The 40-Something-Year-Old Camper

“Did you go to camp?” Jill, the owner, asked me. I was interviewing for a job driving a van at Camp Taconic for the summer. When I was a kid I went to day camp, Girl Scout camp, and even an international camp in Switzerland. I had some great experiences, but I didn’t experience a full-summer sleep away camp like Camp Taconic. My husband and his four siblings all went to sleep away camp; it was a tradition in his family that we continued when we sent our son Jack two years ago.

I remember the look of horror on one friend’s face when I told her I was sending my then-nine-year-old son away for seven weeks. Her expression seemed to say, “What kind of terrible mother are you that you want to be apart from your child for so long? Don’t you love him?” Of course I would miss him. But I knew he’d have an amazing time and that I was giving him a gift of lifelong friendships and memories. He took to camp like a duck to water, and my daughter Natalie followed suit two years later. They have never been happier than they were this summer.

With Jill Mindlin, my college roommate who introduced me to Camp Taconic

A number of things inspired me to want to work at camp. My successful treatment for breast cancer three years ago and the loss of my mother this year have given me renewed inspiration to seize the day. I know it’s important to appreciate everything I have and experience everything I want to now, because we never know what the future holds. I am so lucky to have two amazing, healthy children and I thought it would be fun to peek into their world at camp. I was trying to figure out what direction to take my career and felt that a little time away from my ad agency would help provide some perspective. And my closest friend had been working at this camp for six years and knew that this would be her last, as her kids are aging out and she is returning to being a full time attorney. It was wonderful to spend time with her and to get to know the people from camp who hold a special place in her life.

Jack and Natalie arriving at camp

I was hired and I had the unique opportunity to go to camp as an adult, taking a sabbatical from my real job. I was a bit hesitant to tell Jack that I would be coming to “his” camp. It was bad enough that his sister would be starting this year, now his mother was going to embarrass him all summer? Luckily he took the news quite well. And when we got to camp we discovered that the other three boys bunks in his age group also contained a kid whose mother was a senior staff member so it didn’t seem so weird that his mom was there.

The first few days I felt like a stranger in a strange land with unfamiliar words and customs. I had to decipher a bevy of new acronyms: the FAC (Fine Arts Center), OD (On Duty), ENO (Early Night Out), DUR (Dirty Utensil Receptacle), and the TAC lawn (I never did figure that one out.) Guys had nicknames like Binny and Princess and Bubbles. We listened for bells to tell us when to gather for meals and daily rituals like Sing and Milk & Cookies.

Scenes at Camp Taconic

 

Fortunately the veteran staff members were welcoming, thoughtful and caring. They helped me navigate this brave new world and by the second week my culture shock was waning. Around week four I was thoroughly in “the bubble” and knew that re-entry to the real world at the end of the summer would be just as difficult.

 
Camp friends

 

It’s amazing how quickly you bond with people you live, work and play with 24/7. It’s like college, or (I would imagine) the military. People come back to Camp Taconic year after year, maturing from campers to counsellors to senior staff members. Camp becomes their summer home, the people here a second family. Traditions are carried on for decades and others are created anew each year.

There are rules in place to ensure that staff members’ children have a typical camp experience and that other kids don’t get jealous for some parental attention. Campers are not allowed in their parent’s room except if the child is sick. It’s fine to interact with your kids and watch their dramatic performances or sports tournaments, but PDAs are discouraged…unless we hug the rest of the kids in the bunk too. There’s a lot of hugging at camp. You see the little ones in their counsellors’ laps, the kids with their arms around each other during Sing (the camp-wide sing-along that starts each day; it might sound corny but it’s so much fun).

 
Natalie on the waterfront

 

During the summer Natalie always had a huge smile and waved at me when our paths crossed. She liked that I got to see when she jumped into the lake or stood up on her bench to sing and dance during dinner (camp being the only place where this behavior isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged.)

 
Jack in a roller hockey tournament

 

The first few weeks Jack pretty much tried to steer clear of me. He’s only 11 but is already exhibiting some teenage behaviors like being totally embarrassed to be seen with your parents when you’re hanging out with your friends. Well, at camp you’re ALWAYS hanging out with your friends.

Then the most amazing thing happened. At the Closing Ceremonies for the Taconic Games (our PC name for color war) I was blown away by what these kids — both the campers and counsellors, most of whom are college students — were able to create. Huge “center pieces” that are really designed sets. Songs written and memorized in a matter of days. Elaborately choreographed dramatic entrances with a cast of hundreds. It was a spectacular and surprisingly emotional display of camp spirit. I caught sight of Jack in the crowd of his Green team members and, like many others, he was crying. So of course I started crying, looking through this window into what camp means to him. The next thing I knew, he was heading towards where I was sitting on the sidelines. He hugged me and thanked me for sending him here, for making it possible for him to be a part of this. It is a moment I will always cherish.

I don’t mean to imply that it was all a walk in the park. I worked really hard, not just being the camp Uber but also as a Bunk Mom for a group of 9-year-old boys (trying to keep their bunk from being a total disaster area), writing daily updates on the camp website, working in the canteen and lending a hand in the office. There were the minor frustrations that come with any job, but I didn’t let them bother me. You can’t sweat the small stuff.

Camp Taconic is basically a pop-up town in the middle of the Berkshires that has to accommodate the needs of hundreds of people — morning, noon and night. Running it all seems like a Herculean task. I am in awe of the owner, Jill Kleinman, who knows every kid’s name and supervises virtually every aspect of life at camp. She’s the CEO of a small village and does it all by not taking a break for seven weeks straight and by hiring excellent people and letting them do their jobs. She’s also got a great business partner, Mark Transport. Along with their spouses Loren Kleinman and Meryl Transport they divide and conquer. Of all the things I expected to get from this experience, a lesson in effective management was an unanticipated bonus.

A concert on the shore of Lake Ashmere

 

While I would love to return to Camp Taconic next year, it will depend on what the next 10 months bring. During the summer I got an unexpected offer from an employee to buy out my stake in the agency and I accepted it. I am no longer a partner at MK Creative Media Marketing, my professional home for 16 years. It was time for me to move on and I’m excited to figure out my next act. Being away from the job definitely helped give me the clarity to make the right decision for me.

7 Weeks in the Woods: Unplugged

I have taken a sabbatical from my “real” job this summer to work at my kids’ sleep away camp in the Berkshires. It’s a whole different world in so many ways. One of the many things that attracted us to this particular camp was its “no electronics” policy. Campers are allowed to have devices that play music only. My kids have more screen time than I’d like during the rest of the year so I’m happy that they get a break over the summer. The campers are so busy enjoying the great outdoors that they don’t miss their smart phones, TVs, computers, video games and iPads…right?

Not entirely. Some sneaky campers with phones or iPods ostensibly to play music have figured out how to hide their apps for inspection, then enable them when they want to use them. The camp just locked the WiFi, restricting staff to one registered device each, because the campers were using it. Why do the kids go to such great lengths for Internet access? Part of the allure is the thrill of getting away with something…the same reason they try to smuggle in candy (which isn’t allowed in bunks either). But it’s also that they’re digital natives, addicted to their portable electronic devices because they’ve grown up in a world where they’re omnipresent. Take them away and these kids are like junkies going through detox. They may know it’s good to break the habit but they’re jonesing for an electronics fix.

I have to admit that I’ve been experiencing a bit of withdrawal myself. My new surroundings have had a dramatic impact on my media habits. I have no TV or WiFi in my room, so my plan to watch streaming video on my iPad didn’t pan out (no Orange is the New Black Season 3 for me!) I have to sit near the administration building…where I am right now…to be within WiFi range. I did download a couple of shows from iTunes and an e-book so I can use them later. I won’t even get into how much time it has taken me to complete this posting, finally giving up trying to do it all on my iPad and borrowing a computer.

I feel very disconnected from the outside world. There’s no Today show while I get dressed in the morning and no New York Times app on the train to work to keep me informed. I can understand why my son once told me that he feels safe at camp. There’s no news about Isis or escaped convicts or deranged shooters here…just playing and having fun in a warm, supportive environment. It’s a wonderful cocoon, removed from the real world.

Cellular phone service is also spotty at best. Because I need to be reachable by the camp office, I’m carrying around an old AT&T phone in addition to my Verizon iPhone. Usually at least one of them works.

Once you have 24/7 connectivity it’s hard to lose it, or to discipline yourself not to use it. While on vacation with a group of friends in Jamaica last year we all used our phones, iPads and laptops to check in with our kids and work. As a group we were pretty good about not over-doing it, but I did wonder how much more relaxed we would be if we didn’t feel pressure to communicate with the folks back home simply because we had the capacity to do so. It’s like working remotely; it can be a blessing or a curse. It’s great to be able to be productive when you’re snowed in or have a sick kid, but we feel pressure to work mornings, evenings and weekends to be competitive. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

I think it’s sad when I see groups of young people who are all staring at their screens instead of talking to each other. What’s happening right around them has become less important than what else is happening, as reported via text or social networks.

We don’t ban the use of electronic devices in my home; my husband and I feel it’s important for our kids to develop digital skills to keep up with their education and eventually their career prospects. But we do hope to instill an appreciation for moderation, an understanding that there’s a time and a place for screen time. For example there are no electronics at our dinner table, at home or in restaurants.

I was talking to a parent who has a pretty strict no electronics policy in his home. He and his wife conceded to getting their 6th grader a smart phone because that’s how the kids communicate about things like homework assignments and sports practices. But they came up with a contract stipulating that the phone is a privilege, not a right, and may be rescinded at any time if the usage guidelines (such as no games) are not met.

Like childhood obesity, too much screen time is a first world problem. Having gone without easy access I can now understand how important it is for poor, remote areas of the U.S. and developing nations to have Internet and cellular service. The disparity is creating the “Haves” and “Have Nots” of the Information Age. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports Internet access in libraries in the U.S. and abroad:

In an age where economic, educational, health, and social opportunities increasingly depend on access to the Internet, lack of access means lack of opportunity. Only 35 percent of the world’s population is connected to the Internet, and people in rural and poor communities are the least likely to have online access or the skills to navigate the digital world. Through the Internet, people search for employment, find markets for their crops and products, access government programs, learn new skills through online courses, research important health issues, and engage in social interactions with distant family members and friends.

Companies like Google and Facebook also have programs to help increase access to the Internet in developing countries. Of course they have a vested interest in maximizing the number of Internet users in the world, but they’re doing good while they’re doing what’s good for their business.

The bottom line: Too much time on the Internet is bad because people lose their appreciation for experiencing life for its own sake, not so they can post about it. No internet is bad because people don’t have access to basic tools and information necessary to succeed in today’s world economy. But moderate use of the Internet, to supplement rather than replace our social connections and enhance our academic and occupational prospects, is just right. We all need to find the balance that’s best for ourselves and our kids.

Now put down the phone, go out and breathe some fresh air, and talk to a real human being for a while. You’ll be glad you did.

a while. You’ll be glad you did.

Books About TV

As a way to combine my interests in television and books, here are my reviews of three books about television.

Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV (Brian Stelter, Grand Central Publishing)

Top of the Morning is an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the battle for dominance between the Today show and Good Morning America. Other morning shows including CBS This Morning and MSNBC’s Morning Joe are mentioned, but the Today/GMA rivalry gets most of the coverage.

I got sucked into the drama but could have done without all the silly metaphors (“the only couch in America that could itself get a mid-six-figure book deal”; “The gap was now NASCAR-speedway-size, not football-stadium-size.”)

While the book presents a comprehensive history dating back to the launch of Today in 1952, the focus is on “Operation Bambi”: the bungled outster of Ann Curry from the Today anchor chair. I couldn’t stand watching Curry’s uncomfortable banter and numerous blunders, but she was the sacrificial lamb (Lamb Curry? Sorry, I couldn’t resist) for Today’s falling ratings…which weren’t all her fault. Stelter’s take is that Matt Lauer may have wanted her out, but he didn’t push her out. The real masterminds were NBC producers and executives. Lauer took the heat because he’s the public figure.

The book also delves into Robin Roberts’ very public battle with myelodysplastic syndromes, a result of her treatment for breast cancer years earlier. The way she juggled her professional duties, helping GMA beatToday’s legendary 16-year ratings streak, with her personal trials was amazing. I guess next I’m going to have to read Everybody’s Got Something, Roberts’ memoir (also from Grand Central Publishing.)

Good Talk, Dad: The BIRDS and the BEES…and other CONVERSATIONS we FORGOT to have (Bill Geist and Willie Geist, Grand Central Publishing)

Speaking of morning television…this book was written by Bill Geist fromCBS Sunday Morning and his son Willie Geist who appears on Today andMorning Joe. It’s not really a book about TV, it’s about the relationship between a father and son who happen to work in TV. They also happen to have lived in my hometown of Ridgewood, NJ, and the book includes many amusing local references.

The day it was released I attended their signing at Bookends, our local independent bookstore that somehow attracts everyone from Clintons to Kardashians to its ugly, wood-paneled basement for author appearances. Their family and many former neighbors were in attendance, and I was struck by what nice, genuine people the Geists really seem to be. They come off that way in the book: very homespun yet quirky, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Bill’s work.

The anecdotes in the book are downright hilarious. It’s also poignant, delving into previously taboo subjects like Bill’s service in Vietnam and his struggles with Parkinson’s. It’s a fun read and a perfect Father’s Day gift.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country (Gabriel Sherman, Random House)

That’s a really long subtitle…and it’s a really interesting book about a really fascinating character. Ailes has been a political kingmaker, a media mogul, and even a Broadway producer. I might doubt the veracity of some of the stories if I didn’t know how spot-on chapter 9, “America’s Talking,” was. I was working at NBC Cable at the time and witnessed the Ailes cult of personality first hand. Loyalty was prized above all, as evidenced by the legions of staff members who followed him to Fox News.

The one accomplishment of this era that the book neglects to cover is the “Talk Search”: Ailes had the idea of conducting a nation-wide contest to find a host of one of the new America’s Talking shows. It was a brilliant PR stunt, and a reality competition show ahead of its time (the competition itself was not televised, but it should have been.) After the demise of America’s Talking the winner, Bill McCuddy, was an entertainment reporter at Fox News from 1996–2007 and is currently residing in the “where are they now?” file.

Ailes has proven that if you say something often enough, no matter how absurd it is, people will believe it. He’s used “Fair and Balanced” as a tagline for the most unfair and unbalanced news network on the air, helping it become #1 in ratings and profits. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny his influence on American politics and media.

Print: It’s Not Dead Yet

On Friday I attended the 15th annual BookExpo America (for my cable friends: it’s like NCTA, but with books.) In a world where authors are the rock stars, attendees (booksellers and librarians) stand in long lines for autographed copies…even when the author isn’t Christie Brinkley (who was promoting her upcoming book Timeless Beauty and looked fabulous, BTW.) We keep hearing that digital media is killing the printed word, but I believe reports of print’s demise are grossly exaggerated. Print and digital will continue to evolve but will co-exist, just as video maimed — rather than killed — the radio star, and streaming video won’t completely annihilate cable TV.

In 2010’s prescient Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart describes a not-so-distant future where printed books are dusty, musty relics of a bygone era used only by hopelessly uncool old people. Trying to avoid becoming a hopelessly uncool old person myself, I made the switch from mostly physical books to mostly e-books when I got an iPad Mini. I do most of my reading on the train commuting to work. I can take an entire library with me effortlessly on my Mini, or lug around a heavy print book that takes up half of the space in my bag.

In general I’m happy with the digital reading experience, although I just read I Am Malala (I give it 5 stars!) and kept wishing there was a glossary of the Pashtun terms that I didn’t understand. Guess what? There was a glossary, but it was at the end so I didn’t see it until I had finished the book. It would have been smart to put the glossary up front or, better yet, to hyperlink the words to their definitions.

Despite the convenience of digital books I’ve tried to keep printed books as my kids’ primary reading source for a number of reasons. They get enough screen time playing games and watching videos so it’s good to give their brains a break. And I want them to have an appreciation for the value of books, which is more difficult when a “book” is just a digital file. When Jack’s Sports Illustrated Kids arrives it’s also available on the iPad. But he likes to flip through the print magazine, read and re-read it, and tear out posters. I gave Natalie a copy of Animal Tales magazine and she loved it, tearing out pictures of cute animals that now adorn her bedroom walls. You can’t do that with digital. All of the middle schoolers in my town will be getting a Chromebook next year (high school students already have them) so it will be interesting to see how Jack’s relationship with printed books changes.

According to GeekWire, “Paper is back…’real’ books are on the rebound.” Paper book sales increased 2.4% last year, selling better than they have since ebooks took off in 2010. “The paper tome apparently hit rock bottom in 2012, but has since rallied in categories from children’s books to adult non-fiction, and formats from trade paperback to hardcover.” My client Hachette Book Group announced that in 2014 digital sales (ebooks and downloadable audio) represented 30% of net sales, compared to 33% in 2013. It may not seem like it when you see all the Kindles and iPads, but print is up and digital is down.

While Amazon has taken a wrecking ball to brick-and-mortar bookstores, there are signs of life there, too. As reported in the Publisher’s Weekly Show Daily, the number of independent bookstores has actually GROWN for the sixth year in a row. There are people who really want to go into a bookstore and browse rather than ordering their books with their toilet paper and TV shows. The shuttering of Borders in 2011 and the continuing closings of Barnes & Noble locations have left a real void for indies to fill.

What about newspapers? I’ve been reading The New York Times on the app on my Mini. I love the cleanliness factor: no dirty fingers from newsprint! The only catch is that I have to remember to open it up while I’m still in my Wifi-connected house. Once I do so it downloads immediately (a marked improvement over the last year or so.) The digital version can also be a richer experience. One day I was reading the food section on the Times app, sitting next to my father who was reading the print edition. In a piece about sandwiches he saw a couple of still photographs; I got interactive sandwiches that jumped apart to reveal images and additional information about the individual ingredients. As far as I can figure out, there are only two reasons we still get the print version: my husband likes the crossword puzzle (let’s be honest, Honey…we’re talking Monday and Tuesday…Wednesday, tops) and the plastic wrappers it comes in make great poop bags for dog walking. I don’t think those are user benefits The New York Times Company can bank on.

The Times is poised to hit 1 million digital subscribers this summer. Half of its digital readers now come from mobile. The average daily print circulation is 625,951; Sunday circ is about 1.3 million. It’s truly the best of times and the worst of times at the Times. Falling profits have meant the layoffs of many valuable long-term employees. But I have faith that the brand will adapt and survive. The Times was one of three news sources recommended by the instructor of a Social Media class I took recently, who is barely in her twenties; the other two being Mashable and Digiday. Her point was that to be an effective social media manager you need to know everything that’s going on in the world, and a general news source like the Times is the best way to keep up on a wide range of topics. Her assumption is that you’ll be consuming that content digitally, of course.

Nothing beats digital for immediacy. You can’t stay current by reading day-old news, or two week-old news in the case of The New York Times Book Review. It drives me crazy that they can’t figure out a way to print that thing closer to its distribution date. We hear about what movie was #1 at the weekend box office on Monday, but the bestseller lists are two weeks old by the time they arrive at our doorstep.

So put me firmly in the camp of preferring digital to print newspapers. When it comes to magazines, however, I still appreciate both formats. I love New York magazine and was saddened when it reduced its publication schedule from weekly to bi-monthly. I haven’t made the switch to digital partly because I don’t have Internet access during my commute. So until we get Wifi on NJ Transit, I’m stuck. I know New York magazine’s website has a lot of good digital content but I never seem to have the time to check it out. When I’m at work I’m working (crazy, I know) and when I’m at home I’m parenting; if I have any time to relax I watch TV the old fashioned way — on a TV. Plus, we need print magazines to occupy us at doctor’s offices and nail salons!

Print is cool again, and media brands known for their video or digital content are jumping on the bandwagon. Cable’s ID (Investigation Discovery) Network is distributing a series of true-crime special reports starting this summer. You can get the first issue, Women Who Kill, for $9.99 at a newsstand near you. Even tech website CNET went back to the future and launched a print magazine last November.

It all boils down to a matter of personal preference. Whether it’s on the printed page or on a digital device, keep reading. And thank you for reading Issue #2 of Thinking Out Laub.

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to my blog.

I plan to write about things that interest me, and hopefully will interest you. About the media. And marketing. And being a working mom.

I’ve been threatening to start a blog for some time now and keep procrastinating. It’s time for me to stop the excuses and start writing. I know some really cool people in the entertainment, agency and publishing worlds and this blog will give me an excuse to chat with them about their careers, what’s new and the industry, and how they envision the media landscape evolving.

I’ll give you my two cents about news and trends, too. But first, a little personal history.

I began studying media as an undergraduate at Penn when I signed up for this weird major called Communications. The Annenberg School for Communication attracted me because instead of studying different subjects from a single academic perspective, it focused on a single subject (communication) through the lens of many different disciplines (history, psychology, sociology, etc.)

The program was more scholarly than pragmatic, however. I graduated with great insight into the role of international communication on national development and the films of Alfred Hitchock, for example, but no clue what the difference was between the Account, Media and Creative departments of an ad agency.

My first job was in the ad sales department of a television syndication company called All American Television. Our big hit was “America’s Top 10 with Casey Kasem” and our highly technical system of tracking what spots were sold was putting stickers on a chart on the wall, color coded for each sales person. It was here that I received two pieces of invaluable advice:

1. My boss, John Reisenbach, told me to always carry a pen and notepad with me so I could write down (and therefore remember) what I was being asked to do. Of course I couldn’t write that advice down, as I was standing there with neither pen nor paper… but I never made that mistake again.

2. George Back, the president of the company, said that if he was getting into the television industry today — today being 1985 — he would work in cable. I took his advice and was soon at the just-launched Consumer News and Business Channel, better known as CNBC.

Based in a non-descript office building in the global media capital of Fort Lee, New Jersey, CNBC was like the ugly redheaded stepchild of NBC. We couldn’t have imagined back then that the cable division would eventually outpace the broadcast network in earnings, grow to include dozens of top-rated networks, and be eaten up by Comcast.

I had a front-row seat (well, maybe front row of the balcony) as media luminaries like Bob Wright, Tom Rogers, Roger Ailes and David Zaslav made deals, launched networks, and built The Little Cable Network That Could into a multi-billion dollar business.

After a decade at what was, by then, called NBC Cable Networks, I headed across the river to the big city and a little entertainment advertising agency called MK. Climbing up the ranks from Account Director to Partner, I’ve had the privilege of working with a diverse roster of media properties, helping them build their awareness, distribution and revenue.

It’s been a crazy ride. I look forward to sharing my past and future adventures with you.