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.

Notes from the Airstream universe

Just like the real universe, the Airstream universe continues to expand indefinitely.  Little reminders of this cross my desk from time to time, and I forget to mention them here, so today I’m going to mention a few of the recent and most interesting developments.

Item:  Airstream now for sale in Australia, if you’ve got the bucks.  The Canberra Times reports that Airstreams are now being officially imported, compliant with Australian regulations.  We’ve featured at least one Australian Airstream makeover in Airstream Life magazine, a restaurant trailer that sells gourmet hamburgers, but there really hasn’t been a lot of action in that country.  Australia and New Zealand have been mostly motorhome territory.  I know a few folks who have done some great tours in rented Class C motorhomes, and we’ve talked about doing it ourselves, but I’ve been waiting for Airstreams to become available. Maybe now we can start talking about putting together a caravan?

Or maybe not.  Prices for the new Aussie ‘streams are running $115k-135k (Australian dollars).  That’s a hunk of money, right up there with the cost of European-spec Airstreams.  It may be quite a long time before an affordable used unit can be found.

Item:  A new Airstream book has come out.  We never get tired of Airstream-related books, do we?  John Brunkowski and Michael Closen, who previously wrote a book about RV Toys, have written another great photo-rich book entitled “Airstream Memories.”  It’s a collection of Airstream art and memorabilia, with an emphasis on postcards, that runs 127 pages long.  It’s really fun to flip through it.

Full disclosure:  I wrote the Foreword to the book, but I didn’t get to review the art until it was published.  When I got my copy this week, I was surprised to see some Airstream Life covers and photo spreads in there.

Item: Another Airstream book seeks funding. Rebecca Chastenet and Carlos Briscenos jointly run an Airstream-based restaurant in Santa Fe NM.  We featured that trailer with photos of Rebecca in the Spring 2012 issue of Airstream Life.  Rebecca has since become a contributor to the magazine, writing for our new “Airstream food” section that you will see beginning with the Winter 2012 issue.

Rebecca and Carlos have an idea for a book about Airstream “pop-up” businesses.  There are probably hundreds of them, all over the world.  We’ve covered dozens in the magazine over the past few years.  They’re all interesting, creative, and run by fascinating entrepreneurs.

They’re seeking funding to cover the costs of a tour to visit as many of these Airstream businesses as they can, which will then become material for the book.  You can read their full proposal on Kickstarter, and chip in if you think the cause is worthy.  I’m hoping this one takes off.  Rebecca is a solid writer and I’m sure the result will be wonderful.

Item: Child starts blog.  OK, this isn’t big news, and it’s not Airstream-related but I happen to know one of the two children who write this blog.  “Sylvia Phenora” is the nom de plume of someone close to me.  For a 12-year-old, she’s a pretty handy writer.  She’s also producing Pokemon stories on a regular basis.  I’m waiting for her first novel to come out.  Hopefully it will be a best-seller so I can retire early and do more Airstreaming!

Item:  We’re going to pitch in to help!  The “superstorm” Sandy has really walloped the northeast coast.  Brett & I decided that we are going to donate $10 for every campsite registration we get between today and Dec 31, 2012, to the American Red Cross to help with relief efforts.  So if you were thinking about going to Alumafiesta or Alumapalooza next year, sign up soon and $10 of your site fee will go to help others.  Thanks.

 

 

 

 

Classification: kittens for sale

A friend called Eleanor the other day and noted that the blog was quiet.  When that happens, she said, either Rich is working on projects he can’t talk about (yet) or there’s not much happening.  Turns out that it’s a little bit of both lately.

Home life has been quiet … so quiet in fact that our major form of entertainment has been the foster kittens. They have kept us entertained day and night, even at times when we’d prefer they were sleeping.  They arrived here underweight and left today, three weeks later, each nearly a pound heavier and in peak form to be adopted.

It’s a shame to let them go back to the Humane Society when they are so darned adorable, but they need homes.  We’ve done what we can to bring out their natural irresistible cuteness, and make them completely comfortable with people and typical household life.  As I told them at today’s graduation ceremony, “Boys, the rest is up to you.”  They seemed prepared for the task.  We’ll get a new kitten or two shortly, and begin the process anew.

Meanwhile I have fulfilled my pledge to do something about the spare tire issue.  This turned out to be fairly easy.  I ordered a fifth tire from Discount Tire to match the four new Bridgestones that are on the car, and they mounted it up last week.  The only catch was that the tires for the Mercedes are a lot bigger than the ones for the Airstream, so it wouldn’t fit in the spare carrier on the Airstream without some modification.  The Merc tire is about two inches wider and 2-3 inches larger in diameter.

So the first step was to do some careful measuring to confirm that the larger tire would fit in the Airstream’s belly recess.  It seemed like there was plenty of room in there, almost as if Airstream had foreseen this situation.

The spare carrier comes off easily, with just two bolts toward the rear holding it in place.  A 3/4″ socket and a short extension on a ratchet wrench are all you need.  Well, that plus a little elbow grease.  Once it was off, I loaded it up along with both the Airstream and Mercedes wheels, and took the whole pile to my favorite welding shop.

The modification was fairly simple.  The two bolt attachments needed to be extended by about two inches so that the entire carrier would hang lower.  This would allow the bigger spare to fit and yet still be pressed tightly up against the belly of the Airstream so it wouldn’t move.

I also asked the welding shop to figure a way that I could go back to carrying the smaller Airstream spare if I wanted to.  You can see their solution above.  They simply bolted on a pair of height extensions, welded on new outboard “arms” to accommodate the larger diameter, and fabricated a new latch with two holes.

If I wanted to go back to the Airstream spare, it would be just a matter of unbolting the two extensions, and using the lower hole on the latch for the locking pin.  The tension of the tire pressed up against the belly of the trailer will keep the tire from shifting much.

The new spare was a tighter fit than I had expected. While there was plenty of room in the recess, I had failed to consider the process of getting the tire under the Airstream.  The struts of the Hensley partially block the path, and there’s not quite enough clearance to slide the tire atop the carrier and beneath the battery box.  To get it in, I have to wind the Hensley strut jacks up into towing position (not a problem since that’s where they’d be anyway), and I have to use the trailer’s power hitch to lift the nose about 2-3 inches.  It’s also a much heavier wheel to deal with, so pulling this thing out on a rainy day by the side of a muddy highway will not be much fun.

Once it’s in place, there’s plenty of ground clearance.  The tire still hangs above the height of the hitch weight transfer bars.

This amounts to a very expensive spare tire.  I bought the Mercedes 20″ rim from a guy in California for $300 (new ones cost about $900!), the tire was about $250, and the fabrication work ended up at $125, for a grand total of $675.  But it will get used, because we need to do a five-wheel tire rotation every 10,000 miles (to keep all five tires evenly worn), so I’ll get my value out of the tire at least.

And it’s nice to know we have it.  Now if we have a tire failure on the tow vehicle, we can still drive. If we have a tire failure on the Airstream, we can tow on three wheels or unhitch to go get a replacement Airstream tire.  We have better options.  If we ever decide to go to Alaska or Newfoundland, we can still throw the (smaller) Airstream spare into the back of the car for added insurance.

OK, enough about that.  I hope to not need to write about tires again for quite a long time.  I want to talk about another project, the new Airstream Life Classifieds section.

Places to list your Airstream for sale are everywhere on the Internet.  I used to maintain a list of them that ran to about thirty different sites, all free.  But once in a while I get a call from someone who has a special, rare, or high-value trailer, and they want to see that ad in print, in Airstream Life.  We’ve never been able to accommodate this, but I’ve finally set up a site where you can post your ad online and have it appear in the next issue of the magazine.

So it’s in a trial mode right now.  (I’m sorry, that’s not cool enough for the Internet.  I’d better say it’s “in beta” instead.)  You can try it out right now at classified.airstreamlife.com.  Online-only ads are free, and print ads cost $75.  But here’s the sweetener: since this is the first run, you can actually get a print ad for free.  When you fill out the ad form, at the bottom of the page will be an option box that says “Ad Package”. Choose the “Print ad in Airstream Life magazine” option and just below that, enter the coupon code FREE_ASL_AD and your ad will appear in the Winter 2012 issue for free!

 

Now, I do have to put in a few limitations.  Only one free ad per customer, and all ads must be submitted no later than October 5 to receive this deal.  If I don’t get enough ads to launch the section, this offer will be void (but your ad will still run online for free).

I’m interested in your feedback.  If you’ve tried it out and have some comments that might help improve it, let me know with a comment on this blog post.  If it works and people find it valuable, I’ll make it a formal part of the magazine going forward.  It’s up to the community.  Personally, I think that even in an era of Internet everywhere, there’s a certain credibility that you can only get from print, so I’m hoping that we get some interesting Airstreams in this section.