Drag Queens a Family Tradition in Europe

Who doesn’t like a guy in drag?

Who doesn’t love a drag queen? Republicans, apparently, judging by the number of bills filed in red states seeking to ban drag performances, prohibit children from attending them, or classify them as adult-oriented businesses. Really? You’re going to cancel Ru Paul and Mrs. Doubtfire?

In Europe, going to a pantomime (more familiarly, a panto) is a cherished Christmas and New Year’s tradition, much like going to church on Christmas Eve or trying not to blast your fingers off while celebrating the new year.

A panto is a fractured fairy tale that’s hosted by a dame, generally a guy in a dress. Cross-dressing usually features prominently, as do music, bad jokes, double-entendres, triple-entendres (thruple-entendre, anyone??) and much hilarity. And fart jokes. Definitely fart jokes.

I had never heard of a panto until we started going to Europe regularly during the fall months, but it’s become a tradition for our whole family. Shortly after we arrived in Belfast in January 2017, I bought us tickets for the Belfast panto at the Grand Opera House, which that year was “Cinderella.” Even a few weeks after the new year, tickets were nearly sold out. For our performance, the audience was composed mainly of schoolchildren.

Let me put that in italics: The audience was composed mainly of schoolchildren.

They were young. They were in their school uniforms. They were laughing hysterically. They weren’t being groomed.

The Belfast dame is May McFettridge, who’s been hosting the holiday panto at the Opera House since 1990, save for the pandemic year. She also works tirelessly for UK charities that support disadvantaged children, so much so that she was awarded a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her charity work and had an audience with Queen Elizabeth in 2007 at Buckingham Palace.

The Grand Opera House lobby features busts of two people: the architect of the building – and May McFettridge, who was given her own bust during her 25th panto in 2014. John Lineham, who formerly was a car mechanic, has a wife and two daughters.

Let me put that in italics: John Lineham has a wife and two daughters.

He became an accidental drag queen when a relative who was hosting a radio show asked Lineham to phone in to liven it up. He pretended to be a Belfast housewife, the show was a huge success, and May McFettridge was born.

The Grand Opera House closed (fortuitously, as it turns out) after the 2019 panto for a year-long refurbishment. The venue was supposed to open in time for the 2020 panto, but Covid intervened and delayed the reopening. In March 2022, Prince Charles was on hand for it, sharing a few quips with May.

In Shakespeare’s time, men assumed both male and female roles. That tradition lives on today in the modern panto. Nothing to see here but entertainment for the whole family.

Belfast Badassery!

Enthusiastic audiences greet author and new book

Marilynn Richtarik’s talks in Belfast were the academic equivalent of a sold-out arena hosting a semi-famous rock band — albeit without cellphone flashlights aloft or the pungent smell of marijuana.

Audiences that require more than the fingers on two hands to count are considered good by scholarly standards, so it was quite refreshing to host 70 people Tuesday at Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies (including 40+ online viewers) and about 40 on Thursday at the Linen Hall Library across from Belfast City Hall. The audiences were enthusiastic, and discussion after the presentations was lively.

Just like touring with that semi-famous rock band, celebrity sightings were also common. David Park’s novel “The Truth Commissioner” and Michael Longley’s poem “Ceasefire” both feature in Marilynn’s book. Park was on hand, as was Michael’s wife, Edna Longley, herself an accomplished scholar.

Anne Devlin and Rosemary Jenkinson, both playwrights and short story writers, attended the Thursday event, as did a journalist from Shared Future News and more than a dozen people from a cross-community initiative in north Belfast that strives to bridge the sectarian divide. That group asked particularly probing questions about how the Good Friday Agreement changed (or, rather, did not change) the lives of common folks in Northern Ireland, especially disaffected young men.

It was fantastic to see so many friends at both events and to make new ones along the way. We also are grateful to people at the Queen’s Institute of Irish Studies and the Linen Hall for making the necessary arrangements, and to No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast for selling copies of Marilynn’s book at both events.

Finally, while I wish I had come up with the headline for this post, that honor belongs to Dana Miller, a former grad student of Marilynn’s who tuned in while covering the SXSW Music Festival in Austin. She wrote, “What a brilliant talk you have given, and it is such a joy to watch you talk about your incredible work.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Have Knowledge, Will Travel

Care for a few facts? Will you buy me lunch?

An academic book tour is much like the education system during colonial times. Then, itinerant educators traveled from village to village, trading their skills for a night or two in a barn, a bunch of carrots for the stew pot or the occasional piece of meat.

This is only a book tour because Marilynn wills it so. There is no budget from the publisher, so she called and wrote academics, booksellers, and friends to arrange five readings and public events in Ireland, north and south. This is in addition to the people she asked to review the book, the work she did creating a hit list of academic and general interest publications for the publisher, writing blogs and articles about the work, doing a radio interview for a Dublin book program, and — oh yeah — staying on top of the two classes she’s teaching this spring.

In return for those five readings and public events, we have accommodation in Belfast for two nights, Dublin for two nights, and Galway for one night. We’re staying with a friend outside Belfast both weekends and a friend near Galway for a night. There are still a couple of days unaccounted for, so we’re going to see what the weather’s like and where we’d like to visit.

Oh, the Places We’ve Stayed!

We promoted Marilynn’s Stewart Parker biography for three years of book tours during the Thanksgiving holiday 2012-2014. Declan was in elementary school, so we took him out a week early and jaunted for two whole weeks, visiting Ireland and England the first year, England the Scotland the second, and England and Wales in 2014.

Her pay included some lodging, a few rail or bus tickets, and many meals out following a lecture. Fortunately, Marilynn doesn’t do it for the pay but, rather, for exposure for the book and the chance for us to travel to interesting places:

  • When I said I’d never been to Wales, she arranged a visit to Aberystwyth, the westernmost point of Britain. We stayed in a terrific grand hotel that overlooked the sea and the town’s boardwalk. During dinner, a Welsh professor taught Declan a dozen or two words, which he promptly wrote down on a napkin (and still has).
  • The previous year, we stayed in college lodgings in Durham Castle, an 11th century building that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and also serves as a student dorm for Durham University. We ate breakfast at the high table in the dining hall, which served as inspiration for the Hogwarts great hall in the Harry Potter films. I should also point out that the bathroom for our room was up about 20 uneven concrete steps to an unheated chamber that in November felt like it was two degrees above absolute zero.
  • We’ve also stayed in the dean’s quarters at Hertford College, Oxford. Oxford University is comprised of 44 colleges, and Hertford was founded in 1284, which makes Marilynn’s Jesus College a relative newcomer. The Welsh college, which she attended as a Rhodes Scholar, was founded in 1571.
  • And though we remember nothing about our room at the Radisson Blu in Galway, we all still fondly remember the breakfast bar, which was the largest and most elaborate we had ever seen before — or since.

It certainly beat a few carrots and a soup bone.

(delayed) Planes, (wrong) Trains, (hired coaches), and Snow!

Getting to Belfast this time proved to be an adventure.

Maybe it’s the post-pandemic travel period. Perhaps it’s the lack of a working cellphone. But definitely it’s bad luck as Marilynn and I set off on our Ireland adventure on Thursday and Friday.

The plan was to fly into Dublin, take an express bus to Belfast, then a train to Helen’s Bay along the coast, where our great friend Eileen would pick us up in time to hit the bank by 4 p.m. to straighten out our UK account. But nothing went according to plan.

The Delta flight out of Hartsfield Thursday evening was 45 minutes late because of bad weather delaying connections, then the plane sat on the tarmac in Dublin because we were behind another plane that had lost hydraulic steering and needed a tow. What’s the Irish equivalent of Bubba the (airplane) tow truck driver? Padraic?

Looking out the window as the plane approached Dublin, all one could see was snow. As many times and as many different times of year I’ve visited Ireland, I’ve never seen more than a smattering of snow. What should have been a patchwork of green fields, with more green hues than the human mind can contemplate, was, instead, a uniform white, punctuated by stone fences that separated one field from the next.

Every Step Is Another Adventure

In a positive post-COVID sign, passing through immigration and customs was a breeze, taking under five minutes. Collect the bags, hop on the next Aircoach to central Belfast, and let the adventure begin, right? Well, no. Most coaches require advance purchase these days, and the weather delays out of Dublin meant that people who paid for earlier busses were catching later ones.

Note to self: Get a UK SIM card ahead of time. We had a UK phone for years, but with the long delay between trips, I knew the SIM would no longer be valid and the phone likely was outmoded. But it sure would have come in handy to keep our friend Eileen informed about our delays.

We felt fortunate to get a bus to Belfast. Marilynn did some fast talking to the bus driver, and I could see his lips moving as he counted the empty spaces on the bus. So again, we’re good, right?

After arriving in Belfast and a quick pit stop, we purchased our tickets for Helen’s Bay, went to the correct platform and got on the train. We were home free … or so we thought. Come to find out, there were two trains on the same platform, and we got on one headed in the opposite direction.

The train’s wayfinding signs were out of order, so we didn’t discover our error until after several stops. A nice conductor told us to get off at Antrim, cross over the tracks and take the 17:14 train back into Belfast. But that train was delayed by 25 minutes, then 30, then 33, 35, and finally 39 minutes. There was WiFi on the trains, so I could keep Eileen apprised, but there was no WiFi in the Antrim station.

Finally, at 18:56, we alighted at Helen’s Bay where our friend was waiting for us. Twenty hours after our journey started, Marilynn and I were finally back where we belonged.

Farewell, Dr. Himebaugh

I trust that every person reading this has that one person, that business mentor, that guiding light you always can depend upon for counsel and support. For me, that was Glenn Himebaugh, my journalism professor at Middle Tennessee State University. However, he didn’t know it at the time.

Nearly three decades after college, I did reconnect with Dr. Himebaugh and his wife, Ellen, visiting them in Murfreesboro and taking them to dinner when I was in town for meetings. To honor the man who meant so much for me, I founded an endowed scholarship for him in 2010, which started helping students a few years later.

While his passing last month at the age of 86 certainly saddened me, that sadness was tempered by the knowledge there remained no unfinished business between us. He knew exactly the influence he had had on my nearly 40-year career as a working journalist.

You don’t have to start a scholarship to honor the mentors in your life, but you do owe it to yourself (and your mentor) to make your feelings known.

Influence Well Beyond the Classroom

Like many people attending state university, I was first generation and worked the entirety of my college career — often full time. Consequently, I didn’t make those deep connections that I envy my wife for making during her undergraduate studies.

But during my journalism career, I often recalled my time on campus and the intensive and real-world training I’d received at MTSU. Dr. Himebaugh formed the core of my learning experience, teaching three of the foundational journalism classes, including feature writing and copyediting. He undoubtedly was the heart of the Mass Comm program, which he co-founded in 1971 and served for 40 years — the last 10 as professor emeritus. He taught those small, writing-intensive classes where students are slowly, lesson after lesson, paper after paper, molded into budding journalists and writers with bright prospects.

I remember his wry sense of humor and the washes of red ink he left on about every article I ever turned in. He was responsible for getting me involved in the campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, accompanying us to conventions in Mississippi and Atlanta, where an obviously inebriated Ted Turner delivered an incoherent keynote address. He also was indirectly responsible for one of my favorite personal stories, about how Mrs. Sarah Cannon (better known as country comedienne Minnie Pearl) insulted me in the backyard of the governor’s mansion in Nashville. But that’s a story for another day!

The Right Answer to a Big Question

After consulting the university foundation on the particulars of scholarship-founding, I invited the Himebaughs to lunch at a local Italian restaurant to ask his permission. I compare the experience to asking Marilynn to marry me, a joyful but stressful occasion filled with tears (mine) and much trepidation (also mine).

Somewhere through the main course, I brought up the subject, my voice breaking and a single tear falling from my left eye. When I popped the question to Dr. Himebaugh, he said, without hesitation, “As long as it’s not a memorial scholarship!”

Although Dr. Himebaugh is now in the newsroom in the sky, his legacy lives on in the thousands of students he taught over a long and distinguished career. It lives on in his scholarship that continues to grow and help fund the dreams of future journalists. But, per his wishes, the scholarship will never be “memorial.”

To support future generations of journalists, please consider a donation to the Dr. Glenn Himebaugh Scholarship at MTSU.

Want to Find Networking Success at a Conference? Pay Attention!

The man stood in front of his booth, scanning the crowd for the next person to engage in conversation. There weren’t many people around at this time during the conference as most people were in breakout sessions. Nonetheless, his stance and demeanor were those of someone who wanted to engage.

I will talk to anyone who seems willing to talk to me, so I approached him. He shook my hand firmly and looked me straight in the eye. I did the same.

I mentioned that most people manning booths were either talking among themselves or fully engaged in their devices, oblivious to the potential business opportunities passing them by. He agreed, adding that his father had been a furniture salesman and taught him the basics of working a conference.

What a coincidence, I replied. My father was a salesman, too. I spent many happy times accompanying him to a twice-yearly exhibition at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. I would watch him interact with current and prospective customers, always ready with a firm handshake and a bit of banter.

My father would leave me in charge of the booth when he needed the restroom or when he got lunch for us both. I would greet customers as best I could, quickly mentioning that my dad would be back soon. (Total aside: the brownies that were part of the lunch at this conference were the best I’ve eaten. No wonder I kept going with my father to this event.)

You don’t need to be a salesman’s kid to understand the basics of salesmanship. The first rule is: Always be ready to engage.

Get in it to win it

The second rule is: Stay the hell off your phone. I have no idea how much money companies paid for booths at this conference for nearly 1,500, but I’m sure it wasn’t pocket change. Regardless, I saw many booth attendants doing things other than engage prospects and customers. Most were engrossed with their phones or laptops. Others were talking among themselves, rather hunting for the next prospect.

Attendees weren’t much better. The venue for this event has plenty of areas for impromptu meetings, but I saw dozens of people talking on or fiddling with their phones or using their laptops. I’m sure many of these people had legitimate business reasons to be otherwise engaged, but my guess is that it was less than half.

So if you’re too engrossed with your phone to engage with other people, what are you doing at a conference? I paid several hundred dollars to attend, and I made the most of it.

Third rule: Meeting people isn’t a volume proposition, nor is it all about what you’re selling or looking to accomplish.

The initial meeting is about finding a business connection. I bonded with one man because we are fans of the same English soccer team, but he’s not a prospect. A woman I met has her national office just a few miles from my home. She’s not a prospect, either, but I plan on visiting her at work soon because we hit it off. A meeting may be about how I can help someone, which I’m happy to do if I’m able.

The man I met who was ready to engage? Turns out, he definitely is a prospect. But that meeting never would have happened if we both hadn’t been willing to engage.

Think about that the next time you whip out your phone at a networking event or a conference.


Notre Dame Fire Like Losing a Friend

The day dawned cool but clear, tendrils of fog drifting off the Seine. After a quick croissant breakfast, we made our way to Notre Dame Cathedral to be among the first to visit on a Paris morning two years ago.

The pre-opening crowd of about a dozen was split evenly between tourists like ourselves and penitents, including two nuns. Gothic cathedrals are a particular favorite of mine, and visiting Notre Dame was high on the list during our brief, two-day visit to Paris.

Like millions of others around the world, I experienced a profound feeling of loss when learning about the devastating fire at Notre Dame, which will cost billions to repair. According to French President Emmanuel Macron, there is no question that the 800-year-old cathedral will be rebuilt. Cries rang out from the yellow vests and others who believe that money would be better spent assuaging social ills in the republic.

Both sides have merits, but Notre Dame remains one of the most indelible icons of Paris, along with the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées. It’s more than a building and more than a religious relic. Failing to rebuild it would be like failing to rebuild the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty. When the twin towers fell, there was no question that the World Trade Center would be rebuilt.

Memories linger

On the day of our visit, a prayer service began at 8 a.m., filling the cathedral with sweet singing, a perfect accompaniment to the early morning light filtering into the worship space.

More than 850 years in the making, the cathedral got its start in the 1160s before receiving its Gothic makeover in the 14th century. For many, Notre Dame represents the quintessential Gothic cathedral—massive rose windows, vaulted ceiling linked by capstones, massive pipe organ, stained glass aplenty and gargoyles that, fortunately for us, weren’t spitting water that morning.

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Notre Dame in all of its glory. While I’m certain it will be restored, it will never be the same.

Straightest Path to Happy Clients Is Good Customer Service

I handle all health insurance matters in my family, so it falls to me to contact our insurer whenever there’s a question.

Undoubtedly, the person I talk do is competent, knowledgeable and answers my questions the first time. However, getting to that competent, knowledgeable person requires traversing a Byzantine number of obstacles designed to keep me from talking to a live person. Did you call about things not related to health insurance, the voice interactive response system asks? Here’s another number. Did you try the web? Here’s the URL.

This is the same insurance we’ve had for 18 years, and the maze seemingly gets more complicated each time I call. If I could answer the question on the internet, I’d have taken that route, as nearly everyone would.

Good customer service shouldn’t be encircled by traps designed to discourage engagement. Rather, it should be baked into everything a company does.

Attitude over aptitude

And it starts with hiring the right people, perhaps even hiring for attitude over aptitude. A friend of mine is a turnaround specialist for a franchisee for a national casual dining restaurant chain. Management is constantly amazed at how he can take an underperforming store and transform it in a few months. What’s his secret? Hiring friendly faces who can learn the restaurant’s systems.

How many times have you been in a retail outlet and seen clerks and cashiers on their phones. Unless you just walked into an AT&T or Comcast store, employees should be focused on their tasks and their customers—not their phones.

I’ve seen checkout clerks look at their phones during transactions and alleged security guards who are so engrossed in their phones they wouldn’t notice someone in a balaclava and toting an Uzi entering the store. If it’s a store that I frequent, I’ll ask for a manager and point out these customer service failings.

It’s really that simple

Although this happened 15 years ago, I remember calling a large natural resource extraction company for an article I was working on. I fully expected the ubiquitous phone tree and was delighted when an actual person answered the phone. I asked the person if this was normal procedure at the company. “We think it’s important for everyone to receive personal attention,” she said.

And it’s true. While we are all accustomed to ordering online, using tap-and-go payment methods and moving down the sales funnel ourselves, the personal touch still counts.

Take a step back and look at your company as an outsider. How easy is it to contact a live person by either phone or email? If there is a phone tree, how hard is it to navigate? If you have to leave a voicemail, is the message from the person you’re trying to contact current and relevant? Is the person’s voicemail box full (a personal pet peeve of mine). And does that person actually call/email you back within a reasonable amount of time? How hard are you to contact?

Regardless of where you fit in the corporate pecking order, the way you handle communications with peers, subordinates and superiors gets noticed. So how do you want to be remembered? As the person who gets back quickly with the requested information or the person who has to be contacted repeatedly?

It’s a choice we all make, every day.

LA Fitness Follies: What shower curtain?

After being a silent-on-social-media member of a national fitness chain for several years, I can be silent no longer. I don’t want to name names, so let’s call this chain Lower Alabama Fitness, or LA Fitness for short.

curtainWho knew that shower curtains were optional? We’re not in middle school here, and I remember being surprised seeing open showers when Declan and I toured Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal, a few years back.

On Friday, I reported to the front office staff there were only four shower curtains among the eight showers in the men’s locker room. Today, there were just two.

I reported it to staff (again) and then spoke to the manager, who said he’d check with the facility manager to see whether they had been ordered. “Shower curtains are basic amenities at fitness facilities, just like toilet paper and paper towels,” I said. “You should be ordering them by the case and reordering them when there are six or fewer.”

I even pointed out the Walmart in the same shopping center, which is open 18 hours a day and sells shower curtains. The manager apparently didn’t appreciate my helpful suggestion.

While I certainly hope this is my last installment of LA Fitness Follies, based on part experience, I’m pretty confident this will be the first of many.