Eric Ahrendt Writer

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Advice

Posted on December 18, 2017 by Comments are off

My wife and I routinely give each other advice, which we just as routinely ignore. For example:

  • Get out of your comfort zone. My wife, Elaine, often urges me to do this, but I don’t, because it took me decades to find my comfort zone, and getting out of it makes me uncomfortable. Also, if I do get out, how long do I have to stay out? Better not to leave in the first place.
  • Take drugs. For some reason, Elaine resists taking this sound advice. When her elbow hurts, for instance, I tell her this, but she won’t hear of it. We both grew up in the 60s and 70s, and I for one followed this advice then, with pretty excellent results. I mean, “take drugs,” is simple advice that’s the answer to a lot of problems, so I think I’m in the right on this one.
  • You have to share your own storiesElaine reminds me of this whenever I come home from a party and complain about being trapped by a monologist. I don’t take the advice because I don’t really have stories, and the ones I do have are just as boring as the monologist’s, so I end up being trapped again at the next party. Frankly, I think I should get credit for even going to a party.
  • Tether your cell phone to your wrist. This is the advice I give Elaine when she’s searching for her phone, which occupies most of her time when she’s home. I often help her find the phone by calling it, and when the call goes to voicemail, I leave this advice again. She deletes the message without listening to it.
  • Don’t feed the squirrels. Really, is it a crime to leave a nut on the fencepost they sit on? According to Elaine, yes, it is, because I’m making them dependent on human food. I believe squirrels can accept the occasional handout and keep their pride, so I disregard this advice and sneak out an almond now and then.
  • Start earlier. Elaine tries hard to be on time, but she always has a lot to do before we go somewhere, which is why I give her this advice. She waves it off, so I lie and tell her we’re leaving half an hour earlier than we really are. That works pretty well, and she hasn’t caught on yet, so please don’t tell her.
  • Record something. When I LOP (search for the Least Objectionable Program on TV), Elaine patiently reminds me that she records worthwhile programs, namely, BBC shows, so she doesn’t have to LOP and watch lousy shows with commercials. But I dismiss the advice because her approach requires planning ahead, which I don’t do. It would take me out of my comfort zone.
  • But don’t take my advice. Elaine will be in a fix and ask me what she should do. I’ll tell her, then add that disclaimer. But sometimes she takes my advice anyway, and invariably things go sideways. I feel bad, even though I was giving her good advice when I told her not to take my advice. How much more helpful can I be?

Considering how well we know each other, it’s impressive how bad we are at giving each other advice. Maybe we’d have more luck with strangers, who I’m sure would welcome unsolicited advice. We’ll try that out and let you know how it goes.

Hobbies

Posted on January 6, 2017 by Comments are off

They say it’s important to have hobbies in later life, so we’re getting prepared. Here are the ones we’re working on.

  • Worm wrangling. Elaine started composting, so she bought worms—but not your garden-variety earthworms. These are artisanal worms that come with papers. Soon after bringing them home, she found them all trying to escape from their container. Luckily, she was quick enough to catch them. She now feeds them treats and lets them stay inside. In terms of pets, I think worms are the new dogs.
  • Taking steroids. I found that a steroid nasal spray works better than antihistamines for hay fever, so I’m trying one. That means when you see me, what you’re seeing is me on steroids. I’m aware that anything “on steroids” is supposed to be a bigger, badder version of itself, but I’m afraid me on steroids is still just me—minus the runny nose. Think of it as an incremental improvement.
  • Reading. After years of wanting to read but not having time, Elaine is now in two book clubs. She has more reading homework than an English major. And these are not summer beach reads—they’re serious, depressing books. And she has to figure out something to say about them when she goes to the meetings. This is a hobby? More like an example of be careful what you wish for.
  • Learning Spanish. Now that the U.S. has more Spanish-speakers than Spain (true), I decided to stop wasting my time communicating in English. I already knew soccer Spanish—mostly swear words—so I was partway there. I now identify with Latinos in news stories and try to explain to Elaine what it was like growing up in the barrio. Good thing I got here before the wall goes up!
  • Cluttering and decluttering. Elaine is a saver and accumulates a lot of things, which become clutter. Just before she crosses the line into hoarder territory, she gets rid of enough things to return to an uncluttered state. Then she repeats the cycle. It’s a satisfying hobby because she gets the feeling of accomplishment from decluttering—which she wouldn’t get unless she’d cluttered in the first place.
  • Coiling hoses. Not usually thought of as a hobby, but I spend enough time doing this to call it one. While it may seem like a simple task, I find coiling a hose to be a combination of puzzle, dexterity test and engineering problem. Solutions I’ve tried include calm analysis (doesn’t help), brute strength and awkwardness (makes it worse) and buying a new hose (waste of money). Let me know if you’ve come across a support group for this.
  • Complaining. This is a popular hobby with all seniors, so we’re making an effort to get better at it. Up till now we’ve spent too much time trying to look on the bright side; we know we need to get grouchier fast if we hope to fit in with other old people. Also, it should bring us closer as a couple because we can go on an outing together, then complain about it to each other.

Clearly, with so many wonderful hobbies, we’re not going to be sitting around in our rockers with lap robes. We hope you find lots of great hobbies of your own next year!

Man vs. Devices

Posted on December 26, 2015 by Comments are off

If you think machines are our servants, you’re deluded. Like everyone else, Elaine and I are engaged in an ongoing struggle for dominance with our cell phones and computers, but we deal with other devices, seemingly less smart, that are still formidable adversaries.

  • My office chair. It’s never worked the way it’s supposed to, so I called the manufacturer and found I needed to remove and replace a part. I watched the instructional video, which told me to beat the chair with a short-handled sledgehammer. I wish those were the instructions for all problems with all devices. So I beat the tar out of the chair and still didn’t get the part out. But it felt good.
  • The automatic sprinkler system. Like Skynet, this system has become self-aware. It has dials and buttons and a display screen to create the illusion that you can control it, but it’s actually impossible to tell which days and what time of day you’re watering what zones and for how long. I don’t fight it anymore. I let it rule the yard and just hope it isn’t scheming to take over the house.
  • Elaine’s coffeemaker. Elaine’s temperamental Italian coffeemaker only works when it feels like it and she treats it like royalty to get it to cooperate. She also takes it into San Francisco for repairs about every other month, where it picks up tricks from its friends on new ways to misbehave. Apparently it makes a good cup of coffee when it works, and since intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind, Elaine puts up with it.
  • Our toaster oven. Really, how complicated can a toaster oven be? You have no idea. Just changing the Shade setting requires pushing several buttons in a specific order and interpreting why some lights are flashing and some are not and what that means. My solution is to never change the settings—and to acquire a taste for black toast.
  • Cardboard food boxes. These aren’t a problem for me. As an OCD wannabe, I open them with surgical precision, using a knife. The problem comes when Elaine gets to a box before me. When she’s done with one, it looks like the box was chewed open by a frantic, starving squirrel. Sometimes the contents survive intact, sometimes not.
  • Chopsticks. The one-sentence instructions on the wrapper that say to “hold one like a pencil” just aren’t enough. So we looked up a “How to Use Chopsticks” video on YouTube and saw it had 1,948,403 views. Good to know we’re not the only ones who can’t master these fiendishly complicated eating implements.

We’re clearly at a tipping point in human history, or at least in our family, where the balance of power is shifting from humans to devices. Fine! Wait till they find out how hard we are to control.

 

 

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Using a Morgue

Posted on January 1, 2015 by Comments are off

Using a morgue is a tip I picked up so long ago I don’t remember the source. I think it was in a book of advice for journalists. In journalism, the morgue is an archive of past issues kept for quick reference. But the advice I remember is to create a morgue for each writing assignment and use it to store relevant content you’ve found via research but don’t think you’ll use in your first draft.

I find this especially useful in my workflow for writing a longer document, like a white paper or solution brief. I collect all my sources—interviews, analyst reports, collateral, online articles—and extract the passages I think I can use. I put them all in one long document so I don’t have to keep going back to each individual source. Then, working in that long document, I put them in the rough order I’ll use them and eliminate material I think is redundant or not useful. But I don’t delete it. I create a Word document I name Morgue and cut and paste all the material there. I keep it open and minimized while working on the draft, and keep adding to it as I refine the content. If I later decide I want to use one of those discarded extracts, it’s easy to find it and put it back in the draft.

Fitting Documents Within Word Limits

The morgue is also a big time-saver when you’re writing a document that has strict word limits. I’ll write a draft that covers the subject and doesn’t, in my opinion, include any extraneous material. But what often happens then is that I’ll do a word count and find my draft is 1,600 words long for a document with a word limit of 1,200. So I’ll go back through and be ruthless about cutting entire paragraphs—but again, I don’t delete them, I cut and paste them into the morgue. That way, if the client later says the word limit isn’t all that strict and asks to expand the section on benefits, or alternatives, or related products, or whatever, and I know I cut copy from that section in an earlier draft, it’s super quick to grab it from the morgue and put it back in.

The morgue is also useful for context and for keeping an original version of the source material. I often heavily edit the source material and if it happens that I remove too much context or the client asks for changes, it’s useful to be able to go back to the original and see what it says. The advantage is that it’s a lot quicker to find the passage in the morgue than to search through all the source documents.

So try keeping a morgue on your longer assignments and see if it doesn’t turn out to be a time-saver for you, too.

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Family Chores

Posted on December 16, 2014 by Comments are off

Family chores get assigned according to who’s best at them—or who refuses to do them based on a real or made-up reason. Here’s how my wife, Elaine, and I divide them.

  • Fixing electronic devices. I do this because I don’t take it personally when devices act up. Elaine tries to strong-arm them into working by pushing as many buttons as possible in quick succession. My approach is to move them from one spot to another. Neither approach really works, but at least I don’t make things worse.
  • Elaine actually likes plants and thinks they look better green than brown, so she’s the one outside nurturing things. She’s made a very tidy garden in the backyard with rich soil and drip irrigation. There are currently no plants in it to take care of, which I think is an ideal garden, but she’s determined to add green things to it at some point and assume responsibility for their welfare.
  • Driving. For Elaine, piloting the vehicle is just one of several activities she’s engaged in when behind the wheel, which include checking voicemail, talking, and looking at scenery out the side windows. When I’m driving, I’m barely willing to even talk (also true when I’m not driving) so I handle this chore out of a sense of self-preservation.
  • Remembering occasions. Not only do I not know anyone’s birthday or anniversary, I’m pretty vague about all holidays and occasions. Elaine remembers every one and has to use all her tact and speak in the tone you use with a small child when saying things to me like, “Thanksgiving’s always on a Thursday, dear.”
  • Dumping the dishwasher. This gives Elaine scary flashbacks since she was forced to do it as a kid—or so she says. That’s why I do it. I turn it into an efficiency challenge where I try to put everything away using as few motions as possible. I have it down to a science because we run the dishwasher a lot. See the next item.
  • Washing everything in sight. Elaine does this because if washing were my chore, things like sheets, dishes and tennis shoes would hardly ever get washed. In fact, I think you can use a glass for a whole week without washing it; she thinks a glass that has been exposed to the air for more than a few minutes needs to be sterilized.
  • We share this one, and maximize our use of technology to help out by emailing each other when we’re working at home, 10 feet apart. Email gets you a faster and more polite response than if you walked into the other person’s room to talk. It also prevents your spouse from using “I didn’t hear you” as an excuse for ignoring you.

“Play to your strengths” is good advice, so we follow it in assigning chores. So far, we have enough strengths to cover everything … sort of. We could use some help with the electronic devices.

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Most of these posts are my opinions and observations about marcom writing; others are about somewhat-related subjects I felt were post-worthy. I'm just hoping none of my current clients leave me after reading these.

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