Not So Amusing

Every now and then, a friend or colleague will reference a television commercial that is apparently all the rage, the thing that everyone is talking about. Karen and I generally remain (blissfully) in the dark about these, because we cut the cord years ago. The rare exception are adds that will appear on Hulu, and when I do see commercials, sometimes on a television in a waiting room or something similar, I generally just shake my head. Commercials generally are intended to leave one believing that if you buy that given product, your life will suddenly be fulfilled in some previously unrealized way.

Marketing, I will always believe, is a symptom of a great deal of what is cancerous in our consumerist Western culture.

Last week, Karen and I were watching a favorite program on Hulu, and we saw two such commercials. I think…I think…that they’re intended to be cute, amusing, and genuinely fun. And if you don’t think about them as you’re watching them, I imagine that they are just that. In the interest of actually thinking about what we’re seeing, though (you know, since that’s always a good idea), let’s look at Disney’s beckoning to bring us into their park for good family fun:

In what world would a grandparent have such poor self control as to upstage their grandchild? In what world would they even want to do such a thing? I’ve met a lot of grandparents in my life. I have a lot of friends that are grandparents. None of them would even dream of such a thing, because it isn’t funny, or cute, or amusing. It’s trampling your (grand)child’s self-esteem. And, incidentally, no child that I know would laugh at this either, to say nothing of the parents in the audience.

Or, perhaps even more depressing, this is apparently supposed to convince us to buy flavored coffee:

Except that’s it’s using a stereotype of vacuous women to do so, making the women in the commercial appear weak and flighty. Even worse, it’s making literary-minded women…and those interested in literature in general…to appear silly. Like we need less interest in literature in the U.S. today. Advertising as a discipline (if it can be called that) doesn’t care about whether or not it’s reinforcing a depressing cultural trend, though…it only cares that it can use it to sell a product.

Encouraging poor behavior, capitalizing on downward trends…what’s sad is that commercials like this (and there are others that are even more reprehensible…at least these two made some effort to disguise their manipulation with cleverness) do sell products. We let them. We mindlessly sit in front of a TV and soak them in, unthinking, without analyzing, permitting ourselves to be voluntarily reduced to the lowest common denominator.

The creators of these, and many other ads, should feel ashamed.

As should we.

Crunched by the Numbers

I don’t understand business.

Really, I don’t. Besides the fact that I experience serious nausea brought about by ethics whenever I see business working from the inside, I also don’t get it when it’s me doing the business. How in the world does one calculate what one’s time is worth? Isn’t it more important to get the job done well than quickly and cheaply? Isn’t it more important to get the job done than to bill every hour?

Part of this is because I’ve spent most of my professional life working in or with the non-profit sector, so working with people whose goal is to sell things strictly for profit…well, I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand it any better when it’s my own professional services that are being invoiced.  Even when they’re being invoiced by me. A colleague once said that he had lost out on a significant amount of money in his life because he wouldn’t confront clients when they didn’t pay what was agreed. I’m not sure I wouldn’t confront if someone contractually owed me for my time, but I think I understand where he’s coming from.

All that to say, I hear people talk a lot about this concept of “return on investment.” It’s self-explanatory enough, and I understand it when we’re discussing things like products. If I buy a pair of jeans, I expect a certain lifespan out of them in order to justify the price. I use Macs (partly) because they go forever, and I get my money’s worth out of the device. I believe in “you get what you pay for.”


I don’t for a second believe that you can apply that concept to education. Years ago, I was at work talking with some colleagues about future educational plans. I mentioned that I wanted to do an MFA in writing, which was my academic goal at the time. This was as I was finishing my graduate degree in religion. The response I received was, “You don’t like going to school for things that will make you money, do you?”

This immediately brought to mind my parents’ questions (raised on multiple occasions) about what exactly that degree that I just sacrificed years for as gotten for me.

You see, I think that the education and life experience are reward enough. I think that studying the humanities and the arts have a “pay off” for us that are at least equal to the “pay off” from a narrower, more scientific or technical field of study, just in a different way. I don’t think that studying the humanities should be an endeavor motivated by earning income. I don’t think that pursuing any academic pursuit should be approached with that in mind.

Which is why this study, “8 College Degrees with the Worst Return on Investment,” which I spotted as it made its way around LinkedIn last week, really leaves me unsettled. In fact, it just leaves me disgusted. I know that someone needed to generate some copy for the site on this particular day, but if this represents our mindset about education, then the so-called “free market” really has poisoned our perspective on everything.

Let me lay aside the fact that the number one worst degree on their list, communications, was what I graduated with from undergrad. Let’s consider their other bad degrees: Fine arts, theology (both of which have been other disciplines that I’ve studied…fair enough). How about education?  Or nutrition? Do we really want fewer professionals becoming teachers because they don’t make enough after college? Perhaps people who would be wonderful educators to our children? Do we want fewer nutritionists in favor of more medications? Fewer sociologists to study the potential dangers of our actions? Really?

I know that there are a lot of complicated pieces to this puzzle. I understand that faculty must be paid well for instructing at these colleges, but tuition prices are still out of control. Salaries for the most important professions barely stay afloat while salaries for professions like finance soar with no end in sight. And, being the pragmatic, quantifying Americans that we are, we begin thinking about which fields of study will make us the most money.

I’m not opposed to studying a technical field in order to make a living (I just finished doing exactly that). I’m motivated by Karen’s story of a friend that she knew in college. She told me that when he had finished high school, he apprenticed and became a master carpenter. Then he attended a liberal arts school for his undergrad degree, paying his way with the income that he earned from carpentry. I really respect that.

Yet, if we limit our educational pursuits to the things that make us the most money, then some of the most important aspects of the human condition…the arts, spirituality, the psychology of the human mind (all listed in this article)…receive less focus. The less focus they receive, the less we understand ourselves. The less we understand ourselves, the more we are doing things just to do them, just to earn more money, just to have more things…all of which leave us ultimately empty.

That’s a not a life that I want for our cultural future. That’s not the educational mentality that I want our daughter to inherit. Articles like this do nothing helpful for students planning their college careers. They are only there to earn ad revenue for the sites that waste pixels by putting them up.

And, incidentally, most of my friends were humanities majors. We continue to make our livings just fine.

A Game Changer

As Thanksgiving Day festivities (read: I ate entirely too much food) drew to a close late last night, I was in a conversation with a family member about video games. Some of the family were leaving a couple of hours from that time to arrive at a Back Friday sale at midnight to pick up a video game that has, apparently, been long anticipated by gamers. We talked about how I’ve always sort of found video games to be time-wasters, and that I’ve always had better things to do with my time. Its not that I think gamers are weird or anything…I have a lot of friends that are gamers. And while I was heavily into role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons when I was young, video games just aren’t anything that have ever interested me.

The other family members in the conversation, though, offered a different perspective. They find video games to be interactive storytelling. They describe detailed world-building, beautiful artwork, and an experience that is never the same twice, because the player will make different decisions that alter the outcome of the story in different ways…not dissimilar to the Choose Your Own Adventure books of old.

This intrigued me, because this is similar to the theatre experience. Live performances are never the same twice. Different plays are interpreted differently by different directors and actors. The same cast will experience completely different performances on different nights because of different audiences, the reactions of whom are necessary for the complete experience, and alter each play considerably.

So, I thought, if you view video games in this light, then they begin to look like very legitimate forms of art: in the words of my family member, a form of storytelling with “more depth.” In fact, I think of schools with MFA in creative writing programs that offer coursework in writing for games.

So, to complete my education, the family pointed me toward some video samples of some of their favorite games.

Storytelling? Sounds interesting to me. And, just to appreciate the artistry of the worlds that are built for these games, I was impressed by the detail and the beauty of this one:

I was thinking about the wealth of creative talent involved in this last clip: the digital animators, the musicians, the voice actors, the writers, the post-production technicians. This is on par with an animated short, at least. And when I think about writing a story with so many possible twists and turns that can change with interactivity, I suddenly find myself very appreciative of the specific skills required.

So, while I doubt seriously that I’ll ever become a gamer, and while I’m still troubled by the many cases of video game addiction that can plague those who invest too much time these worlds, I’m thinking that this possibility exists with any creative endeavor, and any participation in alternate fictional worlds. That doesn’t, I suppose, make the participation itself a bad thing. So, the result of my 2011 Thanksgiving holiday is to find a new appreciation for the art of video games.

Learning something new is a beautiful thing.

All The News That’s Fit to Print

I think it was around a year ago that my friend Katherine introduced me to the Story of the Week blog, and it went immediately into my RSS reader. The blog is a project of the Library of America, and offers a free, downloadable piece of fiction, poetry, dispatch, etc. each week. Take what you want to read, leave what you don’t…I periodically find myself dropping their weekly offering onto my e-reader for future perusal.

Twice I’ve read true crime pieces from this site, including this weekend. This most recent piece was a re-print of the journalistic account of a grisly murder in Iowa in 1900, and is collected in True Crime: An American Anthology.  At 17 pages, its a fast read, and was an intriguing way to end my weekend.

Reading this collection of newspaper articles by the same journalist, I was struck by the writing style. I’m amazed at how the quality of writing in articles from 1900 is so much better than articles written today. The pacing, the use of language, the vocabulary…all of superior quality. I realize, though, that newspapers, which are only one generation from extinction today, were the primary means of communicating events at that time, and people sat down to read these true stories that were occurring around them. Just as today’s video-based or radio journalism  continues to hold an entertainment component, so those stories were told in a such a way as to present the facts in a manner that kept the reader engaged. This was not the inverted pyramid of print journalism as we know it. This was storytelling.

While these accounts seemed a bit sensationalist is their own right (perhaps its impossible to do journalism without a touch of this), I found myself thinking that I just don’t read this quality of storytelling in journalistic endeavors any more. Even weightier news sources, such as the New York Times or the BBC, condense their offerings to make them more quickly read and more easily digestible. This is a product of an online culture, I realize, in which we seem constantly pressed for time as we scan information in increasing quantities, all the while hyperlinking across the Internet to this or that reference in the middle of an article.

There are still sources of good storytelling in our news media today. I typically find them in magazines more than mainstream news…publications such as the New Yorker or the Atlantic present commentary on current events with a more literary feel, analyzing aspects of modern happenings of which the reader was likely unaware. Of course, these publications are just that: commentary.  You don’t pick up the New Yorker every week for breaking news.

Now, I don’t think media outlets can find a way to package breaking news headlines in poetic language if they are to present them at the speed of our information age…at least I never found a way to do so in my journalism days. But, I think that more care with the language could be afforded. While commentary lends itself more easily to storytelling, I don’t think we have to divorce our news articles from the art altogether. There’s just something more substantive to the events of which we’re reading when this is done…they seem more real.

Perhaps another issue at play here is the fact that the distinction between commentary and news is now blurred in a confusing manner. I spent most of journalism days writing op-ed pieces. When I did so, they were separated from the news sections, because they were commentary, not news. The reader understood the difference by the column’s placement in the paper.

Today, American media outlets refuse to present just the news. They wrap the headlines in impromptu commentary and run their commentary as news. The result is not op-ed, but propaganda for the political leanings of a particular media outlet. No longer is the viewer or reader trusted to make up his or her own mind after being presented with “just the facts.”

Unfortunately, the public’s ability to do so will then atrophy, like a muscle that hasn’t been used in too long. Most viewers or readers don’t want to spend the energy to think critically about current events, even though they are perfectly capable. They want someone to tell them what to think.

And that is worlds away from hearing someone’s thoughts or reasoned perspective on an issue. Because that is real commentary, the stuff of good op-ed columns: a different perspective on the events at hand, presented as a perspective, and offered as thoughts to be considered.

I’m fascinated to watch as the line between journalism and commentary blurs, and takes the care of the language down with it, digressing into a psychologically-crafted collection of buzz words and persuasion intended to foster groupthink among the viewers, and resulting in inflammatory rhetoric that only does harm, and not good.

We really need a return of good, balanced storytelling. And I don’t just mean in fiction. Because we really are smart, folks. We really are capable of thinking for ourselves and making up our own minds about the issues at hand.

We really don’t need someone to cross the line and start thinking for us.

I promise.

Photo Attribution: salimfadhley 

Riding into the Sunset. Or Not.

There’s something about the ending to a story.

I remember an undergrad journalism course in which the professor advised us to not irritate our readers. If we do, they tend to not come back. While that is well-intentioned and effective advice for a factual article written in the inverted pyramid, it becomes problematic in fiction. Problematic, but no less true. I’ve read similar advice to writers about the endings of scripts and stories. How the loose ends tie together is key, they say. Upset your audience with the ending, and they tell their friends to not bother seeing or reading your work. Should there be a sequel, they won’t be interested. The ending is critical, and, if Hollywood and much genre fiction are to be believed, must be done in relatively routine ways that border on formulaic (in the case of Hollywood, remove the “border on” from that sentence).

My issue with this is that, if the story is to be true to life, there will be messy and unresolved issues at the end. Because that’s the way life ends. Messy. With unresolved complications.

This is culture informing art, I think, because Western culture just doesn’t grieve well. We don’t accept that death is a part of life, and so we run from it, minimize it, and pretend it doesn’t exist. I can almost see producers around a table in a smoke-filled room saying things like, “Happiness is key, and we all must live happily ever after. Except we don’t. But let’s not tell them about that.”

I recently read this flash fiction piece and thought it appropriate here, because it portrays (rather poignantly, I think) what happens when we don’t permit ourselves to grieve. I’ve talked before about how obscene I’ve witnessed the death process to be in our culture…an emotional barbarity I’ve experienced firsthand. I think that the reason grief is such an alien process to us is because we’ve been taught to avoid it.

Karen commented recently that those mourning a loss are surrounded by well-wishers and supporters initially, for several days or a month or so. Then the supporters phase out and go on with their lives, and the grieving are left in an emotional abyss. That is when they truly need support…I think that is when real friends are proven. There are other causes of grieving, though, than just the loss of a loved one. The loss of a career, the ramifications of poor choices, the ending of a relationship; all leave us entrenched in the grief process. Psychologists will say that this process takes longer for some than others, and that is certainly true. What is clear, though, is that there is no cultural custom built in to assist us in walking through grief, such as other cultures (I think specifically of ancient Israel) have in place. As much as tradition finds itself wanting for me, I can see its value on occasion, and this would be one of those occasions.

The all-too-neat endings of our stories speak to the desire we have for life to end the same way. We like things to resolve the way a chord resolves in music. Yet, true life is closer to the unresolved chords of some jazz musicians, the ugly endings of some indie films, the “artsy abstractness” of literary fiction. I think that there must be a negative before there is a positive in mortal life, that we cannot truly appreciate the positive unless we’ve experienced the negative…the tragedy before the comedy, as Buechner phrased it (and, following his phraseology, I certainly don’t mean to imply that I don’t believe in the fairy tale). Yet, our culture’s stories grasp at an eternal desire for the positive without living nearly long enough in the negative, or else exist solely in the negative and eschew the positive in an attempt to glamorize the negative. This tendency makes for a very unbalanced story.

And that is a symptom of a very unbalanced culture.

Photo Attribution: bensisto