Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Frugality, sharing food and fatherhood

My wife Jackie is frugal and she likes to share food.

Last Christmas as we made our way out East to visit her family we stopped in Amish country to get some grub. It was as if Jackie was inspired by the bearded and buggy-whipped Puritans. I was amazed as we stood in line at the local Wendy's and watched her calculate utility costs. She automatically determined the value equation of a fast-food super-sized soft-drink convincing me that one extra-large Diet Coke shared would be worth more than two large drinks or a medium-sized soft-drink and a large soft-drink; or an extra-large soft-drink and any other sized soft-drink; or two small soft drinks (please feel free to fill in the potential combinations yourself). And since neither of us drink soft-drinks all that often we should be able to overlook the cost to our enjoyment the lack of variety a shared Extra-Large brings.

I balked at her logic but felt silly arguing for my own soda-pop while surrounded by families wearing sack-cloth, head-scarves and sincere Quaker piety. I surrendered and to my surprise wasn't hindered by swapping a straw over burgers. Plus sharing an extra-large limited our soda-pop intake therefore eliminating too many pee-stops during the last leg of our car trip. Jackie informed me that maximizing our hydration while minimizing bladder discomfort was one of the factors she considered when suggesting the shared extra-large.

She's not frugal because she's cheap or because she enjoys calculating the derivative benefits of marginal cost curves. She enjoys sharing because to do so can amplify a simple pleasure and make it an event.

When reading the above back to Jackie she said that she, "sounds like a crazy person." And to some extent she is. She employs reason in a world of self-gratification not to simply gratify herself but to extend her boundaries to include others.

On our first date at a local breakfast place here in Chicago Jackie suggested that I order the "Bliss Cakes" and she would order the egg special. This would ensure that we could enjoy a breakfast made up of both sweet and savory flavors. We wouldn't get bored.

Her desire to share is an odd behavior to me because I come from a family of six that occupied a three bedroom bungalow in a Detroit working class neighborhood. We were a surly group chilled by the long shadow of Irish alcoholic resentment. My brother used to bite himself on the arm and go running to my Mom blaming me for the abuse so that he could win her favor and gain some modest (albeit undeserved) affection. She'd give him a treat while I received punishment. I wonder still if his self-mutilation was designed for his pleasure or my pain. I'm still not sure which one he valued more.

Jackie's free-handed generosity and the practical joy it brings was felt with full effect during a recent lay-off I experienced. She responded to my shame and depression with a willingness to organize our finances and reassured me that home-cooked meals and Netflix movie nights would be luxuries that would warm her heart. She never once denied me my fears or guilt or anxieties and she shared my confusion and hurt. Her frugal nature mined the now-shrunken assets we had and made me mindful of the value found in living life with gratitude and integrity. And when my depression seemed critical she shared with me her love and hope to help me understand I can escape the long-shadow of my disappointing child-hood and find new life in sharing prayers and feelings.

A good friend of mine once asked me after my first marriage crumbled if I would want to be married again. I said to him that I wasn't sure. The freedom of not having to deal with another's selfishness was a tempting and enjoyable pleasure. I secretly felt the tug of my broken home and thought to myself, "marriage is a trap." My friend seemed confused and asked if I wanted to be a father. I said to him that being a father demands that I find someone I can share life with. He agreed but didn't understand that my response wasn't so much a pre-requisite but a cynical riddle I posited as proof that marriage wasn't possible. I thought then that a life shared is not a reality because the sacrifices it demands would interfere with one's expectations and therefore become complicated and competitive. Eventually a relationship would always tend towards my brother's principle of self-harm to gain short term pleasure.

All this was before Jackie. I fell in love with her because I watched how she continually made space for the hurting and harmed. Her willingness to speak truth into people's self-deception with a kindness that demanded nothing was a wonder I delighted and delight in. She is a believer in Jesus Christ but unlike the many Christians I know who seek the justice of a vengeful theology, she embodies the Savior as He drew circles in the dirt and challenged the theology of the self-righteous by positing, "whoever is without sin, cast the first stone."

I still live in the long-shadow of a child-hood remembered for scarcity and pain but recently have come to trust the value found in frugality and sharing food. Jackie and I are talking about starting a family. This is something I never would have considered two years ago but fatherhood seems possible knowing that I have escaped the riddle of my own cynicism and found someone I truly can share life with.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fear, Hate or Hope

I just finished seeing the new documentary on Lee Atwater entitled "Boogie Man". I love the way it picked apart the Republican political playbook. It is pretty simple, you spread fear with wedge issues and get third parties to promote the fears then deny the racism, hatred and fear you spread. And if cornered then you act like a Patriot and proclaim you are a victim of the elite media. It was simultaneously funny and nauseating to watch Tom Delay flash his creepy grin and say Lee Atwater's downfall came because he spoke the truth. Wow! No wonder Atwater got brain cancer. His polluted mind must have forced the grey matter to rebel and create a tumor just to hobble any chance of biological integrity in the face of such moral degradation.

It is hard to believe people believed this crap but I am reading a book by Reinhold Niebuhr entitled "Moral Man & Immoral Society" where he argues that individual desire for good gets clouded at a collective level due to social pressure. A reasoned person could hold fast to their sense of right but, "The individual character of conscience does not preclude the determination of most moral judgments by the opinions of the group. Most individuals lack the intellectual penetration to form independent judgments and therefore accept the moral opinions of their society. Even when they do form their own judgments there is no certainty that their sense of obligation toward moral values, defined by their own mind, will be powerful enough to overcome the fear of social disapproval."

The documentary's revelations had even more punch for me in light of this quote and because yesterday I engaged in a conversation with an old friend who is very conservative and a fan of guys like Hannity and Limbaugh. She is the type of person who believes America is some sort of New Israel where an Evangelical theocracy must happen as our birthright. It makes sense because she travels in circles that keep her well-connected to fellow Country Club Baby Boomers who have attached their narcissism to an odd form of white, wealthy bible living. Many seem to do so to reconcile the guilt left-over from multiple divorces and probably the joys found in mid 1970s key parties.

To be fair, they honestly feel a sincere sadness over abortion issues (and enjoy their money) so the Republican's pro-life, low-tax pledge becomes for them God's party. I share my friend's faith but not her politics nor her skewed historical perspective. It is hard to ponder Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson as willing members of a mega-church prayer group or the fact that all of the founding fathers ignored the pleas of real bible believers like the Quakers to abolish slavery at our founding. Our Judeo-Christian founders ignored the biblical pleas of a brotherhood of man because of course it wasn't economically expedient. So much for our history as a Christian nation eh?

After my conversation with my friend I could see how our historical collective moral blindness is alive and well and still at least partially wrapped in Atwater's cloak of fear.

She started spouting off to me messages that I had heard on evening newscasts during the pre-election hype but dismissed as silly. Maybe it is because I live in Illinois and a major city but I thought the belief that Obama is a Muslim, or a terrorist or a Socialist were ideas too absurd to motivate any type of acceptance. That was until I heard the raw fear in my friend's voice, "He's a Muslim!" "He believes we have 57 states. That's because there are 57 Muslim territories!!" "They hate us!!" "If he is a Christian, why did he change his name to a Muslim name?! Hussein!!! Hussein means sword!!!" "He said we would be a Muslim nation!!!" I couldn't believe it and strongly disagreed but didn't break through at all. Today I received an email about how Barack Obama had an American name Barry but changed it to Barack in college because he is a Muslim and no media is reporting this. I wrote back that in March Newsweek had done a cover story on this.

I am saddened by this continued fear that passes as faith and courage in our country. I also am humbled by President Elect Obama's intelligence to craft a communications strategy that obviated the Atwater plan by employing direct courage, calm and hope. There are generational dynamics at work here that Boomers won't get (primarily because their self-centered minds convince them of their right to be the authors of all social experience) but, the pragmatist X and pluralist Millennial generations don't take too well to fear. The former because they had to live with enough of it as latch-key kids watching their divorced boomer parents leverage it in their self-centered campaigns for love and approval and the latter because it is irrelevant to their sense of specialness.

Atwater admitted as he was dying that he didn't stand for anything and didn't believe anything he peddled. He also said that his strategy to use hate and fear to win elections damaged our country's collective integrity. Most conservatives who subscribe to Atwater's form of politics will be, as Niebuhr illustrated, blind to Lee's amoral power-lust because it interferes with the moral rationalizations that allow their comfort. I wish my friend would get this but anything that opposes the social construct she has created only seems to reinforce the strategy of fear and makes me duped by the conspiracy theory.

My hope is the hope that President Obama won with becomes a continued strategy for public discourse. I hope we empower our individual minds to question messages of fear and find a way to bend the collective mind to "hope".

But Niebuhr also said, "Power is poison" so, the Democrats could fall victim to the same hate that defined Atwater. At the very least we can all recite another Niebuhr classic when the going gets too hateful, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Friday, October 10, 2008

An object lesson in the danger of brand simplicity

Watching the latest political season I asked some friends how the heck could the conservative movement start with a guy like Buckley and lead to Palin.

Consider for yourself:

Did you watch both? How the heck did this happen.

David Brooks has a great editorial in today's NYT opinion page explaining the obvious decline, its origins, and its ramifications.

And to me it has direct implications on how all public communications professionals need to think and re-think our choices.

First, simple messages that ask our audience to think very little may have short term benefits but long-term negative consequences. Primarily because when we put things in stark terms that depend upon negative factors (hate, fear, derision, resentment) we exit the arena of ideas for the arena of emotion. Now, many brand theorists today say it is emotion that drives choice and I agree but when the emotion is devoid of an idea than it is simply adrenaline and eventually it will wear out. The idea behind the emotion matters. When Buckley threatened to punch Chomsky in the nose it was because he had an ideological gripe with him. It wasn't because Chomsky simply represented a handle (e.g. "The Media Elite").

Second, simply stated, complexity counts. When we ask our audience to stop thinking then they will and that is dangerous. Even more dangerous we ask only those that don't want to think to be part of our conversation. This leads to the loop of noise I wrote about earlier and in an age of consumer co-creation how dangerous is it to risk relationship for the sake of delusional addiction?

Today's economic news indicates what is bred when emotions are developed devoid of ideas. The market psychology is panic. In the short term it was fun for people to use their homes as ATMs on their lawn but the long-term consequential melt-down stops the party.

Communications needs to consider the arena of ideas and long-term consequence if it is to breed the kind of passionate loyalty the fledgling conservative movement once had.

If not, then we risk brands with Palinesque depth and I don't think many consumers will want to dive headfirst into a pool that shallow.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Life Before TV, The Internet, and Blogs

This past Friday I had the privilege to participate in an old-fashioned hootenanny as part of a wedding rehearsal celebration.  Wooden card table chairs were set up auditorium style in the front room of this old Queen Anne style home.  It felt like what life must have been like before TV, the Internet and Blogs. You had an upright piano in the corner, a rickety old music stand, and the only evidence of modernity were the digital cameras, cell phones and a PA system.  I loved it.  One of my favorite singer-song-writers Mark Erelli suggests that everyone should learn an instrument so evenings like this past Friday can happen more often.  His opinion has motivated my clumsy guitar-playing and song-writing.  I was able to play a tune that I wrote for my wife and watch all kinds of cool stuff.  One of my favorites was when a grandmother did a beat poetry version of "The Love Song of J. Edgar Prufrock" accompanied by her grandson on saxophone.  "To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," was a quote a friend of mine in college always held up as a sad reference to the false intimacy generated by modern life but, hearing it within the context of an evening where folks risked public embarrassment as a means of humble honor to a couple they loved caused me to pause and consider it  again.  There is so much talk of co-creation and brand hijacking and consumer-generated content in the business of marketing and advertising.  It seems every brand plan I participate in has some 360 degree tactic that allows the target to use Youtube in an inventive way to create brand content.  But I've kind of doubted most of the times we have suggested these tactics.  The problem is, unlike the hootenanny or TS Eliot's poem, the vast digital world wide web lacks the tactical sensibility to enjoy the face that is co-creating or hi-jacking or consumer-generating.  When grandma stepped back and watched her grandson blow some sweet blues we all were witness to the moment in the moment with her.  It was awesome.  The Internet is anonymous and remote. I may be branded hypocrite for using it to sing the praises of live unprofessional entertainment over digital consumer content but I feel compelled to do it anyway.  My feeling is that until we think of communication tactics that can motivate face to face risk taking like a live front room hootenanny then the latest lauded digital gimmick will seem a little impotent to me.  

Friday, September 26, 2008


Maybe it is because I am looking to make sense of my first ever lay off and have availed myself of the support of family, friends and strangers or maybe it is because the news is dominated by the invisible fist of the market place but, I have been considering the importance of kindness and how its presence feeds relationship and its absence kills it.  The Oprah sanctioned relationship counselor Harville Hendrix uses a technique called "Imago Therapy" to help distressed married couples remember why they chose to love, honor and all that other stuff they said on their wedding day.  It has specific steps and you can check out the link if you want to see them.  Those of you who hate touchy feely stuff will want to avoid the link - my warning to you.  But basically my experience with Hendrix comes down to a thought that the mind can't differentiate from kindness.  If I am choosing kindness towards you then in fact my mind interprets the receipt of kindness.  One's willingness to risk kindness in relationship creates the opportunity to feel kindness and with the essence of kindness trust forms.  How do we enact kindness?  One could argue that the financial actions taken that have led us to our recent economic crisis were kind.  They let people get homes and then let other people swim in money as the loans backing those homes were turned into marketable securities.  But was that kindness or self-satisfaction?What is kindness?  Is it the Golden Rule (my favorite being "Don't do what you hate" from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas)?  Is it Ayn Rand's Virtue of Selfishness?  Is it the recovery movement's 12th step?  Hendrix would say that it is the honest recognition of the needs of the person you are facing and also that their humanity is viable simply because it is.  This is realized in the practice of "Mirroring" when a distressed partner in a broken relationship plays back to their partner the viability of their distress.  It is not this.  

My consideration of kindness also makes me realize that as a planner I rarely have fought for the practice of kindness when considering communications development.  So often the honest need of the person my client is looking to convince is subsumed by the political or business need the organization is fixated upon.  When I see the power of kindness in communication I am truly filled with a sense of trust.  I think of ads like this or the attention the latest Microsoft "I am a PC" ad earned from me as a response to the well-loved Apple Mac vs. PC campaign.  I know as a an ad guy I am supposed to love Macs and am supposed to genuflect at the aforementioned ad but, to be honest my response has always been one of alienation.  I watch the Mac vs. PC spots and just get the sense that I am not cool enough, curious enough, or courageous enough to be a Mac guy.I don't feel like I can trust the brand to trust me to be part of the brand.  And I am writing this on an iBook G4. But the political considerations of the marketplace to grow Mac share and the use of basic political advertising to achieve that goal seemed more important than my need as a Mac user to be invited into a community of Mac users.  My sense of alienation also could be fueled by a former creative director's love for the Mac vs. PC spots and his un-PC (Politically Correct) language around all things PC (Microsoft).  I'm not sure but the latest Microsoft spot makes me feel okay with being an ad guy who thinks Twitter foolish, loves acoustic guitars and folk music, and would rather read Joseph Campbell and Alice Miller as applicable knowledge towards human behavior than the latest portmanteau operating as a human behavior insight.

Microsoft succeeds for me in sharing kindness.  It is not an either or possibility.  It is a useful practice of Hendrix-like mirroring.  I feel invited in by it because I can see myself in it.  I trust them a little bit more.  

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chasing Noise

I recently spent some time with some folks suffering from cognitive breakdowns.  I won't get into any details to protect the names of the innocent but it got me thinking about how easy it is for us to agree that the noise we make is reality.  Why is it that a heroin addict can understand his own self-destruction yet choose to return to that destruction after he admits it is destroying him?  There's an unconscious acceptance that his particular noise is real to him. I then think of all the work I did as an account planner coming up with arguments and rationale to convince my clients that if we make a certain noise then people will really like that noise.  I doubt that now.  I think we operate under layers of cognitive distortions.  Most of the time the noise we listen to has a pitch and melody we think sensible.  Many times it is a soundtrack to our sense of who we think we are.  But then I spent time with some folks whose premeditated idea of themselves ran headlong into the gravity of reality and that noise was just noise.  I think we continue to make noise between each other and within ourselves.  I don't know why.  Sometimes there is enough agreed upon noise that it becomes valued.  The valued noise becomes the premise behind a brand strategy but as I look at it now that thinking is false.  Marketing simply becomes a more organized cognitive distortion; just one particular noise chasing after the noise it deems valuable.  The only thing that quieted the noise for the folks I spent time with was the humble acceptance that their noise wasn't who they were.  There could be quiet instead as they listened and considered in kindness other people's noise and helped them see that it was just noise.