Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sweat the Small Stuff

A common archetype in fiction is the character who is always unpleasant to be around, but when the chips are down, is revealed to be the type of person you want on your side. A heart of gold underneath a gruff exterior, and all that.

In real life, though, the metaphorical chips usually aren't down. The usefulness of such a character is limited. In fact, I think absent any foxholes in one's life, it would probably be preferable to be acquainted with someone nice on the exterior, yet secretly selfish on the inside, as opposed to someone selfless on the inside yet abrasive on the outside.

While I think a truly virtuous person would have to have a deep regard for others, I think too often the superficial is overlooked in the consideration of virtue. I'm especially interested in how this relates to people in positions of power and influence. This point was driven home for me by my students on the last day of classes yesterday. I gave them the opportunity to voice any feelings they had about how the year went for them. Thankfully, many of them commented about what they had learned, and even how they had applied things they had learned. However, many more commented on matters that some would consider trivial. They mentioned things like how they appreciated that I would say "hi" outside of class, how I didn't yell at them, how I appreciated their humor, and how I wasn't afraid to dance at their Prom, given my limited skills in that area. They mentioned (unfunny) jokes that I had made months ago, and tangents I had gone on about comic books.

On the flip side of the coin, one student mentioned the time that I had referenced only having two boys in the class, forgetting for the moment that he qualified in that area. He related this with a smile and also related positive memories, but the reminder he gave me was powerful. What people say off the top of their head matters. The effect of seemingly minor words and attitudes matter. While this is true to an extent for everyone, it is especially true for those of us in positions of influence, where throwaway phrases and even facial expressions carry deep significance. It can be a heavy burden to always have a filter and a governor (and an especially heavy burden on the all too many days when lack of sleep and overwork take a palpable toll on the mind and body). However, in my case, the burdens were outweighed by the rewards.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Geldof Criticizes Gore's Live Earth

I had to laugh when I saw the above as a headline on MSNBC's website. It must have been tough for the headline writer to encapsulate this story in one line. On one hand, you don't want to put anybody too obscure in the headline without an identifying marker. Since we are 22 years removed from Bob Geldof's major triumph, it seems that the correct decision would be to identify him as "Live Aid's Geldof." On the other hand, "Live Aid's Geldof criticizes Gore's Live Earth" sounds awkward. Ideally, you would be able to dispense with "Gore" from the headline altogether, but "Live Earth" doesn't have enough legs to stand on its own apart from Al Gore, which is indicative of a much deeper problem.

The actual criticism that Geldof levies is an apt one, that Gore's multi-continental concerts for the environment in June aren't really worthwhile because they lack a tangible goal. This criticism is a bit odd in light of the fact that Geldof's 2005 Live 8 concerts for third world poverty had no tangible goal, but had the same stated objective as Gore's: "to raise awareness." Perhaps Geldof learned from experience that even given worldwide media attention on the strength of Live Aid's reputation, rock concerts don't do a whole lot to bring awareness to issues. As he says about Gore's ambitions: "We are all (expletive) conscious of global warming."

The use of an expletive hearkens back to Geldof's liberal usage of language during Live Aid, which at the time was credited as an off-the-cuff display of passion that spiked donation pledges. However, similar carelessness in elocution today reveals a disconnect in understanding how artists connect with audiences. Geldof (and Gore) come from a generation in which music was inextricably linked with culture. It mattered to fans not only how their favorite bands sounded, but what values they espoused. Such a connection had a hidden value for the artists--fans remained loyal to bands long after creative energy was exhausted. The Live Aid concerts were virtually concurrent with the nativity of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Live Aid featured many of those HOFers, many of them at the slough of their careers. Yet it mattered not a whit that Led Zeppelin gave one of the worst performances of their career, or that Bob Dylan couldn't hear anything on stage, or that no one in the Wembley Stadium could hear Paul McCartney singing "Let It Be."

Today, in a music world commodified by record companies and fragmented by the Internet and radio formats, there is less of a binding connection between artist and fan. The relationship has become one of producer and consumer, and Bob Geldof's eccentricities, which once signified an anti-establishment ethos, now seem to divide him from the people he wants to inspire. Although there is more interest in celebrity culture today than perhaps ever before, you can make a strong case that actual celebrity influence has ebbed. Whereas scores of young people may have explored Transcendental Meditation in the 1960s because the Beatles were doing it, I think you'd have to tax your six degrees of separation to find anyone embracing Scientology because Beck is doing it.

Of course, you can argue that Beck shouldn't be put in the same ballpark as the Beatles, but that's precisely my point. While Live Aid boasted performances by McCartney, Dylan, Zeppelin, Bowie, Elton John, the Beach Boys, and Eric Clapton, Live Earth promises Keane, AFI, Fall Out Boy, and KT Tunstall.

So far the band announcement that has inspired the most publicity for the event is the reunion of Spinal Tap. Frankly, I can't believe that the organizers allowed this through. It is a particularly blatant sign that this genre has "jumped the shark" to the point of self-parody. If the proposed Antarctica concert goes through, this thing really becomes an Onion article brought to life.

It seems to me that if Al Gore is passionate about the environment, he should think about media other than music to get the message out. Maybe he should make a documentary film.

Update on Previous Post: I got an e-mail back from the guy who put his resume on Turns out he's a Douglas Adams fan.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up

Awhile back, I blogged about the appeal of retro commercials. There is a website devoted in part to the celebration of such commercials: While perusing this site, you might encounter the classic early 1990s commercial for Life Alert Emergency Response. If that doesn't ring a bell, it's the "I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up" commercial.

Since I was 11-years-old when the spot premiered in 1989, I watched a lot of daytime television at the time, and certainly remember seeing it multiple times. And since I actively enjoyed reruns of the Batman television series, I had formed no sensibilities regarding the presence of such a thing as "camp." As such, I was completely bewildered when I started to hear this line quoted and mocked on multiple occasions. I had previously regarded poor Mrs. Fletcher's predicament with concern and sympathy. After all, it's not illogical to expect such a thing to happen to the elderly. My honest to goodness reaction to the emergent popularity of the line was to assume that it contained some hidden sexual meaning that I wasn't privy to. That hypotheses gradually faded as I heard the line uttered in polite company, as well as noted it's arrival on T-shirts for Morry's Bar in the form of "I've fallen and I can't reach my beer." (As a side note, I was disappointed to read on Wiki that this was actually a national phenomenon. Here I thought Morry's Bar was special.)

Eventually, I played along and assumed that the phenomenon could be attributed to a general mockery of the elderly. (Sometimes I think we don't credit children enough for the levels of cynicism they can attain. In many ways, I was more cynical as a child than I am now). In hindsight, though, I'm not sure if I was all that wrong. Viewing the commercial from today's perspective, I can certainly note the campy overacting, but I'm not sure if those elements were enough alone to elevate it to such levels of infamy.

Taking a psychoanalytic approach (assuming that humor is a way to deal with repressed fears) it certainly makes sense that this mockery would be a way to cover concerns of future helplessness (and the absolute degree of helplessness that Mrs. Fletcher exhibited was such that one had to either laugh or be terrified). There is also something disconcerting in how articulate she is given her abject status. If she had said "I've fallen...can't get up!" would the statement have resonated? Or is there something more horrifying, and hence humorous, about using compound sentences in dire circumstances?

In any event, this commercial was clearly a product of its time, and wouldn't have become famous today. In the viral world of youtube, there is such a proliferation of campy scenarios, that the shelf life of all of them is limited. No way a catch phrase can last for years anymore. Daytime advertising camp has fallen, and...ah, not gonna go there.