Charlie Fern's Ink

Do what you say. Say it in color.

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Name: Charlie Fern
Location: San Diego-Austin-Washington-London

Charlie Fern is a former White House speechwriter who runs a full-scale communications consulting, PR and speechwriting firm. Ms. Fern is also an adjunct professor who teaches public relations at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

East Coasting

We have left Kentucky, and are now in Washington, DC, and having a great time, even though it's really cold outside. I'd forgotten what "wind chill" can actually mean - how it can permafrost a face, make your eyeballs numb and turn your cheeks red, and what it's like to feel the temperature drop once the sun dips low in the sky. I wrinkled my nose tight and relaxed, so I could feel the frozen facial muscles thaw and release a half-minute after I had relaxed them.

One of the reasons we left Kentucky early and came to DC was so I could meet a friend from Austin, who had an extra ticket to the Cowboys and Redskins game here on Sunday. The game was awesome! (I know some might disagree.....)

We were 25 rows up from the field, and right around the 5-10 yard line on the Redskins side, so we got to see the Redskins charge out of the dressing room, etc. During the game-starting activities a crew set off fireworks in the end zone, and the rockets and colors exploded and fizzled in our faces, or so it seemed. I wasn't in Row 25, Seat 14, though. I was on Cloud Nine.

It poured the entire first half of the game but my friend Jane Anne and I stood and cheered for our respective teams much of the entire time. I did not know that the seats were ornamental. Jane Anne informed me that rooting for your team is insincere (potentially irreverent) if you’re sitting down during the process.

I should mention here that Jane Anne is a loyal, smart, football-literate Cowboys fan who was hesitant to make the trip in the first place, knowing the risks and odds of winning and/or seeing starting players play well. But she couldn't resist the temptation, and she had an interesting, if not misundereducated NFLly challenged adversary in me (and a good friend willing to warm the vacant seat next to hers).

I have a cell phone video that I must find a way to upload. In it, I'm panning from the far end zone to our end zone, fans roaring in the background, and I stop at Jane Anne's face, which is framed with a hood trimmed with blue and silver fur. She says, smirking (and not knowing she's being videotaped), "Your Redskins cheerleaders are ugly." The cell phone automatically timed off and stopped recording a second later (and a few seconds before I dropped it in a puddle).

Remarkably, we were fairly warm even though we were soaking wet. We were soaking wet, for the most part, because we refused to wear our rain ponchos. We refused to wear our ponchos because it was financially unfeasible to do so, you see. We’d spent too much money on team logo shirts, hats and jackets, and the NFL rulebook specifically states that you can’t cover that kind of frivolity in the first half.

I think the body heat of 91,000 people made a difference in the ambient temperature of Section 104, where we would have sat if our seats weren’t ornamental. All that standing didn't keep our feet warm and dry, though.

I was wearing my dad's old Army flight jacket, and the thick wool-like collar absorbed about 6 pounds of ice-cold moisture, which it wicked to its base -- my neck. Most of the rest of me was warm and dry, except for my hair and neck. Even after I donned the rain poncho, that part of me remained insulated, cold, and soaked.

We had to take a break from the half, through part of the third quarter, to dry out and change our socks. Jane Anne wore cowboy boots that weren't waterproof. She kept muttering something about Scotch Guard. Once we were safely in the club-level ladies' room. I suggested she put a clean, dry pair of socks and two trash bags on her feet. She resisted the idea at first. Finally she did put on the socks, then the trash bags, then the boots. I believe her feet were dry the rest of the game. I was wearing cheap vinyl boots. My feet were warm and dry the entire game. But the pads of my feet grew numb after five hours of standing in heels.

I really did enjoy it all -- even the rain. I can now boast about doing something As Seen on TV. I survived a cold, pouring-down-rainy game, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. The element of rain would, and will continue to add, to my dramatic re-interpretation of the events of that day. When I see another rainy game on TV, I'll think, "Man, those poor saps are out in it. I’m so glad I’m at home watching it on TV." And I’ll mean it this time. No matter how much I loved every minute of the experience, still, instant replays are better in climate-controlled environments, with a refrigerator and warm popcorn nearby.

Some interesting observations:

*The ladies' rooms at both the stadium and club levels feature paper towel rolls to dry hands, instead of heated air dryers. No doubt there was shock and disappointment on the face of every single female visiting fan who went into the bathroom thinking she could dry her hands AND her hair. What were they thinking?

*I was told that Fedex Field is the only 100 percent season ticket stadium that is 100 percent sold out this year. Every single one of those 91,000 seats belongs to a season ticket holder. Can you imagine?

*People - Redskins fans - actually left the stadium early in the third quarter. People garbed in red and gold walking out the exit doors and I'm thinking, "Respectable lead or not, it's the third quarter of the last home game, last game of the season, against rival team Cowboys, and we're winning the fourth victory over the Cowboys in the last three years and the third straight victory at Fedex Field, the rain is letting up and.....they're.....leaving?

*The camera on zip lines that cruises down the middle of the field with the players is awesome. I've always wanted to see it in action (don't ask me why - maybe it goes back to my year as a broadcast journalism major). Talk about fancy schmancy - probably what, a half-million dollar camera? It zoomed and zinged along like a robot with a perky personality, and it was just below our eye level so at times we got a really good look at it. Between plays it zipped over to a sideline and dropped down (literally and linear-ly - the line would slack and lower the camera to about 6 feet and the camera itself would drop so the lens faced the ground) and a guy would walk up underneath it and wipe off the lens with a special camera mop -- looked like a puffy absorbent white pad with dreadlocks at the end of a long stick. Once dry, the camera would flip back up, the line would pull taut, and off the camera would zip again, usually taking its place just behind and to one side of the quarterback of the team with possession of the ball. Some guy sitting in a box seat with a joystick and a primo view of the field has one of the coolest jobs in the country.

The rain was on and off in the third quarter and finally let up by the fourth when I felt it was finally safe to celebrate. Poor Jane Anne (who bought our tickets) was one of a dozen or so people clad in silver and blue, among the ocean (or abyss, if you’re looking at it from her perspective) of maroon and gold, but the fans were, for the most part, decent. A few "Cowboys suck" remarks here and there, but that's to be expected. She did well for being in the heart of enemy territory.

There's nothing like being in those seats when your team is winning and the stadium is rocking and reverberating with the echoes of nearly 100,000 fans cheering and oooing and aaahing at nearly the same instants of the same plays of the same game. And when it's the last game of the regular season and you're going to the playoffs because you've beat your rival at home for the first time in seven years, well there's just hardly an experience that can compare for a football fan. I can see how it would feel like a Baptist revival for true fans. I can understand how you can walk away from the experience feeling a little better about life. I wonder if there are health benefits to being a season ticket holder who gets to cheer a favorite team to the playoffs - or better yet to the Super Bowl, or at the Super Bowl. I wonder if that's better medicine than laughter.

The five Cowboys fans I ran into were gracious and one or two said wryly, "Merry Christmas! We might meet again in the playoffs!" I got the point.

I don't think the Redskins will make it to the Super Bowl, but I'm totally overjoyed I had the experience of that game. It's the second NFL game I've ever been to. The first one was a preseason game at Fedex Field a few years ago, and I think the Redskins lost. I don't think I'll have trouble remembering this one.

I got to tell my “I met Joe Theismann in an ice cream store when I was 8 years old” story over and over again. (It really is a great story, and I’ll tell it again sometime).

It was like Old Home day with thousands of long-lost friendly strangers. Hugs and high-fives and knuckles all around. It was so great.

But enough about the game.

We also took Elliot to the National Zoo yesterday, and we got to be spectators of a different sort. We arrived shortly after lunchtime, and Elliot was hungry.

After some fabulous entertainment a-la panda bears, we stopped to get our boy wonder a little lunch. We found a kids’ meal complete with chicken nuggets, french fries, applesauce and juice, all served in a plastic panda-head lunchbox.

He was eating his lunch in his stroller when we wheeled him through the "great ape" building.

We stopped in front of this orangutan who was, at the time, minding his own business and alone in his enclosure without a single spectator.

Elliot finished eating and started to fiddle around with the panda head lunchbox, opening and closing it.

Since we were the only people standing in front of his enclosure at that moment, Elliot’s toy animal lunchbox caught the orangutan's interest.

He waddled over and sat down directly in front of Elliot, and put his fist up to the glass. We promptly drew a crowd.

These are the photos from that moment. Notice how, in the third photo, the redheads look alike.

I wish more people would read the signs about primate and great ape behavior so they’d know it’s not kosher to run up to the glass enclosures and pound your fists on them. Gorillas like sit with their backs to people because that’s how they sit around with each other. Turning your back on your fellow primate is the norm, and it makes them feel comfortable. I often prefer it, too. Just so you know.


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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Lucky Seven, Lucky You: My Random Things

Well, I’ve been tagged in a “meme”-- which, according to my tagger, is something like a blog version of those “getting to know you” e-mails that find their way to my in-box on occasion.

Unlike that damn redhead, Stacy Lukas who tagged me, I had no idea what a "meme" was, nor what volunteering that information would mean for my free time over the next day or two. But, as she promised in her own blog, it’s relatively simple: I'm supposed to list seven random things about myself for your enjoyment and/or education. Without further ado:

1) I am a hopeless Anglophile, from the top of my red head to the bottom of my pale and freckled feet. My love for Great Britain is an incurable disease that takes stronger hold with my every exposure. I suspect that it has something to do with lineage: They are my people. I am of English, Irish, and Scottish descent (from England's Portsmouth, Ireland's Loch Conn, and unknown parts of Scotland) It's also been rumored that we are descendants of Lord William Canning, and we have a family crest that my cousins swear is older than QVC. I adore the British people. I love the food of England (including and especially the cheeses, clotted cream and "Extermely Chocolatey Mini Bites"). And oh, how I love Guinness. I also find something sacred and powerfully comforting about the British tradition of tea. It is my religion. I love that I blend in with everyone on the beaches of Cornwall: nearly all of us day-glo white and freckled with red blotches where we missed with the sunscreen. And I love the wildlife. Ravens, magpies, seagulls; even rabbits. Once, when I was walking along the Hayle Towans (grass-covered dunes) with my friend Sarah, we happened upon a coven or two of rabbits. I squealed with delight at the spectacle of dozens of long ears disappearing down rabbit holes. As I stood there taking it all in, Sarah shook her head in dismay. "We eat them, you know," she said, smiling wryly. I know better -- I've seen them immortalized in art. The only thing I don't like about England is leaving it. Look out, Bill Bryson. I could take you for the Anglophile title.

2) I am nicknamed after my great-uncle, Charlie Fern. He was a fascinating caricature of a man; a pioneering aviator (barnstormer) and journalist (a self-proclaimed "UPI man") in Hawaii, who worked his way up to owner and publisher of the Garden Isle. A problem with the fuel gauge on his twin-engine "Jenny" led to his becoming the first man to fly a plane round-trip in the Hawaiian islands. I've found few writings about him that didn't include adjectives like "talented", "daring", and "legendary". Uncle Charlie was responsible for developing my love of letters and of writing. My nom de plume and company name isn't just a tribute to this personal hero; it is a legacy that I continually strive to honor in my own life and profession. It is also a daily reminder that you cannot live a large and honorable life without taking risks and maintaining integrity. A bittersweet asterisk: The man who knows the most about Uncle Charlie's life is his son Charles Jr. (who goes by Mike), whom I have never met because my family lost track of him. They claim he is a recluse (and a genius). I know very little about Mike, except that he's about 85 and he lives somewhere in Orange County. And he is the guardian of the remainder of details about the life of one of the greatest men I've ever known.

3) I have an irrational fear of bridges, especially tall ones. I will to bring a car to a screeching halt on the shoulder of a road that presents a sudden and unexpected bridge ahead. I am terrified of the Delaware Memorial Bridge (or DEL MEM BR, as the sign says), and I am physically unable to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and the bridge that leads into Newport, Rhode Island. So, if you're ever caught on a road trip and I'm behind the wheel, I suggest you check the map and make sure you know what's ahead.

4) I love olives -- especially fancy name-brand pitted black olives. I have loved olives since I was a child, and I have been known to eat an entire can in one sitting. In my family, it was a Thanksgiving tradition to set a bowl of black olives out on the dinner table. And traditionally, they never lasted till dinner if there were any kids around. It was one of life's early pleasures, popping an olive over the tip of each finger, wiggling them, and eating them. And many a Christmas stocking was stuffed with a can of olives for me. Mine, all mine.

5) I sang a duet with Fred Rogers (as in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood) on April 3, 2002. I was staffing an event in the East Wing -- The White House Conference on Early Childhood Education. Mr. Rogers was one of the guest speakers. I should insert here that I have met, and worked for, a lot of very famous people. By that point in my tenure at the White House, I was fairly numb to the celebrity effect. So it is somewhat embarrassing to say that of all the big-name people I've encountered in my life, it was Fred Rogers who reduced me to a giddy kid who could hardly find her voice upon meeting him. He's just exactly as the world saw him on television: Warm, kind, attentive, sincere.

I shook his hand after the event and told him (babbled, actually) that when I was a kid, I didn't much care for his show, but I had grown to appreciate him (and his music) as an adult. I often called my grown-up friends and sang "It's Such a Good Feeling" to them -- in fact, a friend and I had worked out a little stage routine to the song. His face lit up and he said, "Why don't we sing it together?" I was utterly stunned. This was an opportunity I simply could not refuse, but I risked being fired for upsetting the program to accommodate him. Yet he insisted, and hnd his "handler" (manager) agreed.

Once all the guests from the conference were seated in the dining room for lunch, Fred Rogers excused himself from the room. He walked out to the main corridor on the first floor of the White House, where the Marine Corps band was playing. Mr. Rogers and I were alone there except for the musicians and one or two staffers. He walked up to the White House Steinway piano - the one with golden eagles for legs - and asked the Marine who had just finished playing a song on it if he (Fred Rogers) might sit down and play a song. The Marine promptly and cheerfully obliged. Mr. Rogers signaled me over. He started to play "It's Such a Good Feeling," and I couldn't believe what a magnificent pianist he was. He rolled across the keyboard with exquisite grace and started to sing. He looked at me expectantly. When I could find my voice, I squeaked along with him. By the end of the song, I had tears running down my face. Yep. It was such a good feeling. A month or two later, I received a package in the mail. It contained an autographed picture (he'd also written a bar of notes from the song on it) and his entire collection of CDs (which I play for my 3-year-old son on a regular basis). Funny how one of the pinnacles of my career had nothing to do with speechwriting.

6) I nearly lit a man on fire on April 23, 2001. It happened when I was a White House speechwriter. One morning my boss, the head speechwriter for the President, brought around a man in a nice suit. I was deeply focused on an article I was reading. They appeared at my office door and I wheeled around in time to hear my boss introduce him. I know—at least I think I know – I heard “Josh Bolten,” but as I stood up and stuck out my hand, I said "Hi John."

I was swiftly corrected. My boss explained to Josh that I was the First Lady’s speechwriter. Josh’s expression conveyed a mental filing of information that made me uneasy. As I held his steel grip in my handshake, I realized that his sleeve was dangling perilously above the open flame of a candle I had lit on my desk. Bolton, who must've felt the heat, looked down and asked me what the "altar" was for. My boss, who had been standing silently in the doorway, shifted uncomfortably.

I stammered that the painters had just finished our offices and the candle was ridding the room of the paint smell. They were halfway down the hall as my voice trailed off…I picked up our office staff directory. I thumbed over to the section marked "Chief of Staff". There it was: Third person from the top. Josh Bolten. Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff of Policy. I'd just met the fourth most powerful man in the White House, got his name wrong, and nearly lit his suit on fire.

7) I know The Number One place to watch Marine One take off from the White House Grounds without getting shot by the secret service. It’s from the Old Executive Office Building; specifically, on a narrow ledge just outside a window in a top-floor hallway near the library. I and two colleagues found this spot when we worked in that building. I'm fairly certain you won't be shot, because when we were watching a departure one morning from that very spot, I noticed two pairs of binoculars pointed at me -- by two secret service guys on the roof of the White House. We waved. They waved back. I lived to tell the story.

There you have it, folks. Seven things that shaped the quirky person I am. And seven victims are all from Twitter:

1. Beth Zesinis (@avenuez)
2. Cathy Scott (@cathyscott)
3. Dr. Ellen Weber (@ellenfweber)
4. Joel Bass (@joelbass)
5. Diane L. Harris (@DianeLHarris)
6. Nichole Brown (@Napril1023)
7. John C. Kim (@JKimLosangeles)

I don't know a couple of these poor unsuspecting characters, but they seem like fascinating people based on our Twitter conversations. Anyway, that's the point, isn't it -- to get to know them better by their blogs?

Here are the rules:

* Link your original tagger(s), and list these rules on your blog.
* Share seven facts about yourself in the post - some random, some weird.
* Tag seven people at the end of your post by leaving their names and the links to their blogs.
* Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs and/or Twitter.