Ever since I took to wearing a big-ass, beat-up leather hat, a leather vest and jeans, people I pass on the street have treated me as if I were what I appear to be -- they see by my outfit that I am a cowboy and they act toward me as if I poked cows for a living. And I can tell that's the case, because the men almost always give me The Nod.
The Nod is strictly a guy thing, but it's still pretty definitive. If a person of the male persuasion believes you to be an actual puncher of cows, he'll almost invariably give you The Nod -- a single, deliberate acknowledgement of your status a kind of salute to your embodiment of an archetype -- as soon as he catches your eye.
Now, the Nod demands a response in kind. Fail to respond and you risk hurting the other guy's feelings. Substitute some other acknowledgement -- wink at the man, say, or smile and wave -- and you'll only confuse him, because that reaction falls outside of the range of behaviors he expects the symbol you represent to display.
The only acceptable reply to The Nod is to nod in return -- and you don't want to overdo it, either because that, too, spoils the effect. Just a slight tilt of the head is all that's required -- your hat brim will magnify the effect two- or three-fold, anyway.
(For that matter, if you'd like to put a big smile on the other fellow's kisser, you can briefly touch the edge of your hat brim with the side of your index finger as you nod. It's langiappe; a fillip that says, "I acknowledge your ritual salute, friend, and I do believe there's a little bit of cowboy in you." Guys eat it up with a spoon.)
The thing is, though, my only interest in cows is in their role as occasional cheeseburgers. Heck, come to that, I'm not even much of a horseman -- yet. (I've got good instincts, natural aptitude and enthusiam and I'm generally a quick study, but I simply lack the experience with which only months and years in the saddle can equip you.) I aspire to horsemanship, but, as things stand today, I'm still a goodly distance away from having actually achieved it.
So I respond to The Nod only out of a sense of obligation to my costume and what it represents -- from the horseman's equivalent of noblesse oblige, if you will -- because I know I have not truly earned it.
My point is that appearances are often at odds with reality. I am not yet at home on the range, even though I'll return The Nod, just like an authentic wrangler would. And I am not a cowboy, though I wear a cowboy's clothes.
In a way, it's a lot like the situation I'm in here at Boardwatch.
Four Years Before the Masthead
You see, in writing this column these days, I often employ the editorial "we" when speaking about Boardwatch's own policies, products and image -- what the marketeers like to call its "brand identity." I do so because I know that most of you, the readers, draw no distinction between my positions and those of Boardwatch. To the vast majority of you, what I say represents the magazine's point of view, just as much as do the opinions expressed in Bill McCarthy's editorials at the front of the book.
As is so often the case, however, the truth is more complex than that.
Ever since Jack Rickard dumped the old girl in the dust and vamoosed in a Humvee full of cash, Bill McCarthy has been the Editor-in-Chief of Boardwatch. Thus, his editorials do represent the magazine's official position on the subjects he chooses to address. On top of that, he's what you call a "staffer" -- he draws a regular paycheck, gets health and other benefits and is afforded at least some modest legal shelter for the consequences of expressing his opinions by virtue of his position on staff.
I am neither thing. My opinions represent yours truly and no one else. And I am not a staffer. I'm strictly an individual -- and strictly a freelancer.
That means I get a paycheck only after my work is published. And if I get sick and miss submitting a column, I not only don't get paid for that month, I have to foot the doctor's bill by myself. I have zero job security and no legal protection from the consequences of my editorial positions beyond a defense based on the truth.
And I like it that way.
With the single exception of the contents of my column, however, that also means that I have effectively zero power over what gets into the magazine and what gets left out. (I've got a certain amount of credibility with the staffers, so they'll usually at least do me the courtesy of listening to me, but I have absolutely zilch for traction with the "suits" -- the Penton corporate folks -- and getting them to pay attention is nigh impossible.)
The main thing is that, like most of the rest of my fellow Boardwatch columnists, I'm simply a contractor. I have no power over or responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the magazine. You can't reach me via Boardwatch's switchboard and I don't even see the actual Boardwatch staffers all that often.
"Responsibility" Is Not a Four-letter Word
Now, it's true that Bill McCarthy affords me considerable freedom to choose my own subject matter. Unlike Jack, (who maintained, "If there's any opinin' to be done around here -- and there is -- I'll do it. You just stick to the technical stuff,") Bill has always encouraged me to exercise my editorial and rhetorical wings. He's never been afraid to just turn me loose and trust me to tell the truth.
It's a pretty darned big chunk of responsibility to carry around, though, and I'm always acutely aware of the investment of good faith it represents. So I try hard not to violate Bill's trust, just as I try hard to earn yours.
When I fail of those goals -- and from time to time I do fall short, sometimes in spectacular fashion -- I make certain promptly to admit and correct my error. Nobody "makes" me do that. Not Bill, not Todd Erickson, our Managing Editor, not Julie Wheeler, the Senior Editor who edits my stuff. I never hear "boo" from any of them, and, in fact, I'd be willing to bet my standard two bits that my occasional retractions, corrections and emendations take them as much by surprise as they do you.
No, it's strictly my own sense of ethics that "makes" me 'fess up. That, and the understanding that, as a freelance writer, the only thing I really have going for me is my credibility. Should I lose that, I'd have nothing to offer you guys besides a modest talent for stringing words together.
That way lies a career in marketing communications -- with a side order of moral collapse.
So I'm at least as tough on myself as I am on the other folks that I criticize in these pages. Since I often find myself acting in the role of Industry Conscience, that seems only reasonable to me -- the way I see it, if you're gonna wag your finger at other people's misbehavior, you'd damned well better be prepared to set an example by your own conduct.
So I'm hard on myself -- much harder than are the Boardwatch staffers.
They don't have to tell me how to behave. I'm perfectly capable of doing that myself. And, since I insist on being able to look myself in the eye when I shave each day, I never let myself take the easy way out.
That's why Bill trusts me to pick my own topics and -- when it needs doing -- to shoot my own dog. And that, in turn, is why I use the editorial "we" when I speak of Boardwatch, even though I'm not on staff and have no power over its policies and official positions.
You see, I have cast my lot with this publication. I know that you, the readers, think of it as a monolith, with a central pool of opinion and position from which we columnists drink on a regular basis, and I realize that, for better or worse, your opinion of Boardwatch informs and reflects your opinion of me -- and vice-versa. So I accept responsibility for the magazine's shortcomings, just as I accept responsibility for my own -- and for the same reason:
Because, so long as I write for this rag, there's no escaping either one.
So there you have it. Like returning The Nod, correcting my own mistakes, accepting responsibility for the consequences of my own actions and speaking in the editorial "we" are all self-imposed obligations. I take them on purely because I choose to do so.
That's just the kind of hombre I am.
(Copyright© 2001 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)