The Voice of the Scripps National Spelling Bee

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“Spelling is kind of a gateway skill, like arithmetic,” Bailly says. “It’s nowhere near the destination.”

During the Scripps National Spelling Bee, your eyes are probably glued to a single microphone: the one on stage, which students grip each year as though their lives depended on it.

But behind another mic, just a few feet away, sits a man who’s been at every Scripps bee since 1991: the official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, who won the bee himself in 1980. But his job is much more than reading a list of words. He’s something of an icon among the students. “A lot of spellers want my autograph, which is the best fan club you can imagine,” he says.

Continue reading “The Voice of the Scripps National Spelling Bee”

The Snake Milker Who Doesn’t Wear Any Gloves

DSC_0027Only three or four people in the United States extract snake venom — the real deals, that is. Jim Harrison is one of them.

He typically “milks” about 150 snakes in two hours, or approximately a minute per snake; it’s kind of like an assembly line of venom. He doesn’t wear gloves — they hinder his dexterity — and while he’s “only” been bitten nine times in almost four decades on the job, his shortened right forefinger is due to a kickboxing mishap, not a snake bite.

There’s a lot that people get wrong about the job, Harrison explains. Plenty of people call him up, wanting to learn how to extract snake venom as a get-rich-quick scheme. But in reality, it’s a limited market, and the hardest part comes after the venom has been funneled into tubes and shipped out.

Harrison runs the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, where about 2,000 snakes reside, along with his wife Kristen. He proposed in 2004 while filming for the National Geographic show Snake Handlers in St. Lucia. “People think of venom and they think of death,” he says. “I think of venom and I think of life. It saves more lives than it will ever take.”

Continue reading “The Snake Milker Who Doesn’t Wear Any Gloves”

The Airport Canine Ambassador

“I don’t know of any other airport in the U.S. that does this,” Liz Miller says. “People just flock to [Casey] on the concourse.” Photo: Miami-Dade Aviation Department
Casey, who is almost four years old, soothes red-faced wailing children. She gives harried businesspeople a moment of calm as they scramble to catch connecting flights. She shimmies and wriggles on the floor, delighting most within her line of sight.

Casey is the 69-pound golden retriever-in-residence at Miami International Airport. As the airport’s official “K-9 ambassador,” she and her owner, Liz Miller, volunteer for two hours on Mondays and Thursdays, helping passengers feel at ease and spreading goodwill on the concourse. It’s one of the airport’s unique ways of providing a rich customer service experience.

Beneath a silky sheath of golden hair and you-can’t-stay-mad-at-me eyes, Casey engages with passengers on an emotional level. “Airports can be so sterile and annoying,” Miller says. “You don’t expect to see a beautiful dog walk up to you. I think people are really touched and moved by that, and it chills them out a little bit.”

But Casey isn’t the only one working her magic. Miller, a former consultant and human resources director, is Casey’s human sidekick at Miami International (MIA), which spans 7 million square feet and services the most international flights in the United States.

Age: 58
Graduated from: Bachelor’s from University of Rhode Island; MBA from University of Miami; PHR [professional in human resources] certification
Based in: Miami, Florida
In the position for: About one year
Work hours: Mondays and Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m. EST; open to special requests
Previous jobs: Corporate lender; national and small business consultant; CFO and director of human resources for a private school in southern Florida

How did your skill set – HR and consulting – segue into volunteering with a golden retriever? Two years ago, I left my position as director of human resources and opened a specialty dessert sauces company, which had been my dream for quite a while. That left more time to focus on volunteer work, and volunteering at the airport was one of my first choices.

What inspired you to bring Casey into that equation? Casey is our family dog, our fifth golden retriever. She went through obedience training and is a certified therapy dog. I took her to do therapy dog work at a local children’s hospital, where I saw her love of humans and how much she delighted kids. I thought that she’d be a natural doing the same kind of work with passengers at MIA. With about 105,000 passengers coming through the concourses daily – and lots of stressed travelers – the opportunity to make a positive impact there was huge. I thought Casey could do it.

Casey the K-9 Ambassador spreading the love. Photo: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

Do you typically approach passengers, or let them come to you? Both. People approach Casey and pet her, and sometimes end up on the floor with her in a lovefest. Other times, I watch people’s body language – they might brighten up when they see Casey, but don’t come over. So I’ll walk over and ask if they want to meet her. Usually, a child’s screaming and crying will stop when we approach.

Does Casey wear a uniform on the job? Yes: a cobalt blue vest with the words “pet me” on the back, and an official MIA security badge, just like mine. Casey even has her own business cards; a paid MIA employee responds to everyone who writes in. They sign off with Casey’s paw print.

You volunteer with Casey twice a week, but mentioned that you’re “open to special requests.” Like what? Sometimes, airlines ask us to see off a large group passengers at a certain gate. Other times, Casey will get an email from a family, asking if she can come in and greet them as they arrive, or before they depart. In February, we got to the airport at 8 a.m. to see off a family with five kids going on a ski trip. Casey started wriggling on her back, and all the kids got on the ground and mimicked her. We still get messages from that family.

One occasion you truly made a difference: I heard screaming at the international arrival gate. The source was a 2-year-old girl standing on her seat, kicking at her mother, who was trying to placate her. I knelt down next to her with Casey, and she immediately stopped. It was like manna from heaven. I quickly realized the little girl and her mother spoke Creole, not English, but the universal message of touch and calm and safety came across. When we got up to leave, I could see the other passengers saying thank you, thank you, thank you with their eyes. Another time, Casey pulled me toward a young boy who was traveling with his parents. She pressed her head against him, and he bent down to kiss her head. It was beautiful.

But not every traveler loves dogs. I’m really sensitive to that. I don’t approach little children unless their parents have given me eye contact, so I know the parent is receptive. I would never approach it if the parent was reticent.

Has Casey ever bitten a passenger? You think I would tell you if she did? (Laughs.) But no, thank God. Once, I misunderstood someone’s look, and went over to introduce Casey, but he put his paper up. I got his drift.

Do you work overtime during the summertime and holidays, when travel stress is at all-time highs? If we work more than two hours at a time, Casey will push against my knee. If I resist, she’ll pull on the leash and get angry with me – she needs a break. After those two hours, she falls right asleep.

Dogs: a baby’s best friend? Photo: Miami-Dade Aviation Department

Best part of your job: The visual thank-yous – like huge smiles from passengers – and the verbal ones. And the awe, the surprise, from passengers. Casey’s presence has a ripple effect: when I look up, I’ll see people standing and watching us 10 yards away, smiling and talking to each other.

Most challenging part of your job: For every two hours spent in the airport, I spend about five to six hours preparing or coming down from it. It’s a lot of energy being constantly “on”; it’s like a full day’s work.

What kind of preparation? Keeping Casey’s coat clean and groomed. It’s absolutely beautiful, and the softest thing ever. Then there’s getting myself prepped, and getting to the airport takes about 45 minutes. But it’s worth it.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? A therapy dog’s tolerance level is about one and a half hours. Casey’s is two hours, but she’s doing a lot of walking and getting touched a million times – and doesn’t necessarily know where the hands are coming from. Part of my job is making sure she’s safe.

Any other pets at home? My sons. (Laughs.) No, not right now.

Where does Casey spend her off days? At Totally Dog Day Camp, a five-acre rural area a little south of [Miami]. Twice a week, a small school bus picks her up at 7:30 a.m., and she has her own seat – all the dogs do. The windows stay half-open so the dogs can hang out and bark and love life all the way to the camp. They’re let loose to run, play, and go on hikes around the property, which has a huge bone-shaped swimming pool. I pick her up from the bus around 5:30 p.m.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Be very comfortable working and engaging with a dog for a number of hours per day. Build a loving rapport through obedience training.

2. Put yourself out there and initiate contact with strangers. You need an ease with the public. This is a vulnerable position, and you must be able to read people’s body language to see whether they will be receptive to your approach.

3. Enjoy finding out about other people, and be a good listener. The dog breaks the ice, but the handler is the one who must engage in conversation and coax people out of their shells. It’s teamwork. If at any time I see a passenger looking really distressed or confused, I deal with that immediately and help solve his or her problem.

Casey’s business cards: no bones about it.

Check out Casey’s personal site, or email her at casey@miami-airport.com. Learn more about the MIA Volunteer Ambassador Program, where about 80 volunteers help to welcome visitors to the Greater Miami area.

For more animal-loving No Joe Schmos, check out the pet detective and the pooper scooper.

The Trash Talker: TerraCycle’s VP of Media Relations

"Every day is Earth Day at TerraCycle," Zakes says.

Albe Zakes is constantly surrounded by a shrine to garbage. The desks in his office are made from old doors, the walls from soda bottles, and the front showroom covered in recycled Astroturf. The desk dividers are made from vinyl records, and graffiti covers every wall.

But considering his job, the workplace makes sense: he’s in charge of media relations for TerraCycle Inc., which sells consumer products made from recycled waste. The company launched in 2001, selling worm poop as fertilizer to retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Now, TerraCycle recycles items like Frito-Lay chip bags, Clif Bar wrappers, and Capri Sun pouches to create tote bags, iPhone cases, and MP3 speakers.

Zakes first planted his environmental roots at the University of Colorado, where he worked for Hip Hop Congress, a group spreading social and political awareness through art, music, and poetry. Below, he talks about eating worm poop, a surefire way to get hired, and the grossest thing he’s ever made from trash.

Title: Global Vice President of Media Relations, TerraCycle, Inc.
Age: 26
Graduated from: University of Colorado Boulder, degree in literature and psychology
Based out of: Trenton, N.J.
TerraCycle’s annual revenue: $18 to 20 million projected for this year
Previous jobs: There aren’t any. I began interning at TerraCycle right out of college.

In your own words, what is TerraCycle? It began as a way to reduce garbage output. We collected waste and fed it to worms, then sold the worm poop to farmers in soda bottles, which gave us market distinction in the early years. Since we couldn’t make money just from the fertilizer, we expanded our product base. We try to challenge the way people think.

The Capri Sun lunchbox is made from Capri Sun wrappers sewn together.

How you got the job: Right after I graduated in 2006, [TerraCycle CEO and founder] Tom Szaky was on the cover of Inc. Magazine. I read about what the company stood for, and it called to me – so I applied for a job, and ended up with an internship that turned full-time.

How did you shape the PR department? Initially, we were required to make 50 pitch phone calls a day. I eventually convinced Tom that we needed to research people and contact them slowly, to develop relationships. I never allowed email blasts. I also make sure we treat everyone the same way, from a mommy blogger in Montana to the executive editor of Businessweek.

How did your activism in college affect your job choice? I felt that the environmental movement and people around me [at University of Colorado] were short-sighted and thought small; the resistance against working with big corporations felt like spinning our wheels in the mud. Then I read Tom’s interview about the “belly of the beast” – if you want to change the way things are done, you need to do it from the inside. You need to work with them, not against them.

What have you learned at your job that nobody else knows? What worm poop tastes like.

And it tastes like? Dirt. It’s high-nutrient, organic-rich dirt.

The walls of the TerraCycle office are covered with graffiti.

Why the location choice of Trenton, N.J. for your headquarters? I have to confess, it is the seventh most dangerous city in the country based on homicide per capita. But Tom, a Princeton dropout, needed to buy cheap factory space, and Trenton offered that. He bought out an abandoned space that was once used for The New York Times printing distribution.

Are you planning on moving anytime soon? We’re absolutely staying here.

What are your hiring requirements? We’re a second-chance employer, which means we’ll hire people regardless of who they were become they came to us – regardless of criminal records. That has definitely backfired; we once had U.S. marshals on our factory floor, and almost-knife fights. But then again, we have people who have been working for us for years.

Biggest setback: Being tossed into a managerial job at a young age with almost no training. Hiring people is so difficult – some people look good on paper and do well in an interview, but then can’t deliver. It’s hard to figure out what’s bullshit.

How did you overcome that? With time. I set up weekly reports and meetings, and became more organized.

TerraCycle’s best-selling product: Historically, we’ve sold the most of worm poop. But another huge win was our line of back-to-school products for Target in 2009, which we sold hundreds of thousands of in one season.

Coolest product: Portable MP3 speakers made from recycled paper and various wrappers. [Sold at Urban Outfitters, Zumiez, Five Below, and elsewhere.]

Grossest thing you’ve ever recycled from trash: We’re working on using cigarette butts, feminine hygiene products, and dirty diapers. So one of my jobs was going around and collecting cigarette butts.

Watch TerraCycle on Oprah, NBC, CNN, and more:

What’s the process of using chip bags and cookie wrappers to create new products? There are two ways. With upcycling, the wrappers maintain their branded look – you can still see the logo. We use heat presses to fuse the wrappers together, put on bolts, and cut and sew the material together like you’d do with regular fabric.

And the other way? It’s closer to regular recycling. The wrappers and containers are shredded and melted down into plastic pellets and can be used for garden paving stones and garbage cans.

How many chip bags are used to make one garbage can? A 32-gallon outdoor trash can with a lid takes 1,500 chip bags.

Inside TerraCycle's offices, where the rugs are made from other rug remnants.

What does your office look like? It’s a shrine to garbage. The desks are made from old doors, the walls from soda bottles, the front showroom covered in recycled Astroturf with a mini putt-putt golf course. The desk dividers are made from vinyl records, and there’s graffiti on every wall – big, beautiful graffiti. The rugs are created from all different rug remnants, which can be a little nauseating.

What’s up next for TerraCycle? We’re moving to Australia and New Zealand, and then to Japan, India, and China next year.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Zakes suggests how to turn a green passion into a sustainable career.
1. Combine a degree in business with environmental studies or biology. Those business skills will always help – you need to be able to sell yourself and sell your company.

2. Instead of walking into a room and telling a potential employer what you could do, show them. Build your idea, and then walk in with a portfolio and present the materials and assets. Say, here’s what I would bring to the table on day one. If someone did that to me, they’d walk out of my office with a job.

3. Be willing to sweep the floors first if you really want to work somewhere.

Follow Terracycle on Twitter at @Terracycle and on its Facebook page. You can also find out more about how the company helps the environment. All photos courtesy of TerraCycle.net.

Check out more eco-friendly posts on No Joe Schmo >> Elizabeth Olsen, founder of Olsenhaus, makes vegan shoes from purely recycled materials.

The opera singer who compares singing to a hot fudge sundae

In a performance of Sleeping Beauty, Harmetz played the bad fairy.

Elizabeth Harmetz does more than 100 sit-ups per day to keep in shape for the opera.

Harmetz, a Los Angeles-based opera singer who also teaches vocal empowerment, says singing opera is like competing in sports – abdominal support, physical strength, and lung capacity are all important factors. In addition to the sit-ups, she schedules regular cardio workouts and practices singing for more than an hour each day.

Her repertoire includes playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Cinderella’s evil stepmother in Into The Woods. In an industry increasingly focused on youth and beauty, Harmetz remains optimistic in the face of rejection because of the sublime feeling of music taking over her body, she says. Which is much like a hot fudge sundae.

Age: Age isn’t given in this profession.
Graduated from: San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Master’s degree in vocal performance
Studying opera for: 22 years
Voice type: Soprano
Previous jobs: Resident artist at the Central Florida Lyric Opera

Did you sing and perform as a little kid?No. Since age 6, I wanted to be a musical theater star, but it was a secret dream. I didn’t tell anyone.

Mmm, finger-lickin' good. Photo credit: Flickr.com/Leslie Kalohi

But eventually, you did. I found a singing teacher at age 18 who introduced me to opera and told me that my voice was well suited to it. The energy it gave me – it was sublime.

What would you compare it to? A hot fudge sundae.

Something people don’t know about your job: To be an opera singer is to be an athlete; you use your entire body, not just your neck up. So you need to be physically strong, with abdominal support and lung capacity.

What’s your workout regimen? I do at least 100 sit-ups per day, and cardio workouts regularly. My ribcage has expanded, and I’ve probably grown in height about 1.5 inches since I started singing opera.

Why is that? I don’t chronically compress my spine anymore. You use your whole spine to sing, so my torso is essentially like a big beer barrel. It expands from the waist to upper chest.

Harmetz (far L) played the piggy who built her house of sticks in The Three Piggy Opera.

Pre-show routine: I keep stress and talking to a minimum. I’ll do some gentle physical activity, like walking, and eat an early dinner at 4 p.m. Shows are usually right at dinnertime, but I can never eat for an hour or two before I perform.

First thing you do after a show: Eat. I’m very quiet.

Where were your first gigs? While getting my Master’s, I did lots of “gigging” at weddings and nursing homes – anywhere they’d pay me. That gave me a taste of the industry, so after school, I began doing solo concerts at upscale retirement facilities.

Do you still sing at weddings? Not as much. There’s too much classical crossover music.

Go-to songs: “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat, and “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Boheme.

Are those what you sing in the shower? I don’t sing in the shower – or the car, for that matter. Whenever I sing, I have to be very focused on the task at hand.

Watch Elizabeth as Cleopatra in Julius Caesar:

Dream job in high school: I wanted to be the first professional women’s baseball player. By 18, though, I wanted to be an internationally renowned opera singer.

Best part of your job: The sheer joy of being immersed in a character and a production.

Worst part of your job: Constant rejection. That’s the other part that people don’t think about – they don’t understand how challenging the industry is. It’s very hard to be older than 30 in this job, because most operas want that “young” perception.

Doesn’t your voice progress with age? That doesn’t matter as much anymore.

How do you stay optimistic? [Singing opera] is my calling, so I don’t have a choice. I’m going with the needs of my soul, and I also enjoy supplementing my income with teaching voice lessons.

As Cinderella’s evil stepmother (R) in "Into the Woods," at the Lyric Theatre in Los Angeles.

Is the saying “It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings” actually used in the business? The fact of the matter is, most singers aren’t fat anymore. International opera companies are transmitting performances in high-definition to movie theaters, so looks are becoming more and more important.

Favorite Broadway show: That’s too hard – I’ve seen hundreds! The first one I ever saw, though, was Annie, with the original cast. That gives you an idea of my age.

Favorite singer: Patti LuPone.

If you had unlimited money and resources, what business would you start? A scholarship fund for older, struggling sopranos – people who age out of competitions.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Many large regional operas have young artist development programs, which are fantastic introductions to the industry. The cutoff age is usually 30 or 35. [Check out The Metropolitan Opera’s program here.]

2. Focus on opportunities that have impact and meaning. Playing at retirement homes brings people such joy – it’s a wonderful feeling. I also love performing with a group called Once Upon An Opera, which brings classical music to children.

3. If you feel that singing is in your blood, then never give it up. Never stop working on your craft.

All photos courtesy of Elizabeth Harmetz.

EVEN MORE No Joe Schmos who sing: The Elvis Impersonator and the Hot, Young, & Single Circus Ringmaster.