June 2006 Archives

Those of you concerned about the shocking decay in the discipline of goats serving in Her Majesty's army will be pleased to know that the Crown has finally taken action. Billy the Goathas been downgraded from lance corporal to fusilier.

I shall sleep more soundly tonight.

I took a cab on Monday. When I buckled up, the driver buckled up, too, and said, "Thanks for buckling up. It reminded me I should buckle up, too. I've been in two crashes where I didn't buckle up, and both times my head got smashed against the window, but I still don't remember to buckle up."

Scientific News

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According to a new study by Princeton University researchers, stocks with easily pronounceable names and ticker-tape symbols do better in their IPOs. I suppose this explains why my attempted launch of Mrs. Smith's Fresh Fish Sauce Shop and Sauteed Squid Shack did not do as well as hoped.

Another view on Phil Merrill

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Phil Merrill is still missing, and is now presumed dead.

Marc Fisher of the Washington Post has written a nice piece about his memories of the man.

The Navy Way

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If Phil Merrill is still alive--and I hope he is--I'm willing to bet he doesn't remember me. But I remember him.

Phil was the publisher of Washingtonian Magazine. That's where I got my first job out of college--first as an intern, and then as a Contributing Editor. Phil had a number of other business interests, and so wasn't always around the office, but when he was, you'd know. At some point in the day, you'd hear a volcanic eruption of anger coming from his office, and if you happened to be passing by his door at the moment, you'd see Phil red-faced, shouting at somebody in person or over the phone.

I guess this description makes Phil sound like a bully, but that was never my impression of him. In the few interactions I had with him in my role as a low-ranking editor, he was always friendly and polite. I always got the sense that, once he had finished expressing his anger, he was perfectly happy to listen to opposing viewpoints. And there was a comfort for a reporter in knowing that, if anybody ever tried to strong-arm you, you had a hell of a canon on your side to fire back.

In any case, my attitude towards Phil has always been gratitude. To a small degree, this is because he owned the magazine that gave me my first break as a writer--but I give most of the credit for that break to Jack Limpert, the magazine's editor-in-chief, as well as the other editors and reporters who encouraged my writing.

Anyway, the main reason I'm grateful to Phil is that he gave me one of the best pieces of career advice I've ever gotten. One of the great things about being an intern at Washingtonian was that, at one point or another, you got to have a session with each member of the magazine's staff, where they'd talk about what they do and how they got there.

When we met with Phil, somebody asked him how, exactly, you get to be a publisher. Phil thought about it for a moment, and then said, "You know, there's a story that at one point during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK wanted the blockade to be run a certain way. A Navy commander told the President that running it like that wasn't the Navy Way. Kennedy turned to him and said, '20 years ago, I was swabbing the decks on a PT boat. Today, I'm commander-in-chief. I didn't get where I am by doing things the f'ing Navy Way.' ...So, how do you become a publisher? You don't do it by working your way up through the ranks and hoping somebody's going to promote you. You don't do things the Navy way. If it's what you want to do, you just do it."

In the decade or so since Phil told me that story, as I've hopscotched my way through a career as a writer, I've often thought about that bit of advice. It's served me well.

(A side note: I'm quoting from memory, so I'm sure I don't have Phil's exact words, but there is one word I distinctly remember: "f'ing." Actually, it sounded more like "mmping;" as Phil was coming to that part of the story, I could see him notice that two of the interns were female, and he replaced the curse with a sort of a hum and a raise of his eyebrow that left no doubt as to the word he was too polite to say.)

Right now, I'm thinking about Phil's advice for a different reason. His sailboat was found drifting in the Chesapeake Bay over the weekend, and he has been missing since then. According to the article, "Investigators believe he wasn't wearing a life vest... because his wife told them he generally didn't use one."

Two British couples are sitting at the table next to mine.

One woman says to the other: "You're pregnant? That's fantastic! We should all go have a drink to celebrate! (PAUSE) Well, I guess you can't, but the three of us could."

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