Wednesday, February 27, 2013

You're doing it wrong. So very, very wrong.

Have you ever noticed how much commercials suck? And i don't just mean in the "Hey, that was a dramatic moment in my TV show, and now i have to wait for SO LONG while women in leggings talk about yogurt!" kind of way. I mean in the "This advertisement tells me nothing useful about your product/service/company/etc, and in no way makes me want to be in any kind of business with you" way. The premise of a commercial is simple: bring attention to a problem or situation ("Losing weight is hard! Sometimes you want new floors in your house!") and provide a solution ("Use this workout video! Our flooring is cheap and we will install it quickly!"). But anymore, i get the feeling that the people making commercials see themselves as misunderstood artists whose short films never made it to Sundance, and this is their chance to prove everyone wrong. They want to make a funny, compelling, creative film that somehow mentions a specific product/service/brand/etc., apparently believing that you will be so moved and impressed and entertained by their creation that you will want to do business with the company simply because they are associated with art.

There are two problems with this approach: first, regardless of how creative your company is (or how creative the ad agency your company hired is), i want to know that you can provide what i need. Is your insurance cheap and will it give me the coverage i need? Great. What's next? Are your couches attractive and durable and if i buy one will you carry it up two flights of stairs and into my living room? No? Too bad.  Remember "Head On"? That commercial was the most obnoxious thing ever, and it was certainly not high art, but it got the message across: this is some kind of headache product that you apply directly to the forehead. No one who ever saw that commercial will ever forget the product name or how to use it. And lots of people looked it up later, which gave their website lots of traffic and got lots of people interested in and talking about their product. I've seen lots of commercials that were artistically interesting in some way, but when they were over i couldn't remember the name of the company or product. If your commercial doesn't remind people of your product or brand, it's not working.

The second problem is that a lot of commercials are not as creative or interesting as the creators thought they were.

A good example of both of these problems is the new VW Beetle convertible commercial. If you haven't seen it or if that link is broken, here's a synopsis: a guy in a black ski mask goes into a convenience store. Everyone is super nervous as he browses. He then very calmly pays for his purchases and goes back to the car, where his two buddies (also in ski masks) are waiting. It's cold out and they have the top of the convertible down. One of them says, "You know you forgot to take your mask off, right?" The guy realizes that this must be why everyone in the store was so nervous, and then they leave with some bullshit voiceover about how the car is so great you'll never want to put the top up.

Here's the message of that commercial: if you buy our car, people might accidentally think you are a criminal. But you won't care, because it's fun to drive. Somehow. They don't show it being fun to drive. They don't show the guys freezing cold but still having a blast. They show everyone in the convenience store being scared of the guy in the mask. Who thought that this would make people want to buy their car?

Here's how i picture it happening: a bunch of ad executives are sitting around a conference table, brainstorming. Sue says, "What if driving this car with the top down is so much fun that you don't want to stop, even if the weather is bad? Like if it's cold or raining or something?"
The boss, Rick, says, "Yes! How do we convey that?"
"Um, maybe they're driving along, there's snow on the ground or whatever, and they're all wearing winter clothing? Like, they're all bundled up?" Sue ventures.
"I like this," Rick says. "Let's keep it going. Start throwing out clothing options, everyone. What's a good visual?"
Everyone around the table starts suggesting items of winter clothing. Tess half-jokingly calls out, "Ski mask!" Everyone laughs.
Rick says, "You know what would be funny? If they were wearing ski masks, and one of them went into a store or something and forgot he was wearing it, and they thought he was going to rob the store!" Everyone laughs halfheartedly; he's the boss, after all, and they don't want to tell him outright that it's a bad idea. One or two of them are even buying into it a little.
Tess shyly says, "Yeah, it would be funny, but wouldn't it kind of make us look bad? Like, if you buy our car people will think you're a criminal?"
"No, I think people will get that it's a joke," Rick assures her.
"Actually, I have to agree with Tess," Greg says. "I mean, people will definitely think it's a joke, but not in a good way. It also gets away from our original thesis: the car is fun to drive."
"No, people will still get that it's fun to drive. We'll do a voice-over or something at the end to explain it," Rick says confidently. "I think this is a funny idea, and we can definitely still make the point that it's fun to drive. Tess, tell Steve we'll need to start auditioning actors. I think probably three guys, late 20s-early 30s. Sound good, everyone? Great. Greg, you and Sue start working on the script. Bill and I will talk to Special Effects. Great work, everyone!"

If you want to make a good commercial, think of it like a research paper. There is a problem in the world. Identify it. There are many possible solutions, but none of them are really viable, because of (x, y, z). Now, there is an answer! Here are all the ways OUR PRODUCT NAME solves your problem (we can install your new floor on whatever day you pick and will be done within one day! our car is super fun to drive! this magic powder can be added to any food without changing the flavor and will cause you to lose 10 pounds a week effortlessly!). OUR PRODUCT NAME is the best thing in the world and will definitely change your life! Here are more reasons to buy OUR PRODUCT NAME (testimonials, prices, convenient places to buy, pictures of sexy people). OUR PRODUCT NAME.


Monday, February 25, 2013

saving me (writing)

Last but not least, the ability to put words to paper is the one thing that has saved me time and time again. It's the whole reason for this blog. Well, that and my crippling inability to display my latent narcissistic tendencies. (Kidding. Mostly.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Judges 11-21, Ruth, 1 Samuel 1-24

Saul often gets a tough break when we talk about the kings of Israel. He was the first one, and he was followed by David, who was the favorite of God and ancestor of Christ and all kinds of other impressive things. Plus there was that whole thing where Saul was jealous and kept trying to kill David, and when they were picking a king Saul hid because he didn't want to be considered, and he lied and was cowardly and violent and rude. He started out as God's anointed, but everything went pear-shaped somehow.

According to the text, God sent "a distressing spirit" to Saul. In fact, according to 1 Samuel 16:14, God actually left Saul before sending the distressing spirit.

God left Saul and sent spirits to distress him, and then Saul started acting crazy. Let's put two and two together here. This goes along with some of the frustrations i've felt toward God lately: God sends spirits to trouble people and then they are judged by their peers and by history for a judgement God visited upon them.

I know Saul was not blameless. I just think it's a good idea to approach the people around us with grace. Who knows what kind of spirit God might have sent to them?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

on a northbound train

On Monday morning, the boyfriend and i took a train to Delaware to see our friend. We spent a few days in the hospital with him, and with his parents, other friends, doctors, nurses, and random visitors.

On Wednesday, i took the rental car down to Maryland to have dinner with my dad and brother. Dad's birthday was Tuesday (49; a perfect square), and on Tuesday Adam got a new leg. He will soon begin training with a handbike in preparation for the Boston marathon in April. I brought him the Christmas presents i'd forgotten in December, and he returned a book i'd loaned (Sandman, Preludes and Nocturnes). We ate Memphis barbecue surrounded by Elvis paraphernalia and black-and-white posters of old jazz and blues musicians. Adam and i split the bill; it was Dad's birthday after all, or nearly. We talked about Adam's new therapist, and some of the things they were working through, and the line between art and entertainment, and why the Ravens are the best football team in the world (because they're named in honor of Edgar Allen Poe, duh), and my dad's younger brother and his life troubles, and the varying deliciousness of different sauces on the table, and where we would eat when Adam came to Boston for the marathon. On the way back to the hotel, i got lost and drove in circles for a while.

I came into the room and learned that my boyfriend's grandfather had just died. We spent a sober evening packing and making arrangements for the morning return trip.

This morning, we drove back to the train station, returned the rental car, took turns watching the luggage while the other person used the bathroom, and then waited for our train. We're headed back to Boston now, and the boyfriend would like you to know that he has kissed me three times so far since getting on the train. We're tired and quiet and glad to be going home, and glad that we have mobile devices that allow us to read and blog and watch The West Wing. And glad that we found seats together, where we can share our chicken sandwiches and sometimes kiss.

It's been a fairly stressful and depressing week, but fortunately i have Sandman and my iPad and Boyfriend kisses and i'm headed home. And so it goes.

I just finished reading "Signal to Noise", another Gaiman comic. This one he wrote with Dave McKean. McKean's artistic style is generally pretty hit-or-miss for me; he does that mixed-media thing where you have oil paintings and antique objects and scraps of newspaper and whatnot all mixed together in layered images. Sometimes they are beautiful and creepy and perfect, and sometimes they feel (to me, anyway) forced and contrived. But "Signal to Noise" is perfect. Anyone who doubts that comics contain "real" art, anyone who likes the idea of graphic novels but is turned off by the cartoony images and superheroes, anyone who doesn't really like to read but likes stories, and particularly anyone facing loss, should read "Signal to Noise". Briefly, it's the story of a man facing his personal apocalypse. And that's the whole thesis of the work, really, is that there is no one apocalypse for everyone. The main character is a filmmaker who is dying of cancer as he works on his last script. He's writing a movie about a small European village in the year 999, facing the coming millennium and certain that the world will end. Throughout the course of the story, the disjointed images and words tell us that everyone has their own apocalypse, that the world is ending all the time for someone or another, that we all have to face our own end some time.

Reading this story, experiencing this art, as i sat in a hospital room and planned a trip to see my own broken family, i had to keep taking breaks. I couldn't digest the whole story in one sitting. I had to give it time to happen to me. I haven't found many things that could overwhelm me so completely, and i found this one at exactly the right time.

I don't really have a point in all of this. I just needed to write some things down. If you're looking for a take-away, however, i can give you this: i should be back to a more normal posting schedule soon. Read "Signal to Noise". Barbecue is delicious. My boyfriend is a good kisser.

Monday, February 18, 2013

saving me (vulgarity)

You know George Carlin's famous seven words?* Shout them out. Scream them at the top of your lungs. If you're not quite ballsy enough for those seven, something milder is okay. Find the dirtiest word that you can comfortably say out loud and yell it. Think of it as catharsis: there's all that darkness and filth and pain inside of you, and it has to come out one way or another. This way is fast and a lot more fun than you might think.

*Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Judges 1-10

I read WAY more than that this week, but considering how long it's been since i've done one of these posts and how much reading i've done (and how boring most of it was; i can't even express how glad i am to be done with Deuteronomy and Joshua and all the other reviews of the Law), i'm just starting with Judges, because i like Judges. It has lots of awesome stories, like Gideon (which is full of Gideon testing God and God testing people and people playing crazy pranks on one another that win wars for them).

Chapter four of Judges has one of my favorite stories, about a woman named Deborah who was really kick-ass and a man named Barak who was a pussy.

Deborah was a prophet and a judge of Israel. Barak was a commander in the Israelite army, who were at war with Canaan. Deborah spoke to Barak, and told him that God wanted him to go to battle and that the Canaanite commander (Sisera) would be delivered into his hand. Barak said he would only go if Deborah went with him. vs. 9 "So she said, 'I will surely go with you; nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.'" Sure enough, Deborah lured Sisera into a tent and kept watch while Jael, the wife of one of the soldiers, drove a tent peg through his temple and into the ground. Two women teamed up to kill him, and no men were involved at all.

And in Judges 9:53-54, we get a tiny little story about the death of a corrupt king of Israel named Abimelech. There was an uprising, and Abimelech, fighting for his life, was driven back against a tower. A woman dropped a millstone on his head, crushing his skull. He lived long enough to ask his armorbearer to drive a sword through him, so that no one would say that a woman killed him.

I hope you see the irony of that. Abimelech's story is only 57 verses long, and two of those verses are about him being killed by a woman. She's not even named; she wasn't an important person in her own right, like Deborah, or the wife of someone important. The text just calls her "a certain woman". His death may have been accelerated by a young man, but it was unquestionably caused by a woman. It's like she shot him, and he was in the hospital on life support, and his assistant pulled the plug. Still killed by a woman, Abimelech! Still counts!

Go ahead and tell me how clear the Bible is that women should submit quietly to men.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


In the morning, i drink coffee: hot, dark, and bold. Boiling water blasts through grounds, streaming dark and heavy into a glass pot, into a ceramic mug. Brown sugar in the bottom, cream swirling through, chaos moves to uniformity and order. Not for me the flavored non-dairy additions. Not for me the chemical sweeteners. Give me dark beans, slightly burnt, ground rough and percolated. This is how i start the day.

In the afternoon, i drink tea: warm, light, and mild. Leaves sit in hot water, gently releasing floral notes and antioxidants. Golden honey melts into liquid, flavors blending like a three-part harmony: green tea, hibiscus flowers, raw honey. You have to give the tea time to steep. You have to give the honey time to melt. You have to sip gently, like wine, and savor the complex layers in the cup. Take a pause, take a breath, take a sip.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Chicken Little

Okay. So.

The sky was falling.

For those of you who don't live on the East Coast, let me explain: we had a record-breaking blizzard this weekend, called Nemo. Several fronts and airs and precipitations (i don't know weather terms) all combined and worked their way up the coast. In lower states like Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, it was mostly rain and wind, but by the time it reached New Jersey, it was snowing. NJ got about 15 inches, and coastal towns had some flooding, but it wasn't too bad (although they haven't really bounced back from Sandy). But as Nemo got closer to New England, it turned into a full-scale disaster storm.

We got 30 inches of snow, with drifts and snowbanks reaching 4-5 feet. Also? Thundersnow. (bucket list: check). That's exactly what you think it is: thunder and lightning while it is snowing. Power was out all over several cities. I personally lost power for about fourteen hours, but some places lost power Friday night and won't get it back till Thursday. The roads are so clogged with snow and ice and cars stuck in snowbanks that plows can't do much to help, and there's nowhere to put all the excess snow, anyway. Storm surges caused flooding, and several towns were evacuated.

I've had power outages before, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few hours. But never in the dead of winter, and never for very long. It was fun for a while: me and my boyfriend and his roommate and his roommate's cat all snuggled together with candlelight and booze, but when i woke up in the morning and realized we still had no power (no heat, no lights, no refrigeration), i got a little scared. They have a gas stove, so i made pancakes and the heat from the burners and the warm food helped. Then we all put on lots of layers and went out to start shoveling. When the power came back, a cheer rippled through the whole neighborhood.

My office was closed for four days (Friday-Monday), so this is my first day back. It's going to be a hell of a week.

Oh and also, my brother is having a really rough time dealing with his recovery and my friend is dying. Very soon, in fact. So i may be traveling some next week to see him.

On a happier note? The boyfriend and i had our Valentine's celebration last night, partly because we needed some joy and love and partly because he was thinking about leaving on Thursday or Friday to see our friend. And it was a wonderful Valentine's day. We had steak and rice and veggies (lovingly prepared by John), and wine (lovingly selected by me) and Black Forest Cake with wine-stewed cherries (lovingly prepared by me). Then we exchanged presents (slippers and fun socks for him, pearls for me). Then we watched "Wanted" (because Angelina Jolie is on his list and James McAvoy is on mine), and then we snuggled and went to bed.

So. Once more into the breach.

Monday, February 11, 2013

saving me (time)

There is no quick fix. There is no perfect solution. There is no switch to turn the lights back on. Work as hard as you can, fight as hard as you can, but know that you will have to wait for the dawn.

Monday, February 4, 2013

saving me (secret)

Have things that you cherish. Have things that are important to you. Don't give them away. Sometimes selfishness is okay. Keep parts of yourself to yourself -- don't give everything you are to everyone you meet. Have some secrets.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Leviticus 25-27, Numbers 1-30

from LePage's "Word" collection
First, a shout-out to Jim LePage, one of my favorite artists.  I am not a big fan of Numbers, but i love what he did with it. Because here's the thing: Numbers is really mostly just that. It's a census report, complete with names and genealogies and a rehashing of the law. Because i hadn't already read the law three times by this point.

There is some cool stuff though, like one of my favorite Sunday School Bible stories: Balaam's donkey.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, i'd urge you to read the whole thing (it's not that long), in Numbers 22:1-35. For now, i'll summarize it.

Balaam was from Mesopotamia, and appears to have been some sort of magician or prophet. He knew something about the Israelites, but was not one of them. As the Israelites were cutting a bloody path through the ancient world, seeking to establish their Promised Land, they ran up against rulers from many different nations. Balak, king of the Midionites, called for Balaam to curse the Israelites, hoping to prevent them from attacking his people. Balaam accepted their fee and prepared to go, but God said, "Yeah, no. You can't curse My people." So then Balaam told the princes to go back home. They did, and then they sent more princes and more money and more dignitaries and honors, and asked him again. So God said, "If they keep begging, you can go, but only say the words I give you."

They didn't exactly keep begging, but Balaam went with them anyway, so God sent an angel to stand in their path. Balaam didn't notice, but the donkey he was riding did, and walked into a field to avoid the angel (who was standing there with a drawn sword). Balaam beat the donkey and got her back on the road. A little while later, as the path wound between two walls, the angel showed up again. The donkey pressed close to the wall, trying to squeeze past the angel, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall, so he beat her again. Then the angel stood on a high, narrow path, where there was no way to avoid him, and the donkey laid down in the road. Balaam, enraged, began to beat her again, and the donkey spoke to him, asking why he kept beating her.
"Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!" said Balaam (vs 29).
vs. 31 "So the donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?" And he said, "No."

Then Balaam saw the angel and realized that the donkey had saved his life three times. He repented, and promised to say whatever God wanted him to say.

Couple of things about this: first, what the donkey said. Now, donkeys are notoriously stubborn and difficult, but this one has belonged to Balaam for a long time, and has apparently never given him trouble before. And the very first time she does, he gets angry and assumes she's just being stupid or stubborn or lazy, and never stops to consider if there might be a reason for her behavior. How often do we do this: something that always works for us, something that we have come to take for granted, stops working, and instead of considering whether there might be a reason for it, we heap abuse upon that thing (or that person, or that animal, or that whatever). Maybe that breakdown is God's way of trying to get our attention. Maybe that thing (or person, or animal) is trying to save us from something. Don't immediately get angry at delays and setbacks. Look around to see what might be behind them.

Second, am i the only one who is a little bit happy that the donkey is specifically noted to be female? Anyone who says that God's design is for women to serve men, who says that women can't lead in the church, who says that God doesn't call or speak to women, that women shouldn't lead or speak to men, they should read this and shut the hell up. God spoke to Balaam, and when Balaam wouldn't listen, He spoke to a female animal, who listened to His word and chastised Balaam. When God speaks, we are ALL empowered to listen, obey, and prophesy.

And finally, i leave you with these:

from the "Old & New" project