Posts Tagged ‘Musings’

Finding My Niche

Before I retired and became a man of leisure, I was an ordinary working dude. A nine-to-fiver. A white-collar wage slave.

Over the years, I came to know a series of corporate cultures that were every bit as Kafkaesque as the world of Dilbert, but without the humor.

Some of those places — actually, most of those places — were dreadful, borderline dysfunctional organizations. Bureaucracy, politics, and incompetence were constant obstacles. In truth, the organizations were not so much managed as mismanaged, and everyone knew it.

And, oh, how I hated it. The pomposity of the corporate caste system, the norm of inefficiency and waste — everything about it was offensive. I was in a state of constant indignation.

Probably, eventually, I was destined to leave corporate life behind. I had no idea what I might do to make a living, but I wasn’t making peace with the life I was leading.

Then, in 1989, when I took a new job in metro Atlanta, I got a lucky break.

The job was in the advertising department at Lithonia Lighting, a national manufacturer of commercial, industrial, and residential light fixtures.

The position, it turned out, provided a niche that gave me unexpected protection from the worst of the corporate crapola. I was able to do my work in a manner I found acceptable. It was a gift from God.

The details are a bit tedious, but I’ll try to keep it simple.

Lithonia Lighting hired me as the company’s first professional copywriter. The Advertising Department staff included graphic designers and marketing types, but no writers.

I soon learned that, in large part, I was hired to fix a chronic and maddening problem: the higher-ups were tired of being sued, sometimes by their own sales reps, over typos and inaccuracies in the printed material describing the products.

For a long time, the bosses had been reluctant to hire a writer. This was a company of and for engineers — real men — not some useless liberal arts major.

But they finally relented, and there I was, a detail-oriented guy with a knack for writing, grammar, proofreading, and similar skills that the engineers, poor things, clearly lacked.

The inaccuracies in the sales literature were having real consequences. When a contract is signed to supply the light fixtures to populate an office building, a factory, a mall, or whatever, the financial commitment is significant.

And lots of variables are involved — wattage, voltage, light source, lumen output, fixture dimensions, and more. If the products delivered are not precisely as quoted, and don’t perform precisely as promised, the manufacturer (or the manufacturer’s rep) is legally liable.

Lithonia Lighting was capable of manufacturing countless product variations. The technical specifications for all those theoretical products were maintained in a vast set of central files. The files amounted to a blueprint of what could and could not be manufactured.

When the sales reps needed descriptions of specific products to facilitate a deal, the company would refer to the official files and furnish the necessary information to the reps. In effect, documents describing any version of any product were available on demand.

When a product was modified or a new product variation was created, the central files were updated. Thus, theoretically, the sales force always had access to the latest and most accurate information.

In the years before I came along, the central files had been maintained and updated by a succession of employees — product engineers, marketing trainees, sales people, and others.

They were, to be sure, sincere and capable folks in their areas of specialty. But ensuring the accuracy of a huge mass of constantly-changing data was not among their skills. Hence, they decided to try someone like me.

Owing to the scale of the task, I was allowed to hire a few young copywriters fresh out of college. Like most writers, they were naturally detail-oriented and undeterred by what others might see as overwhelming and unmanageable.

And it worked. Within a year or two, we brought discipline to the system and restored the data files to a state of accuracy that was, if not perfect, at least acceptable. The lawsuit problems faded away. The bosses were pleased.

As a result of all this, management tended to stay out of my way. They were happy to let me do my thing, more or less undisturbed.

Because I was important to them in this manner, I was exempt from many of the petty annoyances of corporate life.

When a stupid management fad came along — Six Sigma, Core Competency, Management by Objectives — I wasn’t forced to endure the training sessions as were my peers.

And never once was I assigned to the universally-hated duty of helping to conduct the periodic inventories of the main warehouse, which was the size of the Pentagon.

As time passed, the people changed, and the tools we used and the tasks we performed evolved. But the work remained interesting and fun.

The Advertising Department, an enclave of creative types amid a sea of math and science majors, was never dull.

And I stayed plenty busy. In addition to overseeing the product data, we produced product catalogs, prepared advertising and marketing material, wrote news releases and newsletters, and edited a steady mass of correspondence.

Yes, the place was still a typical large corporation. The bureaucracy was appalling. The mismanagement, at times, was spectacular and stultifying.

But I stayed anyway. For 25 years.

All because I got lucky and found my niche.



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Sometimes, an improbable thing happens, and you are left flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. Such a thing happened to me, very memorably, about 10 years ago.

Back in the 1950s, when my dad was in the Air Force, we lived in Europe for a few years. I attended a high school for U.S. military dependents in Stuttgart, Germany.

Living in a beer-centric country like that, and being a red-blooded teenager, I was an expert on the numerous breweries, biergartens, and gasthauses in the Stuttgart area. I probably knew as much about the local breweries — the products, histories, reputations, and relative merits — as the natives did.

Breweries were, and still are, ubiquitous in Germany. The German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, is home to some 175 breweries. Stuttgart itself has many dozens, the largest and most popular being the Dinkelacker brand. (In German, the word Dinkelacker means wheatfield.)

The improbable part of the story came about one weekend not long before I retired, as I was browsing through a local antique/junk store. On a dusty lower shelf, I discovered three brand-new, unopened 50-packs of bar coasters that advertise — I kid you not — the Dinkelacker brewery of Stuttgart, Germany.

I stared in disbelief at the logo so familiar in my youth. I was stunned, practically a-swoon. The fact that I, Rocky Smith, would find a huge stash of those particular coasters 50 years later on another continent — well, it was highly improbable.

It was absolutely thrilling, as well, and I gleefully purchased the three 50-packs for the princely sum of three dollars.

I’ve been using the coasters freely around the house for the last decade. They hold up really well. Clearly, my remaining stash is a lifetime supply, and then some.


At some point, my thoughts about this unlikely occurrence turned to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Specifically, I was reminded of the “Infinite Improbability Drive,” which, according to the book, allows a starship to go anywhere in the universe instantly. A very convenient plot device.

Engaging the Infinite Improbability Drive, you see, suspends “normality” and means that, in theory, anything is possible. As explained here, however, there’s a catch:

But I digress. The discovery, by me, of those bar coasters in that junk store is a hugely unlikely thing.

Even random chance seems… highly improbable.



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“You do it for the stories,” said my friend Jackie, an author who has published eight books. Jackie was just back from a road trip to Savannah, researching book nine.

“When you stay home, everything is routine,” she declared. “You don’t get good stories that way. To get stories, you need to venture out, go places, do things.”

Well, that isn’t entirely true. Some of my favorite stories on this blog were written after I spent the day babysitting my grandkids.

For example, if you type “intervention” in my search box — there in the upper right corner of your screen — you can read a story I wrote a few months ago about the consequences of kids obsessing over the computer game Minecraft.

But still, Jackie has a valid point. Most memorable stuff happens out there in the world somewhere, away from home, away from the routine.

To wit, if you type “fiasco” in the search box, you can read about my spectacularly ill-fated trip to a remote part of Grand Canyon back in 2001. No trip to Toroweap, no fiasco, no story.

All of which leads me to a special story that is dear to my heart. It came about because in September 1998, I got away from the routine, ventured out, and went on a two-week raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

That 1998 trip wasn’t my first. It was, in fact, my third raft trip down the Colorado and my sixth visit to the Big Ditch. By then, I knew the routine, knew what gear to bring, knew the best rapids and dayhikes, and understood what was expected of the paying customers. Looking back, it was easily the most satisfying of my Grand Canyon raft trips.

Typically, on a non-motorized raft trip, there will be 20 or so paying passengers, four or five rafts, and four or five guides.

One of the guides is designated as Trip Leader — the captain, the head honcho, the boss of things. The TL runs the trip like the coach runs the team, or the boss runs the office, or the mom runs the household.

Keeping the passengers in line rarely is a problem; most, being out of their element, are cooperative. Easily led, like sheep or cows.

On the other hand, river guides can be an unruly, undisciplined bunch, especially out in the wilderness. Wrangling them requires a serious degree of tact and aplomb.

The TL on my 1998 trip was a smart, cheerful, likeable guy in his late 20s. He was tall, lean, tanned, and fit. He was a technically proficient oarsman and fully capable of keeping the passengers happy and the guides under control.

I won’t divulge the TL’s name, as you will understand later. For the purposes of my story, I’ll call him Clark. Clark Kent.

I’ll also mention that the guide in charge of the paddle boat (a smaller raft propelled by passengers and steered by a guide from the stern) was Clark’s girlfriend. Let’s call her Lois. Lois Lane.

After two weeks on the river, you find that you know your trip-mates pretty well. Happily, you have lots of new friends. And, at the end of the trip, someone always volunteers to gather contact information and shares it with the group.

That was how I came to have the address and phone number of Clark Kent and Lois Lane at their home in Flagstaff.

And that was why, on my next trip to Flagstaff in May 1999, I gave them a call, and we got together for lunch.

When I was in Flagstaff again in November 1999, the three of us met for breakfast.

When I was there again in April 2000, we went out to dinner.

for several more years, the pattern was the same: I always saw Clark and Lois when I passed through Flagstaff. They would bring me up to date on the latest river guide news, update me on local environmental concerns, and recommend new restaurants.

Sometimes, Clark would show me the latest photos he had taken on the river. He was an accomplished photographer, and he sold prints online. I own two of his enlargements.

The fact is, Clark and Lois and I lived in different worlds, and we had little in common. But I enjoyed those meetings immensely. And Clark and Lois always seemed genuinely glad to see me.

But things change. At some point, the two of them left Flagstaff, and we lost touch. Later, I read they had moved to Telluride.

Specifically, I learned about Telluride from a news story that identified my buddy Clark Kent as the scion of a fabulously rich American family, heir to a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice.

My guess is, Clark fell in love with the river, took a sabbatical, and got qualified and hired as a guide. He was able to sustain that life for quite a while. He met Lois on the river. Probably, the weight of obligations finally pulled him back into the family business.

No doubt his river guide friends knew who he was. Some probably went easier on him as a result. Some probably did the opposite.

But I had no idea who he really was. To me, he was just Clark Kent, my former TL and friend. Just a nice fellow I got to know on the river.

Thinking back, Clark probably scrutinized me very carefully before deciding to be my friend. Was I genuinely clueless about his identity, or was I some gold-digger, angling for an advantage? His fate surely is to worry about such things constantly. I’m pleased and flattered that he decided to trust me.

Like Jackie said, you do it for the stories.

I have great photos of Clark and Lois from that 1998 river trip, but I won’t show them. Instead, here’s a happy photo of some of the passengers and guides on an earlier trip. That’s me on the left.

River trip 5-94





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Pop-Up Memories

Here’s an interesting exercise: think about a place you lived or visited. What is the first memory about it that pops into your head?

For example, when the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, I was living in an apartment complex in the metro suburbs. When I think about those apartments, I’m immediately reminded of a neighbor lady who was one of the Olympic torch-bearers. We dated for a while.

Here are some other memories that surface when I think about various places…


Brooklyn, New York — Having a family dinner in my uncle’s third-floor apartment while the luggage was being stolen from our station wagon on the street below.

Flagstaff, Arizona — Being panhandled on a dark side street by a group of inebriated, blissfully happy Navajos.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida — Cruising around the canals on Sunday afternoons aboard my father-in-law’s cabin cruiser, the Seaduce.

Grand Canyon, Arizona — In 1994, walking up to the canyon rim for the first time and being dumbstruck. It was almost a religious experience.

Lake Como, Italy — Peering down from the window of a second-floor hotel room and seeing a Norway rat the size of a housecat looking back up at me.

London, England — Being cornered in a hotel elevator by a creepy old man. I was 15, old enough to dodge the situation.

Munich, Germany — The cavernous, boisterous interior of the Hofbräuhaus during Oktoberfest. I earned my five-liter pin there at age 16.

Panama City Beach, Florida — Coming eyeball to eyeball with a barracuda while snorkeling along the shore in neck-deep water.

Paris, France — Feasting on a chateaubriand steak with sautéed mushrooms at a restaurant on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, then later becoming violently ill.

San Francisco, California — Getting autographs at Fisherman’s Wharf from Guy Madison (Wild Bill Hickok on TV) and Andy Devine (his sidekick Jingles Jones).

Savannah, Georgia — The old Smith family home in the Gordonston neighborhood. The siding (cedar shingles) has been the same turtle green color for 90 years.

Tokyo, Japan — Doing a cannonball off a porch railing into a four-foot-deep snowdrift.


Those being personal recollections, they are significant only to me and a few relatives. To make the exercise work, you have to summon up your own memories.

Well worth the time, I promise.

Fort Lauderdale, 1972: my son Britt posing with his catch in front of the Seaduce.

Fort Lauderdale, 1972: my son Britt posing with his catch in front of the Seaduce.

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The Questions…

1. The domestic guinea pig is a type of “cavy,” a family of small, forest-dwelling South American rodents. In Switzerland, it is illegal to own just one guinea pig. Why?

2. Who introduced French fries to America?

3. The geographic cone snail, a tiny carnivore found in Indo-Pacific reefs, is one of the deadliest critters in the sea. Its venom paralyzes a fish instantly (a crucial adaptation, because otherwise, the fish would swim off and die far away from the slow-moving snail). Why is this snail nicknamed the “cigarette snail”?

4. How many gallons of water does it take, on average, to grow one tomato?

5. In 1936, Maine’s G.W. Bass Company introduced “Weejuns,” a casual, moccasin-like slip-on shoe. In the 1950s, they became known as “penny loafers” when students started a fad of inserting pennies into the slits in the leather vamps.  Why are they called “Weejuns”?

The Answers…

1. Switzerland’s animal welfare laws decree that the guinea pig is a highly social animal that would be lonely without a companion. The law doesn’t cover all cavies, just cute ones.

2. President Thomas Jefferson. He served “potatoes fried in the French manner” at a White House dinner in 1802. The man Jefferson ousted from office, John Adams, accused Jefferson of “putting on airs by serving such novelties.”

3. Because a person stung by its barb will live roughly long enough to smoke a cigarette.

4. 13 gallons. Scientists are working to develop a less thirsty tomato, but aren’t there yet.

5. The shoes were inspired by the hand-sewn leather moccasins worn by Norwegian farmers in Maine. “Weejuns” is an abbreviated form of “Norwegians.”

Guinea pig



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Talking Georgian

Last month, I posted a story about some of my favorite Southern expressions, many of which I heard growing up. These were genuine folksy sayings used by my friends and relatives, not the usual clichés aimed at ridiculing Southern accents.

Writing that story brought to mind a related matter: the often unique ways local people pronounce local place names.

Most place names are pronounced the same way everywhere. I live in the city of Jefferson, county of Jackson, state of Georgia. People across the country pronounce those three names pretty much the same.

But every state and region has a short list of towns, counties, streets, rivers, etc. that the natives pronounce in odd, often counter-intuitive ways. You have to wonder if they do it for sport, to trip up outsiders.

Being a Georgia boy, I’m most familiar with how place names are pronounced here at home. Here is a list of some good ones.


Adel — AY-dell
Albany — ALL-benny
Armuchee — Are-MURR-chee
Atlanta — At-LANN-uh
Berlin — BURR-lun
Boliver — BOWL-uh-ver
Bremen — BREE-mun
Buena Vista — Byoo-na VIS-ta
Cairo — KAY-ro


Cement — SEE-mint
Chamblee — SHAM-blee
Chatham — CHAT-um
Choestoe — Choy-stoy
Cordele — Cor-DEEL
Dacula — Da-CUE-luh
DeKalb — Duh-CAB
Demere — DEM-er-ee
Dubois — DEW-boys
Duluth — DEW-looth


Forsyth — FOUR-syth
Gardi — GUARD-eye
Gough — Guff
Hahira — Hey-HI-ruh
Hoschton — HUSH-ton (rhymes with push)
Houston — HOUSE-ton
Inaha — EYE-nuh-hah


LaFayette — La-FAY-it
Lenox — LEAN-ox
Machen — MATCH-en
Manor — MAY-ner or MAY-nuh
Martinez — Martin-EZ
McDonough — Mc-DONE-uh
Milan — MY-lun
Mobley — MOW-blee
Monroe — MUN-row
Monticello — Monta-SELL-uh
Moran — MORE-un
Mussella — Muze-ELL-uh
Ochlockonee — Oak-LOT-‘ny
Ocoee — Oh-COY
Palmetto — Pal-MET-uh


Pembroke — PEM-brook
Philema — F’LIM-me
Poulan — POE-lun
Redan — REE-dan
Schlatterville — SLAUGHTER-vul
Schley — Sly
Senoia — Suh-NO-ee
Seville — SEE-vul


Siloam — SIGH-lome
Soque — SO-kwee
Statham — STATE-um
Suches — SUCH-iss
Suwanee — SWAN-ee
Taliaferro — TAHL-i-ver (rhymes with Oliver)
Tennille — TEN-ul


Tugalo — TWO-ga-low
Tyrone — TIE-rone
Upatoi — EWE-pa-toy
Villa Rica — Villa-RICK-uh
Vienna — Vie-E-nuh
Warthen — WUR-then
Whitemarsh — WHIT-marsh
Winder — WINE-der
Withlacoochee — Willa-COO-chee


You may have noticed that in the majority of the above, the emphasis is on the first syllable. This is a common trait in Southern speech. It has to do with expending the effort up front, so you can relax and coast to the finish of the word. Thus, North Georgia natives say “DEW-looth” and not “Du-LOOTH.”

Undoubtedly, Georgia has plenty of other place names that belong on the list. I’ll keep an ear to the ground for more.


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Visual Wordplay Redux

A while back, I posted a story entitled Visual Wordplay, about the practice of cleverly enhancing the visual attributes of words.

Included in that post were some wonderful examples from Robert Carola, who, back in the day, wrote the “Word Play” column in Playboy Magazine.

This week, I heard from a reader who ran across more of Carola’s “Word Play” words online and asked if I wanted to see them.

Is the Pope a Catholic? Here’s the new batch of words the reader sent me.







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