Category Archives: behind the scenes

Nuts and Bolts

I spent the better part of this past week in New York City, doing research on Dr. Seuss at the Rare Book and Manuscript Reading Room at Columbia University.  The Butler Library at Columbia holds the papers of Random House — as well as those of its co-founder, Bennett Cerf — which has published every Dr. Seuss book since 1939. Before that, Dr, Seuss was published by Vanguard, a company Random House then-president Bob Bernstein made a point of acquiring in 1988, largely to ensure Random House would own all of Dr. Seuss’s books. How do I know that? This past week I also interviewed Bob Bernstein–still spry at 94-years-old, and full of lots of interesting stories, some of which had to do with Dr. Seuss, some of which didn’t.  The man has lived a pretty incredible life (his Wikipedia entry barely scratches the surface).

Archival research is one of the foundations of biography–and for some of us, it’s the really fun part as well.  These are the nuts and bolts that help biographers do what we like to do: it’s just you, a laptop, pencil and paper (ink pens are usually prohibited in an archive), and one archival box after another.

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The nuts and bolts of biography.

How’d I get here?

*RECORD SCRATCH*

Let’s start here, with the rather imposing-looking Butler Library.  It sits on the south side of the commons at Columbia University, a hop-skip-and-jump from the 116th Street subway stop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

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The Butler Library at Columbia University.

Once inside, the Rare Book and Manuscript Reading Room sits on the 6th floor, behind glass doors that make the place feel somewhat hermetically sealed.  Outside the reading room, you’ll be required to check your backpack, briefcase, jacket . . . anything with pockets or hidey-holes where documents might be smuggled out (think I’m being dramatic? The National Archives begs to differ).

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The entrance to the Rare Book and Manuscript reading room at Butler Library. You’ll be offloading most of your belongings into lockers before entering (use the table at the right to unpack).

I had e-mailed the archives in advance with my request for the archival boxes I wanted to look through — they were all stored off-site, and needed to brought to the reading room for me to use, which is why researchers should always check in advance on the mechanics of the research at any archive they might be visiting.  Archivists are your friend, no doubt — heck, they want to help people use their resources — and they’re also some of the unsung heroes of history and biography, pointing researchers in the right direction when we’ve stumbled into archival dead ends, or even directing us to other archives that might be of use. The archivist I had corresponded with, Karla Nielsen, was helpful and enthusiastic, patiently walking me through nearly every step of the front-end of the process, including locating and then navigating the library’s lengthy “Finding Aid” for the collection. Because of her help, I had no doubt that everything I’d asked for would be there waiting for me.

Once you’re ready to sit down and do your research, it’s a little like entering a fishbowl as you take your seat inside the main reading area — another glassed-in room, where you’ll present your credentials to the librarian, who will then have your archival boxes brought to you one- or two-at-a-time. I sat at one of the wooden tables about three rows back, directly behind several other researchers who were just as intently going through their archival boxes.

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Inside the fishbowl.

Sometimes, as you’re on your way to your own relevant documents, you come across other files you might be itching to explore, given more time.  Often, the unopened files can be as tantalizing as those you opened or looked through.  For example, the file for Dr. Seuss’s early book The Seven Lady Godivas was filed alphabetically under this real name (Theodor “Ted” Geisel), which put it directly in front of the file for Nobelist Andre Gide.  Pretty neat.  And no, I didn’t open it.  THERE WAS NO TIME.

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Geisel . . . Gide.

Ted sigI went through my boxes slowly, taking notes both on my laptop and in my notebook.  But one of the great benefits of the iPhone age is that many archives will permit you to photograph your documents with a digital camera, just so long as the flash is off.  Once I get back home, I download and print out every document and file it in black binders for reference — but the cellphone photo policy is a real boon to biographers and historians (and anyone who thrives on documentation, really) as it permits us to have copies of much-needed documents — and not just our own written description of them — on hand at any time,  (I’m sure they won’t begrudge me reproducing just this signature from a little snippet of one memo, part of an ongoing string of letters between Ted and Random House president Bob Bernstein about a French translation of The Cat in the Hat Dictionary.)

Anyway, this is the “laws and sausage” side of producing a biography.  And there’s still a long way to go before it’s  even close to ready to land in your hands.

Credit Where Credit’s Due: The Audience Is Listening

17288885I have to confess to not being much of an Audiobook Guy. It’s nothing personal; I’m mainly just a Book In The Hand Guy (worse yet, I’m  a Hardcover Book In The Hand Guy), and if I have a choice between listening to a book and reading it, I’d rather just pick it up and read it rather than find my iPod, untangle the headphones, and listen to it.  It’s really just a matter of preference, and your taste is your own.  

All this is just set up to explain to you why it took me so long to listen to the audiobook version of Jim HensonMy first book, Washington Irving, never made it into audiobook format. But with Jim Henson, I was told on day one that the audiobook would be released on the same day as the hardcover.  That sounded pretty good to me–and I said so–then thought no more of it until early June 2013, when the audiobook process kicked in. To my surprise and delight, I was being asked to listen to a short audition tape from a potential audiobook reader — while I had no actual say over who could or couldn’t read the audiobook, it was really, really cool to be looped into the process and asked my opinion.

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The versatile Kirby Heyborne.

The producer for the audiobook–a talented guy named Aaron Blank–had a reader in mind from the very start: Kirby Heyborne, a versatile voice actor, singer, and comedian who, Aaron assured me, had exactly the sound the book needed. (Hey, wanna see Kirby starring in a recent Best Buy commercial? Here ya go.) I listened to the short digital file Aaron e-mailed me, and I did like it — but the particular sequence he had sent me was all exposition; there was no dialogue, no characters.  I e-mailed Aaron back and asked if it might be possible to hear Kirby reading as Jim, or maybe even a quick Muppet segment. Moments later, there were several digital sound files in my inbox of Kirby reading as Jim and Frank Oz and Kermit–and they were all terrific. I was sold.

I sent Kirby an e-mail saying hello and letting him know how happy I was that he was reading — and Kirby sent a very nice note back, and we dutifully followed each other on Twitter, because that’s what you do, you know — and there was much rejoicing. After that, the only other interaction I had with the audiobook team was a phone call in which we went over various pronunciations, such as “David Lazer” (pronounced like “laser”) or “Wontkins” (pronounced like “WON’T-kins,” and not “want-kins”). Everything was in capable hands.

Flash forward now to the fall of 2013. I received the audiobook along with the hardcover . . . and put it on my bookshelf, where it sat silent and un-listened to. I knew the audiobook was a hit — Frank Oz specifically asked for a copy, while over on Salon, Kyle Minor called it “one of the most pleasurable audiobooks I’ve spent time with this year”–but I still hadn’t found the right time to listen to the thing.

Finally, in January and February of this year, I had to make several lengthy drives into Virginia, and decided to take the audiobook along with me. (Is it considered gauche to listen to your own audiobook? I really don’t know.) From the moment I heard Kirby read the prologue, I was driving with a big smile on my face — Kirby had gotten it down perfectly, even reading some lines with the same beats, the same inflection that I had “heard” as I was writing them. And he does a great job giving every main “character” in the story their own voice, whether it’s the somewhat lyrical tone he uses for Jim Henson, a more cynical, tougher edge for Frank Oz, or his dead-on impression of Muppet performer Jerry Nelson.

There were also times he put on a voice that made me laugh out loud–while driving!–such as the Lorne Michaels impression that sounded like the one Bob Smigel used for his “TV Funhouse” cartoons on SNL (“Come back here with my shoooo!”) or the way he said drawrings (instead of drawings) when doing Labyrinth screenwriter/Monty Pythoner Terry Jones. And his David Bowie? Forget it; he killed. It was a lot of fun, and more than once, I found myself sitting in the car after arriving at my destination, engine off, just listening to the rest of a particular section.

And so: here’s my Official Thank You! to Kirby Heyborne for making me — and Jim, and everyone else — sound so great. Many thanks, Kirby — I truly appreciate it.

Remembering John Henson

GTY_sweetums_john_henson_split_ss_jt_140216_2x1_992I was shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of Jim Henson’s son John Paul Henson this past Valentine’s Day at the age of 48 — too damn young, too damn soon. Apparently he’d been out in the snow near his home in Saugerties, New York, building an igloo with his daughter when he suffered a massive heart attack. My heart goes out to his wife Gyongyi, his daughters Katrina and Sydney, and the entire Henson family–as well as to the Jim Henson organization, where they really do still think of each other as family.

I had the great pleasure of getting to know John, at least a little bit, while I was researching Jim Henson: The Biography, and found him to be a really beautiful guy. I traveled up to visit him at his home in Saugerties, where he met me at the train station in his pickup truck. He was listening to Sirius radio–and though he had the volume all the way down as we talked, I could see the channel display read HOWARD 100 — the Howard Stern channel. John saw me noticing, reddened for a moment, and started to change the station. I laughed and said, “Hey, I’m a fan, too.” It was a good start.

While John was an experienced puppeteer, he was actually a different kind of artist, and whatever he touched — he was a metalworker, carpenter, electrician, pipe fitter — he made that medium sing. As a younger man, he had built the elaborate Muppet mobile “The Great Hot Air Balloon Circus,” which gleamed and twirled in the four-story atrium wrapped by the spiral staircase in the Muppet headquarters at One Seventeen.

And he loved renovating, restoring, and redesigning buildings. He was especially proud of all the properties in Saugerties that he had either renovated or was in the process of restoring, and we spent much of the afternoon driving around town to look at them, tromping around in rooms with no roof or kitchens with no appliances–everything was a work in progress.  He took a special delight in the HVAC work he had done in an old hospital he had purchased overlooking the river: every pipe was perfectly aligned with the next, snaking tightly from the walls and ceiling into the central box in a geometric pattern. I can’t exactly explain why it was beautiful; it just was. He had the same design sense as his father; everything had to be interesting, and finished, and fun to look at.

He proudly gave me a tour of his home–a renovated early 1900s schoolhouse, complete with a ringing bell in the cupola on the roof. He had purchased the place  in 1981 or so, and had only just completed the renovations. “A project thirty years in the making!” he told me, laughing.  And it showed. Again, everything was interesting to look at, and not a spare square foot had been wasted; John snuck secret corridors between rooms, snaked rope lights into sculpture under the eaves, and navigated much of the house by catwalk. It was whimsical and wonderful, and very much John’s own unique sense of space and design.

I had dinner that evening with him and his family–and they were all as charming and delightful as you might expect–then John and I retired to his enormous workshop at one end of the house, so I could interview him (with its gigantic and loud ventilation fan, the workshop, John explained somewhat sheepishly, was the only room in the house where he could smoke!) As the fan whirred like a jet engine — and as I hoped against hope that one of the two digital recorders I had placed near John would pick up his voice over the clatter of the fan* — we talked long into the evening. John was deliberate and thoughtful, tilting his head slightly to one side as he considered his answers.

He was also a very spiritual, almost ethereal, gentleman. He genuinely believed in guardian angels; he would never have survived his high-speed automobile crash in his twenties without one, he said. His absolute faith in the belief that there was someone, something, out there watching over us was one of his most endearing qualities. He was sure his dad was there waiting for him–for everyone–wherever he might be.

Jim Henson’s biography was that much better–dare I say that much more beautiful–for having had John’s unique voice in it. I’m glad I got to know him, even just a little.

__________

* Thankfully, one of them did.

Behind The Scenes: The Prologue

One of the sections of Jim Henson that readers seem to enjoy the most — at least as far as I can determine from my very unscientific assessment of things — is the book’s prologue. Under the chapter title “Blue Sky,” it’s a behind-the-scenes look at this classic moment from Sesame Street, when a little girl named Joey sings the ABCs with Kermit the Frog:

love that people love this prologue — and it might surprise you to know that the very first thing you read in the book is actually one of the very last things I wrote for it.  I wrote the current prologue so late in the process, in fact, that if you were one of those readers who received an Advance Review Copy (ARC), you actually got a book that had a different prologue in it.

My editor Ryan and I knew we wanted to open the book in media res — the moment you started reading, we wanted you to see Jim already successful and working and being creative, and doing all those things that made him Jim Henson. We talked about some places in the manuscript where a quick story or vignette might be fleshed out into a slightly longer opening piece, and I made a long list of several good moments in the book where, while writing the manuscript, I wished I’d had just a little more time and space to give to a particular story. After much consideration, we decided to go with a slightly-less known moment–at least for casual fans–from the 1960s, when Jim and the Muppet team decided to paint the pipes in his dressing room at NBC while waiting to appear with Jack Paar. You can see Frank Oz talking all about those pipes–now preserved and built into the NBC Studio tour– fifty years later, in this clip:

Oz used the term “affectionate anarchy,” and I loved the phrase so much–it’s such a perfect way to sum up the Muppet mentality–that I put it at the top of the opening chapter. And that was how the ARCs went out in early 2013 — with a prologue about the Muppet pipes called “Affectionate Anarchy.” And it stayed that way for quite a while.

Then, in the late Spring, Ryan called to go over some final edits and review photo credits—and while we were talking, he brought up the prologue. “Everyone here loves the book,” he said in his usual diplomatic manner, “but a few people have mentioned they’d like to see Muppets in the prologue. While I still think what we have is great, do you wanna take a stab at another one and we can see what we think?”

That actually sounded fine to me.  Two years earlier, even before I had written a single word of Jim Henson, I had always pictured his biography opening with him working on the labor-intensive opening scene of The Muppet Movie, sinking himself in a makeshift bathysphere to perform Kermit from underwater. I had even tried writing just such an opening, but hadn’t been happy with the first few drafts.  This seemed like a good opportunity to go back and work on it again.

I wrote and rewrote for a week, but after several more drafts, it still wasn’t coming together. It was too big and ambitious and technical; I needed something warmer and more intimate. So I decided to start over, looking down my list of Muppet moments, and decided to expand on one that I particularly loved–the ABC Cookie Monster bit–which took up only about a page in the ARC.

The chapter’s title actually came right away, courtesy of a story told to me by Sesame Street performer Fran Brill who, during one of our phone interviews, told me of director Jon Stone and others calling out “blue sky!” when a child was on the set, reminding staff to watch their mouths. I loved that; it was such a warm image for Sesame Street — after all, wouldn’t one of Sesame Street‘s famous “sunny days” have a blue sky?–and it seemed a perfect way to begin.

I wrote the prologue over two days—a slow pace to be sure.  I sent it off to Ryan, who smartly excised one line near the end, then sent me one of his typically concise e-mails: “This is perfect.” I don’t know about that, but I do like it.

Henson-pipesOne last thing: with the new prologue in place, I now had to find a new photo to use at the top of the chapter. In the original ARC, I had planned on using a photo of the Muppet pipes — probably something like the photo at right — but with the new prologue, I would have to look for something new.  There were no photos of Jim performing the ABC sketch with Joey; about the best I could do was a screen grab. Without that, then, what I really wanted was a photo of Jim getting ready to perform—preparing to bring a character to life simply by putting it on the end of his arm, which is one of the themes of the prologue.

JimandKermitonLapInitially, I wanted to go with the photo at the left — it’s Jim with Kermit draped across his lap, miked up and waiting to perform, probably not on Sesame Street, but it makes the point.  When it came time to clear the image, however, Disney wouldn’t allow its use, informing me that they didn’t permit photos of “dead” Muppets.  I argued that that was precisely my point — that Kermit is dead until Jim puts him on–but despite the help of a sympathetic archivist at The Walt Disney Company, I had to scuttle this particular image and look for another. If you’ve got the book, you can see the image I eventually chose (you actually don’t have to look much further than the top of this blog, where you’ll see Jim squatting with Kermit on his arm).

So there you have it.  If you’re one of those readers who has an ARC of Jim Henson: The Biography, and are wondering if there’s anything significantly different between the ARC and the final product, you’ll find it in the first few pages.

Your Moment of Zen

DailyShowOnly a little more than two weeks ago, I received word from the publicity team at Random House that it was “extremely likely” that I would be booked for an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk about Jim Henson. My chin hit the floor as David Moench, the publicist assigned to me at Random House, told me the news. I think I responded with something clever like, “Gwah?” “Congratulations,” David told me, “but don’t get too excited yet. Until we get official confirmation, things could change.”

Well sure. After the constant scheduling and rescheduling of the Today show, I wasn’t going to get my hopes up and get stung again (though I should add that the Today show will, indeed, now happen). But there was another problem, too: the date The Daily Show was setting aside was Thursday, October 10 — the same day I was scheduled to appear at the New York Society Library. That event was scheduled to get underway at 7 p.m. — and if things went as planned, I wouldn’t be getting out of The Daily Show until that same time. We went to the NYSL, hat in hand, to see if we could get the start time pushed back even 30 minutes, though the mechanics of getting me across town at that time of night were going to mean cutting things very, very close. Unfortunately, none of us could figure out how to get it to work, and Mark Bartlett and his staff at the NYSL were incredibly generous — and very understanding — and graciously offered to reschedule the NYSL event for another time.

On October 1, then, came the word we (meaning me and David and the publicity team at Random House) were waiting for: I had been officially confirmed. The seventy-five minutes between 5:45 and 7:00 p.m. were blocked off on my schedule on Thursday, October 10. And while it was still nine days away, that was nine days I had to be an anxious mess. And man, was I nervous.

On the afternoon of the 10th, then — a somewhat cool and overcast Thursday — my wife (Barb, thank goodness, came along as moral support) and I sat in the lobby of our New York hotel, while I nursed a beer and nervously bounced my knee up and down. The Daily Show takes good care of you from moment one, and a car came by the hotel to pick us up and whisk us away to their studios—one of those experiences where you’re excited at the idea of riding in an Actual Private Car — with a driver barking his estimated arrival time into a walkie talkie the entire way — but still vaguely embarassed that someone is holding a door open for you.

We were brought up to the back door — a blank door in a blank wall with no sign whatsoever of what was behind it — and met by Hillary, the producer for my segment, who escorted us down a little jog of a hall to an open door with a sign next to it that read BRIAN JAY JONES.  Nice.

Next to the sign was the Green Room — which is actually not green at all, but rather a cozy, living room-like space with stuffed chairs and a comfy sofa where guests wait until needed — and here I was met by my editor Ryan Doherty, and the ever-patient, ever-present David Moench. Barb and I sank onto the couch in front of a large, hi-def television on which The Daily Show logo was visible. I bounced my knee again as I sat down, though a bit slower now, and we all chatted about what a surreal experience this was until I was taken away for a bit to go to makeup (mostly to reduce the glare off my bald head) and fitted with a remote microphone.

And suddenly, poking his head into the Green Room, was Jon Stewart.

My wife — a big fan — pointed and gasped. “No WAY!” she finally said, and Stewart laughed that quick high-pitched giggle of his and said, “YES WAY!”  We all shook hands and he stood with his arms folded as we chatted briefly for a few minutes — he was particularly fascinated by Jim’s memorial service, which he had recently viewed on YouTube. Then he disappeared to get to work.

We all watched the show on the hi-def TV in the Green Room. There was no noise, no sounds, no indication that a TV show was being taped anywhere in the building; we could almost have been sitting in our own living room.

Shortly after the second segment concluded, Hillary stood in the doorway and said, “Ready to go?” Acting much less nervous than I actually was, I followed her through a maze of corridors, each one darker than the next, until I was  standing with a dark curtain to my right and looking at Jon Stewart at his desk about ten feet in front of me. The desk was on a platform about a foot off the ground, and I was  considering the various ways I could miss that step and face plant on national television when Hillary jolted me back to the present. “He’s getting ready to introduce you,” she said matter-of-factly, like you hear Jon Stewart say your name every day. “When I say, ‘Go!’ you go — and have fun out there.”

Suddenly, I heard Jon Stewart — Jon freaking Stewart! — saying my name, Hillary said, ‘Go!’ and out I went. The music played, the audience applauded, and I didn’t miss the step. Then I shook Jon Stewart’s hand and sat down. And just like that, I was on The Daily Show.  No rehearsals, no walk-throughs; it’s a finely-tuned, well-oiled machine, and you’re doing it in real time, one take. Wow.

It took me just a split second to get going — the best advice Hillary had given me in our pre-interview conversation was, “Don’t be afraid to talk, and don’t worry about stepping on Jon while he’s talking. He loves guests who talk.”  — and it took me just a moment to realize why Stewart is a great interviewer: he doesn’t really ask questions. Instead, he throws out comments or a bit of a conversation starter, and then lets you take things where you will.

Somehow, once we started talking, I wasn’t nervous — and it was over almost before I knew it.  And have you seen that moment just after the  interview where Stewart puts his head down near the desk and he and the guest have a brief bit of a conversation? It’s actually a very clever way of ensuring the guest doesn’t start to bail out of their seat before the camera cuts away. Instead, Jon Stewart leans in and stage whispers, “That was great, thanks so much — you did a great job” –and you lean in to listen, straining to hear, which keeps you in the chair until the fade out.  Very smart.

After shaking his hand again, I stood up, and was steered back to the Green Room by Hillary, where we all watched the final piece, a nod to a departing long-time producer. Then we all said our goodbyes, and went back to the waiting car to be whisked away again.  All told, it took about 75 minutes, just as promised. They’re really, really good at this, and I had a really, really good time.

And now, here I am on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I’ll never forget.

Photo Opportunity

See that big blank square at the top of the chapter? Yeah, a photo goes there.

See that big blank square at the top of the chapter in this advance copy? Yeah, a photo goes there.

Several readers of advance copies of Jim Henson have asked why the book doesn’t have any photos in it.  Good question.  The ARCs for Jim Henson didn’t include photos because (1) typically, advance copies of books don’t include the photo inserts, and (2) in the case of Jim Henson, it took a long time to clear some of the photos, so we couldn’t have included an insert even if we’d wanted to. In fact, the last of the photos didn’t clear until about three weeks ago, which is actually cutting it pretty close.

The final version of Jim Henson will include a photo insert that contains more than 40 photos, plus sixteen more that will appear at the top of each chapter. And even the most rabid Muppet fan will spot a few that have never been seen any time, any where. While this is a biography and not a photo book , I think you’ll find the photos helpful as a kind of score card: they’ll help you keep track of the players (always useful in a biography with lots of names in it), guide you through a number of projects, and, yes, you’ll see a few behind-the-scenes photos of Jim and the Muppet performers at work.*

It was genuinely tough deciding which photos to use.  I spent weeks sitting with, talking with, and e-mailing archivists, scrolling through digital files, turning over page after page in black photo binders, and squinting through an eyepiece at tiny photos on contact sheets. There were just too many great photos to count, and in my first pass, I selected more than a hundred I wanted to use. From there, my editor Ryan Doherty and  I set to work paring them down. With space limited, we wanted to get the most from any picture we might select–and if there were several people in one photo, all the better. Jim directing David Bowie and Jennifer Connolly in Labyrinth? Perfect. Jim performing with Kathy Mullen in The Dark Crystal? You bet. Jim standing by himself in the middle of a sound stage during the making of The Dark Crystal? Alas, not so much — but a tough call.

A no-brainer.

Jim Henson soars in 1965’s Time Piece. A no-brainer.

Some photos, of course, have been seen and used before–but they’re just so good, so iconic, it’s impossible not to use them. The photo still of Jim soaring on his DaVinci wings from Time Piece, for example, is a no-brainer, as is the 1960s-era photo of Jim and nineteen-year-old Frank Oz with Rowlf the Dog. There’s a reason these photos have been used before, and will probably be used again and again: they’re great.

Still, sometimes we ran into problems. There were a few photos, for example, where it was unclear exactly who owned them and how they might be legally cleared for use. Other times, there were photos I loved and wanted to use, but their owner wouldn’t clear them. Those things happen, but it likely means that someone’s favorite photo is bound to be missing.

Ultimately, we tried to pick photos that were not only visually interesting, but by merely flipping though the photo insert, you could get a fairly good idea of the arc of Jim’s life. I’m thrilled with the photos we’re using in this book–and while it wasn’t always easy, I appreciate that we were permitted to use each and every one of them.

* Meanwhile, if you’re looking for books with lots of color photos, you couldn’t do much better than Christopher Finch’s classic Jim Henson: The Works or Karen Falk’s magnificent Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal. If you’re a Muppet fan, you’ve already got both of them.

Literary Detectives? Or Just Plain Nosy?

Over at the Washington Independent Review of Books, my colleague Charles J. Shields discusses the art and craft of research in biography—from rooting through personal belongings and private letters and papers, to rummaging through newspapers and digital archives.  Has the rise of the internet and online sources made it easier to research a life? Or has it merely made for more “I Wake Up Screaming” moments?

Charles discusses it all with his usual good humor (and a really great headline), and picks the brains of other biographers—including, I must humbly admit, yours truly.  But don’t let that stop you from reading it.  Go get it — and there’s more to come, so stay  tuned.

Under Construction, Sort Of. I Guess.

Hunh. Without my prior knowledge or any sort of heads up, WordPress decommissioned the template I use for my website and substituted it with a different one.  Hence the slightly different look you’re seeing here.

Don’t get me wrong, I like some of the changes — notice, for example, that you’ll see drop down menus when you drag across the tabs above, instead of having the pages listed down the right hand side.  And behind the scenes, they’re allowing a lot more flexibility in formatting that I might play with in the coming months.

But it also arbitrarily shook up the way photos are formatted, which has resulted in some pages (such as Circle of Friends) looking  messy, as the text doesn’t wrap around photos as it used to.  It also benched some of the coding I use to track traffic and search words.  So I’ll have to clean up some of the mess and recommission some of my code.   However, this should not affect your regularly scheduled programming.

Still More Credit Where Credit’s Due

Last winter, when I junked my old and slow Dell desktop in favor of a MacBook laptop, I had to switch my home banking program to a new software.  I had been running Microsoft Money for years, and was generally happy with it.  I don’t need anything fancy in the home finances department — I don’t invest in the stock market or track my retirement or anything like that — so my requirements are fairly simple: I  want it to look like a checkbook, and I want to be able to print out reports at the end of the year.  When I changed operating systems, then, I was hoping I could just load Money for Mac, move my data with a zip drive, and just keeping going along like nothing had changed.

There was just one problem:  they don’t make Microsoft Money any more.  So whether I wanted to or not, I had to switch.  Again, I don’t need anything fancy, so I opted to pick up the newest version of Quicken — which I had never used, but which seemed to be a fairly easy and intuitive program to work with.  I went to the Intuit website and advance ordered it — this was last winter, and it wasn’t scheduled to ship until early this Spring — paying about 69 bucks for the newest version.

Long story short, then — so I can get to the point — the program worked great, I’m very happy with it, and consider it a good investment of 69 dollars.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I received an e-mail from Intuit last month that included the following:

Thanks to the direct feedback we have received from customers like you, we are making changes to Quicken Essentials for Mac. Here is what we have planned for the next couple of months:
 
Price reduction and $20 refund—we are dropping the price from $69.99 to $49.99 and you will receive a $20 refund! Your credit card will be credited automatically in 4-6 weeks; you don’t have to do anything. 

Sure enough, last week, my bank account was credited for twenty dollars and some change from Intuit.  Imagine that: a company actually giving customers money back when they lower the price of their product.  That was a classy move on Intuit’s part, and they’ve made me a loyal customer who will recommend their products to others.  And I do.

Credit Where Credit’s Due…

Remember several weeks back when I told you of my struggles to find an easy way to transcribe lengthy interviews? (It’s right here if you missed it.  Go ahead. I’ll wait.) At that time, I purchased the Scribe program from MacSpeech, only to find it didn’t work the way I needed. It can’t handle multiple speakers, for example, and has to “learn” the sound of your own voice — at which point you can then speak into the computer and have your words magically appear on screen.  That’s cool and all, but since I don’t write by dictating, that’s not what I wanted or needed.

When I called MacSpeech to let them know of my issue, I was told that since the program was “working as it should,” it was likely I would not be issued a refund — the problem was on my end, not theirs.  I groaned at that, but fair enough — I wrote it off to the Lesson Learned Department.

Well.  To my surprise, several days ago, I noticed that MacSpeech had credited my bank account for the cost of the program.  Yes, they refunded my money — no real hassles, no follow up questions, no fireworks. They didn’t even notify me that they were doing so.

So, since I initially grumbled a bit after my initial contact with MacSpeech, I wanted to follow up and give them a shout out and some credit where credit’s due.  Thanks for understanding my issue, MacSpeech, and for refunding my money. I appreciate it.

And while we’re at it, let me also give a plug to the transcription company I’m using to have my interviews transcribed.  It’s Production Transcripts out in California, and they’ve been nothing short of fantastic.  I got an electronic file within two days, and the transcript was accurate and virtually error-free.  Their costs are based on the length of your recorded interview — they charge by the recorded minute — which allows you to get a fairly good ballpark figure on costs before you send anything. It was a top-notch job, and I’ll be sending more work their way.