All new!

Yes, you’re noticing a fresh new look to this blog, and the entire Airstream Life website. We just went live with it yesterday, and wow, am I relieved about that.

I’m not big on updating stuff just because you can.  I like to use things until they can’t be repaired anymore, which explains why I was still using a 6-year-old laptop until last week when it finally died. (I also like vintage stuff that works better than the modern stuff, which explains some other appliances around our house.)

But in the case of a website, that philosophy doesn’t work.  I was getting nastygrams from Google complaining that the Airstream Life website wasn’t “mobile friendly,” which means you couldn’t read or navigate the content from a phone or tablet. A few years ago nobody cared about that, but now it’s virtually mandatory since millions of people now access the Internet from their little pocket devices.

Truth be told, the old website had a lot of other problems too.  My programmer back in 2008 did the best he could with the technology of the day, but he had to invent some kludgy work-arounds to make the site do what I needed back then. Now, all the magic is done with wonderful WordPress plug-ins that can do virtually anything you can imagine. So the site is less proprietary and more reliable & faster.

Of course, most people will just notice the new look, not what’s under the hood.  That’s fine. I really like the new blog format because it will allow me to run larger photos. When I’ve got a really nice Airstream shot, that’s important. For example …

Monahan Sand Dunes TX Airstream Mercedes
Airstream camped at Monahan Sand Dunes State Park, Texas

This is just the beginning. In May we’ll also introduce a new Airstream Life store, with new products that I’ve personally picked because I think they are essentials for Airstream travelers.  More on that soon.  But if you want to see a few early picks, check out “Airstream Upgrades.”

As part of the new site, we are updating a list of favorite blogs. If you’ve got an Airstream-related blog and update it frequently, send me the RSS feed link and it might get added to the list!

In the meantime, let me know if you have any feedback about the site, leave a comment. Thanks!

Special thanks to Wally Byam

That Interstate trip I took last July in California wasn’t just for fun.  At the time I mentioned that one goal was to write a guidebook for Interstate owners, much like the Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.  Well, I’ve finally done it. It took a few months of research to put everything together, and another couple of months for Jennifer to complete the illustrations and layout, but I think the result was worth the time.

Airstream Interstate motorhome coverThe Interstate motorhome is a tricky machine. Not only is it packed with a zillion features that all need explanation, but Airstream continually modifies it during production, so it’s very hard to make blanket statements about anything. So once I started driving it around, I realized I was going to need to tread very carefully in order to explain it properly. That’s why the book has over 40 illustrations just to cover the basics, plus six essential checklists, and many more hints and tips. (Yes, that was a sales pitch, but hey, I’ve got to make a living.)

Even with the learning curve, the Interstate is really very easy and fun to use. I borrowed one for 10 days to do some first-hand research, and I found that it only took a week to get comfortable with it.  With this book in hand, I probably would have been up-to-speed in a day or so—which of course, is why I write these things.

The book is now published on Amazon Kindle and Apple iTunes, so you can get it as an e-book from either of those sources. (I’m not yet sure if it will be available in print format, but hopefully that will happen early next year.)

Newbies Airstreaming cover croppedWhile Jennifer was working on the illustrations, I was making final updates to The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming, so the Second Edition will be coming out in a week or so on Kindle and iTunes, and we should have printed copies later in October.

Lots of little things have changed about Airstreams since I wrote the first version, but I was surprised (and pleased) to see that most of the essentials haven’t changed at all.  If you’ve read the Newbies Guide, you might have noticed that it’s almost as much about the philosophy of Airstreaming, as it is about the practicalities.  In other words, it’s just as important to understand the “why” or even the “zen” of Airstream travel, as it is to know which valve to pull when you are dumping the tanks.  That zen of Airstreaming has remained constant since Wally Byam’s days. In short, relax, and explore.

Wally expressed this as his “Four Freedoms.”

    1. Airstream travel keeps you free from reservations and inconveniences of modern travel because you can make your own schedule and travel in your own vehicle.
    2. You are free from many of the limitations of age, meaning that young children and elderly people alike (and of course all us Baby Boomers in between) can expand their horizons and live healthier lives.
    3. Airstreaming gives you what Wally called  “the freedom to know,” meaning that you can explore the world intimately, meeting real people and experiencing things in a way the average tourist never gets to do.

And finally, they all add up to “the freedom for fun.” If you adopt the principles of Airstream travel fully, you can’t help but have a good time.  You are freed from your worries and ailments and schedules, so that your mind opens to new possibilities and new opportunities.

I’m glad none of that has changed.  I put a lot of effort into writing guides that help remove your worries about the mechanics of Airstreaming (whether trailer or motorhome) so you can relax and get the real benefit of traveling this way. But Wally Byam did the real work when he invented the philosophy.

That intolerable silence

The blog has been quiet lately, and I’m sure a few people are wondering what hole I’ve managed to fall into.  A friend once accused me of being a compulsive blogger, needing some sort of intervention and a 12-step program, but none of my friends seemed to care to stop me.  So what has kept me quiet for so long lately?

It’s just life.  A couple of weeks ago I was wrestling with my motivation to solve a giant problem, one of those huge problems that can’t even be fully understood at the outset, like a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.  I’m talking about my very slow-progressing Airstream maintenance book, which I think is going into its third year of “work.”

I have to put “work” in quotes because I can’t honestly use that term to describe the herky-jerky progress I was making for the first two years, interspersed by long period of contemplation and (let’s be honest) distraction.  Like the massive jigsaw puzzle, I had found all the easy parts and put them together, leaving a giant framework with 4,900 pieces yet to go.  This was a motivation-killer.

I mention this because you might think motivation comes easy to me.  I don’t talk about my failures enough (people complain it’s depressing).  I wrestle with things like every human being does, and there was a long period in which it seemed this project might be just a bit more than I was equipped to complete.  Failure WAS an option, and always is an option even if you like to pretend it’s not, because sometimes in failure you can learn something that will help you succeed next time. Like, “don’t take on a 200 page book project if you really don’t have time for it.”

But it’s harder to abandon a project of one’s own design.  After all, who or what can you honestly blame for the failure?  It was a jail of my own making and I’d told too many people about it, so I kept plugging away, adding a figurative puzzle piece every week or two, and then suddenly a wonderful thing happened.  It was that magical moment known to all writers of long texts and jigsaw puzzle fanatics alike.  I could see for the first time the beautiful picture that my puzzle would eventually form.  Better yet, it was all so obvious now.  I knew exactly what I needed to do, and without any motivational struggle at all I found myself gleefully opening up the document and adding text at every opportunity.

Suddenly I was finding time to write after dinner, before breakfast, between phone calls.  The first day after the breakthrough I added three pages of text to a 30 page document.  The next day I added five pages.  The next, 10 pages.  By the end of the week the project that took over two years to grow to 30 pages had doubled in size to 60.  It was almost worth waiting two years to have that experience.  Breakthroughs like that feel great.

Alas, my next act was to get sick with a virus, which has cost me a week of productivity already and will probably take another week to clear up fully.  I stopped working on the book because it took all of my virus-limited brainpower to just keep the basic operations going (keep in mind, I’m still TBM so I’ve got to do things like grocery shopping and laundry in addition to moving the Winter issue of Airstream Life ahead).  Now, I’ve got to fly up to Oregon to help Brett run Alumafandango, so there’s another big hiatus in the book project ahead.

This has led to the intolerable silence of the blog.  I make no apologies, as we aren’t actively Airstreaming at the moment and TBM’s adventures have been sadly muted, but I thought you should know that I haven’t abandoned you.  No, quite the opposite, I’m plotting all kinds of things to talk about in the future.  I will be blogging from Alumafandango as much as time allows over the coming week, and upon returning I’ll have just about two weeks to get all my TBM-decadence done, so that should be fun.  I already had a bacon-wrapped Sonoran hotdog but that’s just a warm-up for the real goodies…

Don’t buy this product

Today I’m going to have another minor rant, and probably on a topic you don’t care about.  I’m going to talk about advertising. But before I continue I should probably put that warning in multiple languages:

For my Mercedes fans:  Achtung! Dieses Weblog ist nicht etwa Mercedes!

For my Twitter followers: #notaboutAirstream #boringtopic #rantalert

For people on smart phones:  Hard 4 U 2 read. Tiny txt. Catch U later k?  BRB

For the Facebook crowd:  This blog contains no cute pictures of animals with inspirational phrases, so why would you read it?

For my daughter and her pre-teen friends:    Biggest.  Epic.  Fail.  Ever.

OK, now that we’ve covered all the bases, let me tell you something that should be self-evident.  Taking a “Wal-Mart shopper” approach to advertising your business is not a good idea.  You can’t buy creative work, good marketing, or good design by the pound, and it’s not a good idea to outsource it to China.

As the publisher of Airstream Life it’s my job (in concert with my Marketing Director, Brett) to sell advertising and help small businesses grow.  I’ve been in this business, in one form or another, for a long time. My first job after college was as a copywriter in a small ad agency, and so early on I was involved in rescuing small business owners who tried to sell their products or services without spending any money, and who were suffering as a result.

For over 25 years I’ve seen that mistake repeated.  My job, whether as an in-house or external consultant, has been to steer people gently back to the right side, so that they can present their ideas, businesses, or messages so that other people will actually pay attention to them, and then act on them.  It doesn’t matter if your message is “Buy my Airstream” or “Don’t use Vulkem as toothpaste,” it’s always more effective when the ad looks good.

We recently had a client come through with an ad that was made in-house.  This client used to pay an ad agency to develop their marketing materials, and the results were superb but perhaps a little expensive.  Somewhere along the line the client decided to just make their advertising themselves, and so somebody in the company got the job—but didn’t know what they were doing.

The difference was astonishing.  I wish I could show you the ad, but I don’t want to embarrass the advertiser.  Let’s just say that just because you own Photoshop doesn’t mean you know how to use it.  Just like owning a copy of Microsoft Word doesn’t mean you know how to write.  Imagine a photo of an Airstream with the bottoms of the tires cropped off, and the reflection of a fat man on the aluminum.  Monolithic blocks of text, no “call to action,” wrong ad size proportions, and grainy low-res images with poor lighting.   That’s what we received to run in the magazine.

I can tell you what will happen with an ad like that.  People don’t just read ads.  In fact, many of them never read ads at all.  They glean an impression from ads.  Rightly or wrongly, people use that impression to determine if the company is trustworthy, quality-focused, and friendly.  A badly designed ad tells a story that goes beyond the words: it says, “We’re cheap and amateurish about this, so guess what our product is like?”

As I said, it’s our job to make sure our clients succeed.  Certainly we’ll kick an ad like that back to the client rather than run it and do damage to their reputation. But merely rejecting an ad isn’t enough.  Many of our advertisers are small businesses, and they don’t have the budget to hire a good designer.  Even if they have the budget they often don’t know where to start.  It’s also commonplace that many people are unaware of bad design when they see it, much like someone can be tone-deaf about music.  They might think they have a great designer producing solid work, but are in fact shooting themselves in the foot.

So we step in.  For long-term advertisers, I have no problem putting our team on the job at no cost to the client.  That means three people working for the client: our in-house Art Director, me (as copywriter), and Brett (as Marketing Director, advising on client-specific issues).  In this case we were working against the deadline for the Summer magazine to go to the printer, and so I had to rush to re-write the text and find some photos, Brett had to locate the client after working hours and tell them we were taking over to revise the ad (we didn’t ask permission), and Lisa the Art Director ended up working on the weekend to get it done.  She put in a total of nine hours between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, and delivered the finished ad at 4:51 a.m. Sunday.

The final product is, if I may say so, a very solid ad.  It’s visually attractive, easy to understand, and should “pull” well for the client.  It’s also an ad that I will be happy to run in Airstream Life.  If we were an agency we’d probably charge about $1500 for this work, but in this case it’s all free because … well, it’s a small community and we need to support our advertisers.  If they do well, we will do well too.

Not too serious

I am in receipt of a hand-written note from an Airstream Life subscriber, which is reproduced below:

No Tin Hut, No Renewal

People take Airstream Life quite seriously.

Tin Hut, in case you don’t know, has been a long-running humor series in the magazine.  Tin Hut and his wife Mrs. Hut engage in various quasi-redneck trailer adventures involving hick relatives, crazy RV parks, deranged squirrels, and Mr. Ed The Horse look-alike contests.  Every issue for the past several years I’ve been the fortunate recipient of a letter or two from the Huts detailing their latest misadventure, which I’ve been pleased to print in the magazine.

The only problem I’ve had with Tin Hut is that it is beloved by some and hated by just as many.  At Alumapalooza the past two years I’ve asked for a show of hands from people who love the series, and I always get a sheepish wave from about half the people in attendance.  Then I ask who despises the series, and the rest of the crowd hisses and boos.

Well, like the Vice President, I get to cast the deciding vote when the House is deadlocked, and so I’ve run the Tin Hut series steadily.  (Besides, my mother likes it and she gets two votes.)  I even collected 23 episodes into a book which you can buy in print or in Kindle ebook format.

But lately the man behind the series, Jim Snead, has confessed that the Huts are nearing the end.  Poor Mr. Hut has fallen out of trees, been electrocuted, set on fire, lost his hair, and has been locked in a Port-O-Let and shipped to a women’s prison.  He’s getting too old for that sort of thing.  Last issue (Winter 2012), for the first time since the series began, I did not get a letter from the Huts, and it looks like I won’t have one for the Spring 2013 either.  I am working with Jim to see if at least the Huts can have a final send-off.  It will be a shame to say goodbye to them, but I’ve learned that in the magazine world, nothing lasts forever. Tin Hut will join other beloved sections of the magazine, like “eBay Watch” that eventually reached their logical conclusion and sputtered to a halt.

I am always sad to see a good series go, but that’s life.  Something will come up to replace it.  We only have 64 pages in each issue (at least until the economy picks up a bit more) and so the departure of Tin Hut means that some other good idea will now have the opportunity to take a few pages in Airstream Life in the future. I’ll be looking.

Meanwhile, I’m having some fun with an article in the upcoming Spring 2013 issue.  Fred Coldwell, who has written “Old Aluminum” for about eight years, is still going strong with his series about vintage Airstreams.  He left off at 1960 in the last issue, and his article inspired a letter from avid reader Don Williams.  Don has a mystery California-built Airstream trailer dating from 1960, and offered us some clues and photos as to its true identity.  Is it a rare Comet, or an “18 Footer” or Traveler?

Fred wrote up a hilarious investigation in the persona of “Sherlock M Homes” (the “M” stands for mobile), and his trusty sidekick Dr. Walban (for the popular Airstream polish called Walbernize).  Methodically sorting through the clues remaining in the gutted old trailer, he eventually reveals a surprise conclusion as to the identity of “the body.”  It’s a unique way to make an entertaining story out of what might otherwise have been a dull forensic study, and we’ve been having fun tweaking it this week.

Fred’s timing is ideal, as coincidentally I bought the entire collected Sherlock Holmes works by Arthur Conan Doyle on Kindle last month and have been reading through all three huge volumes in my spare time.  So I’m currently deeply immersed in the stylings of A.C. Doyle and was able to give Fred some advice on Holmes’ (er, Homes) characteristic turns of phrase.  He and I have been shooting back and forth emails all day to suggest more bad Holmes jokes.  I doubt half of them will get printed, but who cares? This is the stuff that makes editing a magazine really fun.

I am glad I don’t have a boss looking over my shoulder, or an editorial review committee to take the goofiness out of these things.  Sure, it’s all hokey and silly, but it’s good for the heart too.  I’m sorry to the subscriber who sent me the note, and I’ll regret losing him as a subscriber, but let’s remember you shouldn’t take life too seriously.  Or Airstream Life.