Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Power of the press isn't always powerful

The power of the press ain't always that powerful. In my case, it took only 30 minutes to learn that I was incompetent, I had been using the wrong last name for 40 years and I was really a man in a woman's physique.

Just last week, while sipping lattes at Starbucks, a friend reminded me why I preferred writing comedy to changing the world as a journalist.

Specifically, I recalled a day that occurred about a decade ago when I was editor of a weekly paper in the Seattle suburb of Burien, Washington. I walked into my office one Friday morning with the goal of creating a well-informed community.

As I scurried to get last minute stories written and edited on that deadline day, I also found myself sharing front-desk duties while we anxiously searched for a new receptionist willing to slave for minimum wage.

Don't get me wrong. I didn't mind taking my turn at greeting the public. I realized how important a receptionist's job is. That was the first person people saw as they entered our establishment to conduct business. First impressions could make or break us.

I tried my utmost best to welcome the masses with the cheeriest face I could rustle up before my third cup of instant coffee in the Starbucks Capital of the World.

I really tried not to growl after the first few insults. I told myself to take mental notes and try out the philosophy for a possible book entitled, "Zen in the Art of Journalism".

Trust me, being a receptionist is not a glamorous job. If it were, I would have had time to apply lipstick, buff my nails and eat éclairs while I sipped my instant coffee.

Five minutes into my stint, I answered a call from a person asking for Carmen.

"We don't have a Carmen on staff," I said. "But, I will be glad I help you."

"No, I need to talk to Carmen about my ad."

"Oh, you need to speak to Claudia. She's our advertising director," I said, speaking with my most professional Texas drawl. "I'll be glad to take a message. Could you spell your name please?"

"No, I'll call back when someone competent is there," the customer said.

It took me a while to adjust to that one. I'm sure I would have made the transition sooner had I not been incompetent.

Caller number two specifically requested to speak to Nancy Jo Dupree. I explained the only Nancy Jo we had was me, but my surname was Perdue.

"No, that's not it. I wrote down Dupree," the caller said.

The woman announced she was campaigning as a school board candidate and wanted to know if we would publisher her statement although she missed that week's deadline two days earlier.

I kindly explained all candidates would be treated equally, and we would publish a voter's guide after everyone had filed.

I contemplated when my name was changed to protect the innocent. I just didn't get it. But, the name I thought I had – Perdue – does mean lost in French, which explained why I never realized I was incompetent.

Next came the call from the man who contended the editor personally guaranteed something would be published.

"I talked with the editor yesterday, and he told me I could get my information in today," the man insisted. Let me speak to him."

"You are speaking to the editor, sir," I announced.

"I am not," he declared. "Let me speak to him now."

Sheesh! How could this customer expect me to find time to undergo an instant sex change when I didn't even have a free minute to apply lipstick, buff my nails and eat éclairs while I sipped my third cup of instant coffee?

The mail carrier arrived a few minutes later with letters to the editor addressed to "Dear Sir".

I tried to delve into my Zen mode. I figured I could adjust. I had been a professional journalist for more than a decade. Since this was not my first rodeo, I could handle an eight-second ride on the wild side.

But, I questioned if I could handle a full hour at the receptionist's desk.

"I'd love to be all things to all people," I told myself. "But, that's impossible. I'm incompetent. I don't even know what my name is. And, I'm having an identity crisis as to whether I'm a Nancy Jo or a Nancy Joe."

I gave up. I couldn't please everyone at the garden party. So I just pleased myself. I pulled rank.

As editor, I assigned my ace reporters, Maggie and Terrie, to share front desk duty. I promised to relieve them as soon as I discovered if my third cup of instant coffee was good to the last drop.

The reporters showed their true ability to question everything as they offered enlightenment.

"Is that instant coffee you're sipping?" they inquired. "Seattle is the Starbucks Capital of the World. If you're drinking instant coffee, that explains why you're incompetent."

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