Blink Book Review #4: Going There by Katie Couric

Katie Couric’s memoir, “Going There,” gives readers a delightful and amazingly honest narrative about not only her personal life but also many of the national and international news stories from the 1990s on. And while that perspective was really fun for a news nerd like me to follow, the best part of this book was hearing Katie Couric read it in the audio format. I listened to this book while driving alone to Mississippi. It felt like Katie was in the car with me just chatting about her experiences, perspective, disappointments, fears and joys.

Of course, we all think famous television personalities live a charmed life with maybe a few blips thrown in. But Katie’s book digs deep into her challenges as a young woman in a profession dominated by an entrenched patriarchy. She honestly recounts her dating mishaps along with the deep love for her first husband who died of cancer and later her courtship and marriage to her second husband. She lays bare the same fears anyone would have when threatened with losing their job – hers just happened to be one of the most visible – and high paid – news jobs in the country. 

She also delivers some dirt on colleagues and dates – dirt that some readers may find unnecessary or unkind. However, it was real life – her real life – and she writes about it with a surprising candor recounting detailed stories beyond her on-screen world. 

If you’re not a fan of audio books, make an exception for this one. Hearing Katie tell her own story makes the book all the more compelling.

My summer challenge is to get off the screens and back to book. My accountability is to write a dozen-is short Blink Book Reviews of 300-ish words. Join my summer Blink Book Review Facebook group to get my reviews and book suggestions from others.

Blink Book Review #3: “Educated”

When “Educated” first came out in 2018, I remember seeing the book in the “new non-fiction” section of Litchfield Books. My first reaction was that it was shelved in the wrong area. The jacket description read like fiction. At the time, I passed over this seemingly depressing memoir of a turbulent and disturbing childhood in a survivalist home in rural Idaho.

But recently, I heard the author, Tara Westover, interviewed on Kate Bowler’s engaging podcast “Everything Happens…” and I was completely drawn in and bought the book on my next trip to the bookstore. 

“Educated” didn’t disappoint. It took me less than a week to read. The story boils down to one of control and how the author learned in very hard ways that she could have control and agency over her life despite her very unconventional upbringing. This triumph came despite her father’s fanatical religious beliefs, years of abuse by her brother, lack of schooling and almost complete isolation from the outside world. 

While most kids grow up with some sense of their family’s way of doing, believing and living is the “right” way, Tara’s family lived the extreme of this. Her father believed the government, along with the medical and education establishments, were the work of the devil. He aspired to a stockpile of food, gasoline and other supplies that could outlast any “end of the world” scenario.

Tara’s achingly honest writing describes her early glimpses of the outside world and how she came to understand her family was different. She and her six siblings didn’t go to school. They had dangerous jobs at a very young age in their father’s junkyard business. They didn’t have birth certificates, get immunizations or go to the doctor.

This is her tragic, yet triumphant, story of self-teaching her way to Brigham Young, finding her voice at Cambridge and ultimately receiving a PhD from Harvard. The author doesn’t mince words with her descriptions or try to protect or defend the way she was raised. That said, she tells the story with a gentleness I wouldn’t expect of such a harsh story.

And don’t overlook the details of the beautiful cover art.

Blink Book Review #2: South of Heaven by Patti Frye Meredith

Disclaimer on this one: I was very pre-disposed to like this book because a friend wrote it. I first met the author, Patti Meredith, 25-ish years ago when we worked at SCETV. I remember having lunch together early on when she came to work there, and she told me she had a novel in her. I was impressed, awed and intimidated. I don’t know if this is THE book she was referring to then, but it was worth the wait.

I pre-ordered the book the minute it was available and my copy arrived the day before we left for a 2-week trip. While I typically no longer travel with a hard copy book, this one provided me with many hours of delight. Plus, the book made it back so I can now share it with friends (at least friends who don’t mind dog-eared and marked up pages where I scribbled around the sentences that were just too good not to go back and read again).

South of Heaven by Patti Frye Meredith

For anyone who is southern by birth or has moved to the south, passed through the south, yearned for the south or just wondered about the south, this book gives voice to southern realities and complexities of family, loss, love and redemption with twists of stories and delightful turns of words.

The storyline centers around two sisters in central North Carolina. Leona moved to Raleigh as a young bride, and Fern remained in their fictional hometown of Carthage that seems to be an ambulance-ride distance from nearby Southern Pines. 

Leona took the “expected” path to marry well, live well and raise pretty children. Fern, well, she was forced onto a different path. I’m intentionally avoiding too much detail about their divergent circumstances because it would take the fun out of reading the book. Suffice it to say, we all know our share of Ferns and Leonas.

And while I loved the plot twists that moved at a leisurely pace between the sisters’ young lives in the late ‘60s and their secret-stocked adult lives in the 90s, the best part of this book is the writer’s clever, yet deliberate, use of southernisms. Patti’s writing subtly lets a southerner know she’s been there, done that, (having grown up in Galax, VA, and lived all over the south as an adult), but her phrasing won’t scare off someone not familiar with these charming turns of words by sounding stilted or fake.

Here’s a sample of a few of my favorites: 

“Leona walked in the front door and Fern’s good sense stepped out back for a cigarette.” 

“Folks around here like things on the straight and narrow. Tobacco rows. Fairways. People. Faith.” 

“Lord help my time of day.”

Then, Patti intertwines this endearing phrasing with casual mentions of food we southerners know so well. What good southerner hasn’t had watermelon rind pickles served on a cut glass pickle tray, BBQ sandwiches from The Pig, and casseroles with Ritz cracker crusts from the local Junior League cookbook. Are you hooked yet?

This story involves falls and redemptions, sagging clotheslines, busybodies, homebodies, social strictures, outcasts and a few emus thrown in for good measure. I’m happy to lend my copy to anyone who wants to read this lovely book – you’ll just have to get on the waiting list.

Join our Blink Book Review Facebook group to get my reviews and book suggestions from others.

Blink Book Review #1 – “Only Wanna Be With You”

When I first started “Only Wanna Be With You,” I anticipated a bit of a tell-all rag. The author is Tim Sommer, a music journalist and record executive who was part of the Hootie and the Blowfish inner circle for many years. And isn’t it the job description of a former insider to write a book that airs all the dirty laundry? 

However, with much of the story told through long-form direct quotes from the band members and others, I gradually came to trust the author was genuinely telling a story that sometimes seemed almost too good to be true. Four USC students form a band. They find fame, get rich, make good business decisions (for the most part), experience some fortunate convergences of circumstances, move on for various reasons (but insist they aren’t breaking up), reunite for a blockbuster tour and new album, and remain friends for 25 years.

The story of the band members’ friendship, electric musical connection, and complete focus on the band’s – not their individual – success was compelling and entertaining. However, what I found most interesting was the insider’s peek at the complexities of the music business and the nuances of the music that influenced the band.

Admittedly, I’m not cool enough to get all the references to Hootie’s musical influences like REM. And I sure don’t have any context around the grunge bands competing at the top of the music charts at the time. But I learned a lot about intersecting music genres and how they inspired Hootie’s sound.

For anyone who was 18 – 30 during the big Hootie years, read this book for the nostalgia. The references to Green Streets, Rockafellas, Five Points and dorms that no longer exist at USC will make you smile and remember dollar pitchers at happy hour. 

For fans of the band, the book tells great stories about how their music came to be and what influenced it. And for anyone just curious about how four guys from USC ended up selling more than 20 million albums, this is the summer book for you! (And as a bonus, it’s published by the University of SC Press.)

This is the first of (what I hope will be) a dozen or so “Blink Book Reviews” for the summer. I’m challenging myself to keep them to 300-ish words so you can read them in a couple of blinks. My choice of this book has a bit of a backstory to it. Read it here.

Learning lessons from my younger self

Every year on May 23, I take a few minutes to reflect on my “work-iversary,” the anniversary of the first day of my first real-life job after graduating from USC. I walked into my Capitol Hill office wearing a thickly shoulder-padded linen suit and a blouse with a floppy bow. I was so excited to start using the skills I’d learned from the USC journalism school, my campus leadership roles and work experience during college.

J School graduation day

That newly minted young professional had no idea what was in store for the next 30+ years of a crooked, yet in retrospect, perfectly aligned career path. I also had no idea of the lessons I’d learn along the way.

A number of years ago, I started a list of those professional life lessons to use in a presentation to a group of college seniors. Since then, I like to revisit this list on my work-iversary as a way to reflect on the past year.

This year, I found myself taking some of my own advice as I launch into a new professional adventure as a business owner. Last month, I took a risk (see #1) and formalized the work I’ve been doing since retiring in 2019. I’ve connected my love of writing (#3) and editing (#16) with the relationships I’ve developed over my career (#4, 15, 18) and launched The Medway Group.

Over the past year, I spent a lot of time evaluating my strengths, identifying opportunities, learning all I could about being an entrepreneur (#6), asking questions and seeking advice (#12), and plotting a plan (#10).

Thanks to insight and advice from many professional colleagues and mentors (#15, 18), I’m now busy helping clients with their writing and editing projects. I’m working with organizations to fine tune their communications planning and staffing. I’m producing a video podcast series, plotting advocacy strategy around legislative issues, editing a huge academic study and leading media training through my work with the Buckley School of Public Speaking.

I’m grateful for the opportunities that let me share my strengths and do the type of work I enjoy through my new company. (Read more about the work The Medway Group is doing.) I’m fine tuning my business plan daily. I’m also making sure not to overlook the importance of that balance we hear so much about (#20) by making time for my music, family, friends, and, of course, travel (#9).

Read on for this year’s updated list of career lessons. Hopefully seasoned and new professionals alike will find a nugget or two here.

1. Take risks. Look for the unexpected opportunities. No one can expect perfection. It’s OK to be a beginner. You can often learn more from mistakes than successes. Yes, really, you can.

2. Go to your boss with a solution, not a problem. Your boss is solving problems all day. Make her life easier by presenting a solution when you present a problem. Even if it’s not the solution that ultimately solves the problem, presenting an idea for a solution keeps your boss from dreading the sight of you at the door or your number on her phone.

3. Cultivate strong writing skills. Solid writers are the people strong leaders want around the leadership table with them. Be the one who colleagues seek out to flesh out and articulate ideas clearly on paper with accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation. Even if writing isn’t a priority part of your job, be the one on the team who can quickly break down concepts on paper.

4. Keep up with people. The students you sat next to in class. Your roommates and their friends. Bosses in your entry level college jobs. Lab partners. Professors. The people you met through your campus activities. College deans. They will all have contacts within their professional circles. Stay in touch with them. You never know where a new job contact, sales relationship or your next stellar employee will come from. Every job change I ever made was the result of someone I knew making a connection for me. All of my current Medway Group clients grew out of established relationships.

5. Be interested and interesting. Ask good questions and ask them often. Young professionals have a great deal to offer a work environment. Speak up when you have something to offer, but remember to balance your enthusiasm with senior-level colleagues’ experience.

6. Keep learning your craft. Find out what your boss or leaders in your profession are reading or listening to (books, blogs, professional publications, podcasts, websites, etc). Seek out professional development opportunities. Pay for them yourself, if necessary. Join professional organizations and get involved.

7. Be kind and remember that everyone carries their own sack of rocks. You never know what type of personal issues the co-worker who missed a deadline is dealing with at home or with his family.
 
8. Write thank-you and follow-up notes (handwritten, not emailed). Collect business cards or contact info from people you meet at events, in meetings, or just out and about. A handwritten “nice to meet you” note will set you apart and help people you meet remember you. Technology is good, but the personal touch still matters (along with good penmanship).

9. Travel any chance you get. Travel to small towns and big cities across the country and around the world. Don’t put off travel. You’ll never tell your grandchildren about that great trip you didn’t take because you were too busy at work.

10. Plan the work before you work the plan. Having no plan gets you nowhere. Plans will change either by force or circumstance. Be flexible, but have a plan regardless of whether it’s a work project, a trip, a job search, a major purchase or an important life decision.

11. Looking busy doesn’t equal being productive. The co-worker who crows about her heavy workload and long hours is probably much less productive than the one who is organized and prioritizes his days.

12. Be a good listener and observer. It’s an old adage, but true – there’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth. Watching and listening to others can bring valuable insights to the words you eventually speak.

13. Stay in the loop, but avoid the gossip. Be a “boundary spanner”— someone who is respected and trusted by people at all levels of the organization. Just don’t be the one who everyone counts on to know “the dirt.”

14. Build your financial literacy. Pay yourself first. If you use direct deposit, set up an allocated amount to go to your savings account from each paycheck. If you get the chance to participate in your company’s 401K, do it! Even that smallest contribution early in your career will help you establish good saving and investment habits. Learn the basics of budgeting, saving and investing. Keep your rainy day fund separate from your retirement dollars.

15. Seek out a mentor. I’ve found most mentor relationships happen naturally rather than being established formally. Be on the lookout for them. I bet my best mentors probably don’t know they even served in that role. Also, look for “reverse mentoring” opportunities. You can be a resource to your older colleagues. Seasoned professionals can learn a great deal from their younger peers.

16. A good editor will make you shine. Don’t look at having your writing edited as you would look at a teacher correcting a paper. Editing is a collaborative process, and there’s always room for improvement in your writing.

17. Move during the day. Regardless of whether you have a desk job, use your lap as your desk while sitting on the couch or work outside of a traditional office environment, moving your body and getting your brain engaged in something other than your work is key to sanity and creativity. Walk around the block, stretch once an hour, or put in your earbuds and listen to high energy music.

18. Cultivate contacts outside of work. Your next job could easily come from someone you know through church, nonprofits, alumni groups, friends and professional organizations. Stay in touch with people you meet along the way. You never know who may be the connection to your next job. One of my first clients in my new business came from a former intern.

19. Establish your personal brand. Decide what you want your reputation in the workplace to be, and let your actions define you. Keep promises and make deadlines. Under-promise and over-deliver. Avoid behavior in your personal life that could hurt your professional life (even more true today with all the risks of social media in the mix). Remember that details count, especially when getting the details right sets you apart from others.

20. Have fun and be creative. Figure out your own version of work/life balance. The “balance” will probably fluctuate daily, and it most certainly looks different after this COVID experience, but keep focused on creative outlets, exercise and hobbies that let you have fun.

The virtual shingle is out

I’ve done something I’ve dreamed of for a long time. After two years of increasing freelance work after 35+ years in the communications field, I’ve launched the Medway Group, a consulting business that lets me focus on what I love most – using the right words to connect the dots between people and ideas.

Specifically for now, the Medway Group will be emphasizing strategic communications planning and project management, advocacy outreach, writing/editing and media training. Read on to find out plans for additional capabilities down the road.

After retiring from the Municipal Association in 2019, I took some much-needed time to reflect on what I wanted to do next. I took on a few writing and one-off consulting gigs. Turns out, I liked working from my sunny home office. Flossie, my four-legged assistant, liked having her person around for quick walks. That all worked perfectly for a while to let me decompress and refocus after many years of fast-paced traditional work environments.

Then COVID hit. As we all worked through through the first “WFH” months, I started getting calls about helping with short-term projects – an academic editing project, media outreach, press releases, a PR plan, advocacy planning. Pre-COVID, these organizations might have wanted a “butt-in-seat” person. But the new WFH mentality gave remote work new credibility and allowed people like me to fit seamlessly into previously “office-only” teams.

As these opportunities continued to pop up, my dream of formalizing this work continued to take shape. This really wasn’t a new idea. Over the years, I had batted around this dream with several friends who have complementary professional strengths. We imagined one day hanging out a shingle to collectively market our various experiences, expertise and networks.

Today that virtual shingle is out. The Medway Group is officially launched. It’s been a long time coming to decide when the idea was “perfectly-enough” baked to introduce to the world. But a very wise person recently reminded me that if I wait for perfect – the perfect timing, the perfect website, the perfect client mix, the perfect combination of services – I’ll never get past the planning.

Another wise friend told me this years ago about his business: “My services aren’t for everyone.” And that’s definitely the case here. I’m clear on my expertise (check out this page on the website for details) and know my strengths. In the coming months, I will be adding colleagues and formalizing relationships with several professionals who can bring in skills to complement mine and expand my networks.

But in the meantime, I’m working on some interesting projects like producing a video/podcast, helping one organization plan for a new communications department and another build a long-range communications strategy. I’m doing a lot of writing and editing work while working with yet another client to navigate a legislative issue.

For now, stay tuned for what’s next by following The Medway Group on Twitter and LinkedIn. There’s more to come down the road!