
If you’ve read the first two installments of this series, “Voice Over Nightmares” and “Our Own Worst Critic,” you know that I’m using Gordon Ramsay’s TV-show “Kitchen Nightmares” as a metaphor. I’m trying to cut through the pre-orchestrated reality drama, in the hopes of uncovering recipes you and I can prepare to boost our business.
Today, the focus is on relationships.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a freelancer, is believing that you are a one-man (or one woman)-band on an island in the midst of a shark-infested ocean. Although it sometimes might seem that way, you’re not all alone in the universe.
This business revolves around relationships: relationships with our clients; with our team; with our significant others and ultimately… the relationship we have with ourselves (or is that too woo-woo for you?).
These inner and outer circles constantly connect and interact. Great relationships can motivate and energize us to do great things. Terrible relationships can suck the life blood out of us and our business.
Before you step up to the mic, think about how many people have already been involved in the project you’re about to work on: the end client and her team, the ad agency, the production company, script writers, animators, translators, your agent or the people at that Voices-site.
If you happen to record in a studio, you’ll probably work with a director and a sound engineer. Once the product is finished, the circle widens again as your voice reaches an audience. All of a sudden, your tiny island has become very crowded… There are a lot of people you need to please!
Whether he’s in the British Midlands or in the heart of Manhattan, Gordon Ramsay always encounters dysfunctional families and co-workers on the verge of a nervous breakdown. To get a good sense of the internal dynamics of a restaurant, he insists on observing how a team deals with the stress of a full service. It’s his chance to find out what really goes on underneath the veneer of polite pretentiousness.
Early in the night, Ramsay will notice three things: the chef/owner can’t communicate, can’t delegate and can’t even cook. Let’s start with the first problem: lack of communication.
Some owners won’t communicate because they have something to hide. Often, their mismanagement has resulted in a financial mess. Not even their spouse or partner knows how much in debt they are, and when these people finally find out, they feel betrayed, dismayed and ready to walk. That’s why “Kitchen Nightmares” frequently turns into a “Relationship Rescue.”
Sometimes, team members can’t be trusted: an accountant cooks the books (a bad thing, especially in an eatery); a server helps himself to the register.
Some chefs are dictators. All they do is boss people around, complain and criticize. It’s always somebody else’s fault. Praise is a dirty word. Compliments are for the weak. A team has to listen and obey. And if you don’t like it, you are free to leave!
By taking the employees for granted, many owners lose the respect and trust of the very people they depend on, to turn their business around.
Then there are chefs and owners who believe that they’re an open book… you know what I mean by that, don’t you? They expect the world to read their mind, and if that world is not on the same page, guess who gets blamed? This type of behavior is based on unrealistic expectations that can never be met, and it’s a relationship killer (in and out of the kitchen).
TURNING IT AROUND
So, let’s look at the flipside.
If a business wishes to survive and thrive, it needs to be built upon honesty, respect and openness.
Be honest with yourself and dare to ask the hard questions: Do I really have what it takes? How much am I in the red? How many weeks before I have to pull the plug? What’s my plan B?
Secondly: who’s on your team? Can they handle the job or are they sabotaging your success? Have you taken the time to monitor and evaluate their performance?
A year ago, you made an investment in one of those voice-over websites. Since then, you auditioned like never before. Did the staff deliver? How many gigs did you get? What’s the ROI?
Have you heard from your webmaster, lately? He promised to update your demos. What’s taking him so long? And what about your agent? Has she forgotten that you exist?
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
What would your team members have to say about you? Are you stressed, short-tempered and impatient because you’re feeling the heat? Are you willing to listen and are you ready to implement suggestions? When’s the last time you paid someone a sincere compliment? Did you let your partner know how much you appreciate the fact that he or she is there for you through thick and thin?
Now think about your clients. When’s the last time you reached out to all those smart people that have hired you in the past? Why did you neglect them? What could you do today, to reestablish the connection?
When it comes to mind reading, I have news for you: most of us aren’t born with psychic powers. We spend a lifetime figuring out what goes on in our own head; let alone what goes on in the minds of others. All the same, we tend to forget the advice our favorite teacher once gave us:
“Never assume. Always ask.”
Seconds later, we run into the studio, script in hand, and we glance at the voice-seeker’s instructions: “Male or Female, English, enthusiastic but not over the top.”
What’s that supposed to mean? How can you ever arrive at your destination when someone hands you vague directions?
Can you ask the client for specifics? I’m afraid you’re out of luck. The voice-seeker wishes to remain anonymous. So, how do you determine your take on the script? It’s simple: you use yourimagination. In other words: you make it up based on what you think the client might be listening for. Two hours later, some stranger trashes your demo after the first ten seconds because it’s not really what he assumes his client wants. That was time well-spent, wasn’t it?
Back in the middle of a Kitchen Nightmare, Gordon Ramsay is still observing service as he spots another basic mistake.
Because there’s no trust or effective communication, the headstrong chef/owner thinks that that he must be in charge of… everything and everyone. He’s running from dessert to entrée while arguing with the front of the house.
Within ten minutes, he’s totally overwhelmed and most of his words need to be bleeped out. Hardly any food leaves the kitchen. A lot is coming back due to poor quality. Impatient patrons have had it and vow never to come back.
I hope it’s not that extreme in your voice-over kitchen. Yet, I know it’s very tempting to believe that you can do it all by yourself. Becoming an “independent contractor” seemed to be the ideal way to escape the 9 to 5 rat race. It’s a dream come true: working from home, pursuing your passion and setting your own hours.
When you wake up, you suddenly realize that you are heading the sales department; you’re in charge of advertising and marketing; you’re designing your own website; you are the chief technician as well as the CFO. And let’s not overlook one insignificant detail: you deliver the goods!
This poor, overworked, idealistic, multi-talented genius is now working 15-hour days in the pursuit of happiness. Heaven forbid this superhuman being should get a cold…
Seriously, do you really need to do your own mixing and editing? Do you really have to master PhotoShop? Are you the best person to handle your finances and legal affairs?
Some people won’t delegate because they believe that “nobody does it better.” Others tell me they can’t afford any hired help. The end-result? Tumbling productivity, deteriorating quality, messed-up relationships and a life that’s seriously out of balance.
Frustrated, angry and alone, you look at that magnificent poster on the wall. It’s the one with the eagle soaring over pristine mountain peaks. Then you read the words written underneath.
All of a sudden, you realize that this familiar truism has surpassed the status of cliché. It has become relevant.
“The success of your business is equivalent to the strength of your relationships.”
You’re about to lose your business, your best mate and your girlfriend.
And you still don’t get it, do you?”
Gordon Ramsay was pulling out all the stops to talk some sense into the stubborn owner of the “Runaway Girl.” The tapas bar in Sheffield was on the brink of collapse. In an effort to bring customers in, owner Justin Rowntree had sliced prices; served pre-cooked food out of plastic buckets and brought in live music. The result: runaway customers.
Instead of taking ownership, Justin refused to face the facts and dished out excuse after excuse. Unless he would start listening, his dream was doomed. But time was running out fast.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
If you’ve watched “Kitchen Nightmares” on the BBC or FOX, scenes like these are a staple ingredient of every episode. It’s very easy to think of this show as another formulaic piece of mindless entertainment. However, there might be more to it than that, especially if you are not too happy with the current state of your business. How would you react if Gordon Ramsay gave you a firm kick in the pants? Would you take his words to heart, or would you fight him tooth and nail?
“I’m always surprised at the reluctance of failing business owners to listen to Ramsay’s advice. I’m sure much of it is in the TV production, but it still seems silly,” commented one of the viewers online, after watching this season’s premiere. Well, what do you think? Is it all silliness, or are we witnessing the results of arrogance, denial and an innate inaptitude to self-evaluate?
I talked about denial in my first installment, and today I’ll turn to our ability to look into the mirror and objectively assess our own behavior. But, is that even possible? Can we be brutally honest with ourselves? Should we even trust our own judgment?
First of all, it’s not something we can easily shut off (unless we’re masters of meditation). We’re constantly making judgment calls. Our business has developed in such a way that voice-seekers aren’t willing to pay for a director or a sound-engineer anymore. Instead, we end up directing, recording and editing ourselves. Not everyone is good at that. I’m willing to go even further: most of us stink at it because we can’t objectively listen to our own performance.
Thanks to years of conditioning, you and I suffer from selective memory, selective hearing, selective eyesight and selective reasoning. This commonly leads to ‘confirmation bias,’ a tendency to validate and reinforce our personal prejudices, regardless of the evidence.
Studies have shown that, even if these beliefs are debunked, the discredited proof is filtered out as “irrelevant,” and we keep on clinging to our distorted version or reality. And if you strongly believe that this theory is utter hogwash, I have to thank you for proving my point.
FROM MY KITCHEN
A few weeks ago, I knew for sure that I had nailed an audition. There was nothing I could have done to make it any better. I proudly submitted my flawless demo, and I thought it was just a matter of time before the voice-seeker would call me saying: “You blew me away. No need to re-record it. We’ll use your MP3 as is. It’s brilliant.” Of course I never heard back from the producer, and I was convinced that he had made the biggest mistake of his career.
After the holidays I decided to listen to my masterpiece again, this time with fresh ears and a clear mind. You guessed it: this year, my ‘perfect’ audition didn’t sound so good after all. I should have known. There is a reason why writers don’t review their own books.
A DIFFERENT ANGLE
When I first started in television, I once got a call from a very angry cameraman. He had volunteered to climb to the top of a very tall tower to get ‘the perfect shot’ for a documentary we were working on. When he came down, he was perspiring profusely and it looked like he was about to collapse. “This is pure gold,” he said, catching his breath, as he proudly handed me the rushes.
Having watched the end result on TV, my camera guy was not amused. In fact, he was livid and demanded an explanation: “I climbed over 500 *** steps to get you a picture from that angle, and you decided to cut it out! Is that your way of thanking me?!”
When he had calmed down a bit, I said to him: “I really appreciate you climbing to the top to get those shots. But when we looked at the footage in the editing room, it just didn’t work and we decided to use a close-up instead. You and I both know how much it took for you to get those shots. Ultimately, the public doesn’t care how many steps you had to climb. All they’re interested in is the big picture.”
I believe that we are our own worst critics. Usually, we’re too involved and too invested in our own efforts to see and hear what others are seeing and hearing. That’s why every translator needs a proofreader; every athlete needs a coach and every cameraman needs an editor. These professionals shouldn’t have to worry about hurting our feelings or massaging our ego. With the odd exception, I believe it’s best that these pros are outsiders with inside expertise. That’s the only way they can have any leverage at all.
ANYTHING YOU CAN DO…
Meanwhile, the days of the “Runaway Girl” seemed numbered, even though a knowledgeable outsider was brought in to save the business from going bust. Chef Gordon Ramsay had to overcome yet another obstacle that had nothing to do with the quality of the food, the location of the restaurant or the atmosphere inside. Once again, it all came back to the headstrong owner who suffered from “premature closure”.
Premature closure is a term sometimes associated with cognitive diagnostic medical errors. It’s a tendency to stop considering other possible diagnoses after a diagnosis is reached. The idea behind it is that humans solve problems by searching for an explanation that best fits, and then they stop searching. Coupled with confirmation bias, premature closure can be a fatal mix in any hospital or court room.
In education, students who suffer from “premature closure” are commonly referred to as “know-it-alls”. They seem easily distracted; they rarely pay attention; their questions aren’t really questions but attempts to show-off how much they know about the subject. People who think they know better have no incentive to listen and learn. Justin Rowntree was their poster child. Ramsay appeared to be talking to a wall.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to be well-informed. I am suggesting that it’s even better to keep the door open and to realize that there’s always more to discover. Albert Einstein put it this way: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” He also understood that knowledge in and of itself is useless unless applied in a sensible way. CRISIS
There are at least two ways to break through these attitudes and patterns: the long road and a shortcut. The long road is based on the answer to the following question: “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “In very small bites”.
In other words, change is created through a gradual process of small, manageable steps. Most therapies are based on that model.
However, the fastest way to bring about change is through a Significant Emotional Event. A crisis. For years, the staff at the “Runaway Girl” had told the owner that he needed to make major changes. But it wasn’t until Ramsay came in, that the desperate situation reached a boiling point and the pressure became unbearable.
PS Next time, we’ll take a look at the importance of relationships. Are you a one-man band on an island, or are you part of a huge network of professionals? Could you and should you run your business all by yourself?
If you’re a quitter, don’t waste your time reading this article.
If you don’t want to grow your business, move on to another blog.
If you’re afraid to face the facts, by all means: keep your head buried in the sand.
And if you think you know better… good for you. Now, PROVE IT!
“Harsh words to start off the New Year, Mr. Strikwerda,” my inner voice whispered. “For a moment, you sounded like that annoying English chef from ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. Why be so confrontational? The new year has barely started. Why not write a nice poetic piece about splendid resolutions, good intentions, high hopes, big dreams and snowflakes? That should go down well at the start of the New Year. Cut your readers some slack!”
CREATURES OF HABIT
A 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman led to one conclusion: 88% of all resolutions end in failure. Why?
People are stubbornly set in their old ways
People lack willpower and self-control
In my experience, good intentions are just as effective as wishful thinking, and are as lame as the word ‘try’.
Hopes and dreams usually get stranded on a beach named “One day….” And if we are to believe behavioral psychologists, most of us will do more to avoid pain than to experience pleasure. In other words: you and I will put more effort into running away from the things we don’t want, than in moving toward the things we desire. Provided we even know what we want.
When asked, most people can tell you exactly what they don’t want: “I want to stop smoking. I don’t want to be overweight.” We tell our kids: “Don’t touch that!” And what’s the first thing they do?
Making changes can be a painful process. If you’ve ever watched the show “Kitchen Nightmares,” you know exactly what I mean. Even if you’re not a fan of reality TV, and even if you can’t stand Gordon Ramsay (the foul-mouthed British chef who turns failing restaurants around), I’d like you to consider the following: is there something you and I could learn from this show and apply to our own business?
Let’s be honest: for many of us, last year hasn’t been the best year on record. I know that some of you are seriously thinking of giving up. Others are still wondering what went wrong. But even if the past year wasn’t too bad, you want your business to grow and do even better, don’t you? So, if quitting is not an option, how can you overcome your challenges, and make this year the best one ever?
Problems are never solved at the level they were created, and that’s why I find it very helpful to look outside of my own field. Success does leave clues, and you don’t need to be a CSI-specialist to find them. That’s why I’d like to take you inside ‘Kitchen Nightmares,’, and identify some of the ingredients of failure and success that may very well help us turn our businesses around.
STRATEGY FOR CHANGE
From a therapeutic point of view, Gordon Ramsay’s show follows a classic approach for bringing about change. There are three stages in this strategy:
1. PRESENT STATE (a.k.a. problem state) 2. RESOURCES 3. OUTCOME STATE (a.k.a. resolution state)
“Kitchen Nightmares” starts off by showing us why and how a restaurant is failing (present state). Then, top-chef Ramsay comes to the rescue, offering his experience and expertise (resources). Following his advice, changes are put into place and the restaurant has a successful re-launch (outcome state). A few months later, Ramsay returns to the scene of the crime to find out how the restaurant is doing.
Okay, let’s rewind. If you’ve watched “Kitchen Nightmares” a couple of times, you must have noticed a common theme:
Businesses don’t fail. People fail.
People are the biggest asset and the biggest obstacle. If you wish to turn a business around, you must turn the people around. Now, why is that easier said than done? Here are a few clues.
Once upon a time, all owners had a dream: to run a restaurant. Lack of culinary skills and the absence of business acumen did not stop them. Years later, their beloved business is one bill away from bankruptcy. Strangers can smell the smoke from a distance, but the owner pretends that there’s no fire. Denial is one of the biggest stumbling blocks on the road to transformation. Why make changes if you don’t believe something’s wrong? Ask anyone who’s ever been in therapy.
In the next scene, Gordon Ramsay enters the restaurant. He usually orders the signature dish. Fans of the show already know the food is going to look terrible and will taste even worse. As Ramsay tries to describe his disgusting dining experience, some of his words have to be bleeped out. Leaving most of the meal on the plate, he storms into the kitchen where the chef/owner is obliviously bragging about the menu.
“Bloody Bleep! That’s probably the worst *** I’ve ever tasted,” says Ramsay. “Are you out of your mind? You could have killed me with that raw fish. How dare you serve that load of ***?”
Instead of taking this as a wake-up call, most chefs are as shocked as they are in denial. They get the food back, but can’t take the feedback. Instead, most respond by putting up a wall of DEFENSIVENESS and BLAME. They’ll say things like:
“I’ve never heard anyone complain about the fish. It’s bought in. All I do is heat it up. Besides, who do you think you are to criticize me? The ‘great’ Gordon Ramsay? Give me a break!”
As tempers flare, the camera captures close-ups of tired sous-chefs, worn-down waitstaff and desperate significant others. The same words are written on their faces: “We’ve tried to tell him many times, but he just won’t listen. He always knows best.”
Let’s leave the show for a minute or two, and talk about your business.
At one point in your life you had a dream. What happened to it? I’m sure you’ve invested a lot in professional demos; you use the right gear; you did tons of auditions; you have an online presence and we can find your innermost thoughts on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. But did it get you anywhere? Have you made any money lately? Did you break even? Do you even know how much you’d need to make in order to do that? Or do you happen to run a non-profit the IRS considers to be a hobby?
Listen, this is not rocket science. If you feel lost, the first thing you need to do is admit it. Don’t be like the typical guy who drives around in circles because he won’t concede that he has no idea where he is. Instead, you have to determine where you are and how you got there. Only then can you start thinking of where you want to be and what path to follow. Better still: step out of your box and ask for directions! Preferably, ask someone who knows the area; listen carefully and make notes.
When asking an expert, I suggest you get down to specifics. Sure, you want things to be ‘better’ but compared to what? Do you want to make more money? Who doesn’t?
Most motivational speakers would give you a nickel and tell you: “See, you just made more money!” You probably want to make more than you’re making right now, but how are you going to determine that, if you don’t know how much you need to earn? You have to be as detailed as you can. Vague ideas lead to vague results. The only people ever to make money off vague ideas were impressionist painters. But by the time their paintings were worth millions, they were long gone.
MORE TO COME
This was just the first course. In the next installment, we’ll continue our Kitchen Nightmare, and I will tell you about creating a wholesome crisis, as well as the devastating effect of ‘premature closure’. And no…. this has nothing to do with shutting your business down too early.
I always like to go outside before snow plows and shovels ruin a perfect picture. There’s something very magical about the light reflected by billions and billions of unique crystals.
Fallen from heaven, those tiny flakes perform a timeless, selfless act. Down to earth, they reflect the light of the moon and stars, giving back what they receive, before melting away, only to be reincarnated.
A Buddhist might say that the beauty of snowflakes lies in their transient nature. One moment they’re here. The next, they’re gone. But leave it to less-philosophical people to attempt to defeat the inevitable passing of time and stop the clock from ticking.
We’ve become quite good at it, actually. I’m not referring to the treatments available in certain celebrity spas. Mankind has developed even more sophisticated time capsules that do not involve the use of Clostridium botulinum.
Instead of smoothing away the ripples of the past, I wish to preserve them as best as I can. Why? Because those wrinkles are the storylines of our life. It’s where our ‘biology reflects our biography,’ as Caroline Myss would put it. So, how do I go about my acts of self-preservation? It’s quite simple.
For this purpose, I use a clever device that is capable of capturing the moment, right before its echo is about to disappear into nothingness. It’s called a microphone. The very moment my sound meets the silence, I catch it; I record it and I store it in a safe place.
It wasn’t as easy for Wilson Bentley. Born in 1865, he grew up on a farm in Jericho, Vermont. As a teenager he became fascinated by snowflakes. When he was fifteen, his mother gave him a microscope, and soon Wilson was on a mission to capture what he affectionately called “ice flowers”. Trying to draw them was impossible, because the flakes would vanish before he was able to finish the picture. His breath would take them away.
After years of experimentation, the 19-year old Bentley became the first person ever to photograph a single snow crystal, using a bellows camera to which he adapted a Dutch invention, the compound microscope. And it was Bentley, who discovered that no two snowflakes are alike.
During his lifetime, he captured more than five thousand snowflakes. He also published articles for magazines and journals including National Geographic and Scientific American, and filled nine notebooks with 47 years worth of his observations and analysis. In 1925 he wrote:
“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”
Earlier this year, on a trip to Vermont, I visited the Snowflake Bentley Museum at the Old Red Mill in Jericho. There I learned that this pioneer of science and photography, who had dedicated his life to studying snow crystals, eventually died of pneumonia after walking home through a blizzard. But, as that blockbuster movie trailer voice-over guy would say: “His legacy lives on.”
While the world around me was covered up in white, I found myself reminiscing about a year that had nearly come to an end. Most moments had melted away, almost without a trace. But then I had to think of memories that had actually crystallized into something concrete. There’s this small collection of blog posts that can still be read, and of course my voice can be heard on countless projects that, hopefully, will be around for a while.
No matter what we do in life, at some point in our journey, all of us have to ask ourselves the big questions:
“Does what I do really matter? What’s the purpose? Do I make a difference? What do I leave behind when it’s my time to go home?”
I’m no expert in the afterlife, but who knows. Long after I’m gone, my grandchildren might even pick up one of the audio books I recorded this year. And as they listen to my voice, painstakingly preserved for posterity, the sounds that were frozen in time become fluid. In a flurry of words, past and present embrace each other in the now of the moment, and nothing, nothing will ever be the same again.
Call me a flake, but I think that’s just very cool!
“What kind of sign is that?” asked my friend Kees, who was on a visit from Holland. “Active bottoms… If I take 50 percent off my active bottom, I won’t be able to sit straight.”
“You’re right,” I replied. “But the world would be a quieter place!” Kees laughed. “By the way, I think TJ Maxx really means sweat pants.” “Really?” said Kees. People wear pants in a sauna?” “Well, you can take half off,” I said. This conversation was going downhill fast.
“Only in America,” said Kees. “Only in America.”
“Alright, my friend. Let’s go to the store next door,” I said as I was heading over to the parking lot. Kees didn’t understand. “Wait a minute….. That store is no more than twenty steps away. Where do you think you’re going?”
I quickly hid my car keys and remembered that I had responded exactly the same way when I first came to the States. “No wonder you gained some weight, man! You’ve gotten lazy. Getting any exercise lately?” “Lots,” I said. “That Wii thing is absolutely amazing. It’s unreal.” “You’re right about that,” Kees mumbled.
We entered the bookstore. “Is that coffee I smell?” asked my Dutch friend. “Coffee, in a bookstore?” “You’re right,” Kees. “But it gets even better. You can pick a couple of magazines, buy a calorie infused mocha-java shake with lava cake, grab a chair and trash whatever you’re reading. And when you’re done, you just leave your mess on the table.”
“No way,” said Kees. “Don’t you have to pay for that copy of ‘Good Housekeeping’ and the ‘Parenting Magazine’?” “Are you kidding me, Kees? Of course not. People even leave their kids here while they go visit the rest of the Mall. In fact, I just heard one of those hockey moms tell her daughter: ‘Here’s twenty bucks. Now get lost.’ Yes, Kees,” I smiled, “This country is big on family values. No child left behind.”
An elderly gentleman walked up to us in the music department. “Can I help you find something?,” he asked for the two hundred and forty fourth time that day. “Well,” said Kees, “If you tell me what you are looking for, perhaps I can find it for you. That way, you sir, can take a seat and rest your legs a little.”
“Oh no, I can’t do that,” said the man nervously. “I work here.” “He must be in his late sixties,” whispered Kees in my ear.”Don’t people retire?”
Meanwhile, I looked around. Something was missing. “What happened to all your classical CD’s?,” I asked the music seller. “The only things I see are bargain DVD’s.”
“We have a few CD’s left,” said the clerk, pointing apologetically at two or three rows of ‘Music for the Millions’. “I used to be a music professor,” he sighed.”My wife and I loved coming here. There was Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok. Look at it now.
We have Andrea Boccelli and that Dutch fiddler, Andre Rieu. People don’t know what they’re missing. I just had a customer ask for the theme of ‘The Lone Ranger’. I said to her: ‘I can order the William Tell overture for you.’ ‘No’, she said. ‘I want ‘The Lone Ranger’. Didn’t you hear me the first time?'”
“Let me see if I understand you correctly,” I said to the seller. “You have to order a CD of popular overtures, but you can sell me the unrated set of ‘Saw’ on brilliant Blue Ray?”
“That’s right,” answered the clerk. “Teenagers love it. Saw, Hostel 1, 2 and 3 and that Twilight stuff. And it’s not exactly cheap either.”
Two high school kids walked in, drinks in hand. “Hey Pops,” shouted one of them. “Any good deals on Black Friday?”
“What’s Black Friday? Something African-American?,” Kees wanted to know. He was puzzled because there’s no such thing in Holland. “It’s the day after Thanksgiving,” I explained. “The busiest shopping day of the year. People get up at the crack of dawn. They wait in line in front of their local Wal-Mart, and when the doors finally open, they crush the doorman to death so they can be the first one to walk away with a flat screen TV. That’s all. No White Christmas without a Black Friday. Only in America. The land of the killer deal.”
“You’ve become quite the cynic, after you became a citizen,” observed Kees. “And stop sorting those CD’s”. “I can’t help myself,” I said. “I used to work here a few years ago. It’s the curse of retail. But let me tell you something. Most people who work at this chain have two things in common. They’re overqualified and underpaid.”
“So, why do they do it? It can’t be fun to stand on your feet for eight hours selling rap, rock and horror when you’re nearly seventy,” Kees asked. “Benefits, my friend. Benefits,” I replied. “This country suffers from a major preexisting condition. There’s no such thing as universal health care over here. Not yet. But on a more positive note: we just discovered that there’s definitely water on the moon!”
We walked out empty-handed. “And you know what?,” I continued, “More than a third of what they call the ‘working poor’ have jobs in retail. When I used to work here, most of my colleagues had a second job to make ends meet.
The average department store “associate” only makes about 18 thousand dollars per year. So, single moms were counting on their parents to take care of the kids, while they worked another shift at the International House of Fruitcakes. And the next day, they would do it all over again. Not exactly the American dream, is it?
They used to say: if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. Well, these people are doing just that and they’re going absolutely nowhere.”
“Let’s change the subject,” said Kees. “This stuff is depressing. What do people like to do for fun over here? Do they ever take a break?”
“I hate generalizations,” I said, “but some say that most Europeans work to live and that most Americans live to work.
My neighbors still don’t believe that I used to take at least four weeks off during the summer.” “So what does the average American like to do or see while on vacation?” asked Kees. “The Grand Canyon? The National Mall? MoMA?”
“Funny you should ask,” I replied. “I just finished reading a book by Ellen Ruppel Shell. She’s a professor of journalism at Boston University. It’s called CHEAP, and according to her research, America’s number-one tourist destination is… the factory outlet.
Not only are factory outlets the fastest-growing segment of the retail industry, but also of the travel industry. But as you can tell, even ordinary shopping centers are immensely popular. I read in the New York Times that the Mall of America in Minneapolis attracts more visitors per year than Disney World, Graceland and the Grand Canyon combined.”
“I thought you guys were in a recession,” said Kees. He continued, “I must admit one thing though…. Things like clothes are dirt cheap over here. I mean… take those active bottoms. Perhaps we should go back and get a pair.”
I had to interrupt, “Believe it or not Kees, I am convinced that there’s a link between the price of those sweat pants, the sweat shops where they were made, and the recession we’re in. This whole bargain basement outlet culture is one of the reasons why people aren’t earning wages that would enable them to keep their heads above water without maxing out their credit cards.
Speaking of credit cards… before we go home, I need to hit one more store today. My wife needs a new bra for her car and we’re not going to find it at Victoria’s Secret.”
Kees’ mouth fell open. “A bra. For a car? You must be joking!” “Haven’t you ever heard of a Car Bra?” I asked. “It protects the paint on the front of your car from things like bugs, flying rocks, and suicidal retail associates.”
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