Ovals

It had been a nearly picture perfect June day. The weather had been warm, but not unbearably so, and as the sun approached the distant horizon, the temperature began to drop. Young children rolled in the grass in front of the outdoor stage as their older siblings sang or played their instruments. It was the school’s end of year concert.

As the orchestra played Handel’s water music, I remembered summer days on the lawn at Tanglewood. They were rare, but special events when the family would gather to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We would have a picnic lunch on the grass, and I would roll in the grass like the young kids sitting in front of me. I still carry fond memories of those days and the love of music they helped engender.

I looked around at many friends sitting on the hill. We had seen our children grow here, and learn so much. This would be my last elementary school concert as a parent of one of the young performers. I sought to soak it all in. My mother would devotedly show up at all my performance as a child and perhaps was looking down here from heaven. My father, always seemed to be occupied with other things and would rarely show up. Now, he’s occupied in a senior living complex.

My wife’s mother died before I met her, and may well have been sitting next to my mother. My wife’s father remarried, and Papa and Nana would have been at the concert if it wasn’t for something of graver concern.

At the end of the concert, it was announced that various groups had won high acclaim in their adjudication. I commented to my daughter that this acclaim, at least in my reckoning, was of much greater value to me than CMT or SBAC scores. The ability to read small ovals with stems rising from them is far more important the ability to select the right ovals to fill in on standardized tests. People come to believe that filling in the right oval is some sort of accomplishment in and of itself.

In the next town, adults were filling in little ovals indicating that they supported or opposed the proposed town budget. Such votes are important, but they aren’t a real accomplishment. No one wants taxes to go up or services to go down. The real accomplishment is getting into the thick of it and hammering out specific instances where a town should increase or decrease its spending.

When the concert ended, parents struggled to round up their children and get them home to dinner, baths and bedtime. Meanwhile, in a nearby hospital, a Vietnam Veteran, who had struggled and suffered so much both during the war, and perhaps more significantly afterwards rested in his bed. Family was gathered around him as they talked quietly about his prospects and waited.

Reimagining

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit. Another month rolls down the hill like a Sisyphean bolder and a new month begins. What will this month bring? Last month, my 2014 campaign for State Representative began. What kind of impact can I have this time? I went to an event to reimagine the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. I’ve shared my reactions and wonder what sort of impact that will have. Meanwhile, I try to balance work and home.

As I try to pull together thoughts on reimaging both politics and religion in the twenty-first century, I keep in mind what a luxury that is. For too many, it is too much to just get by from day to day. How do we encourage those who are too exhausted from the daily grind to be more engaged in politics or religion?

For me, my relaxation often comes from trying to gain new perspectives, particularly through the arts. I’m trying to determine what my literary diet for the coming months will be. Should I dive back into poetry? From Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni to Billy Collins and Denise Levertov? Should I reread some Thomas Merton or perhaps the writings of some Great Awakening preacher?

How do I relate all of this to what I read on Facebook? I’ve been thinking of trying to post something upbeat each day, whether it be a picture of a flower, a great quote, or an inspiring article. I’ve been trying to highlight things going on around me where regular people make a difference. I’ve been avoiding jumping into many of the discussions where seem to be venting with no real solutions.

Saturday, someone posted a link to Download a Free Copy of Danah Boyd’s Book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. This led me to explore the Open Culture website for a while, and ultimately end up checking out their list of films by Andrei Tarkovsky that are online.

I ended up watching Ivan’s Childhood. One person describe the film this way:

First Film by the prophet of modern cinema Andrei Tarkovsky
While Sergei Eisenstein literally wrote the grammar of cinema by inventing Montage, Tarkovsky found the true calling of cinema with his exposition of long shot where the roving camera wanders examining stuff and through its eyes reach into the heart and soul of the protagonist. Through him film became what it was meant to be, the purveyor of dreams. All other developments in cinema are borrowed from other visual and literary developments.

The film is set on the front lines of World War II and traces the experiences of a child, Ivan. It is the sort of film to make you think, especially about the lives of people very different those of us living comfortably in the twenty-first century.

So, let’s see where the boulder rolls this month.

This is

Recently, I attended the OMMA conference about videos at Internet Week. One of the best talks was by Gary Osifchin of Mondelez, the parent company of Honey Maid graham crackers. He spoke about their “wholesome” campaign. He spoke about how people see graham crackers as wholesome, but that people often associate “wholesome” with “old-fashioned” or “boring”. In order to stand out in this world of constant advertising and marketing everywhere, you need to present a strong point of view.

He suggested that to make “wholesome” relevant and exciting against this background, you need to look at cultural truths, for example, the changing face of American families. It is a risky strategy, because there will always be people who rebel against changes in cultural truths, but I believe that Honey Maid’s “Wholesome” campaign was very successful and helped to get people to look at how the world is changing.

He spoke about how he hoped other brands would follow suit and how the wholesome campaign is not just a single set of ads, but is a ten year campaign. On twitter, they are using the hashtag “#ThisIsWholesome”. It made me stop and think about how this could be done for other brands.

“This is…” I work at a health center serving vulnerable populations. What would a campaign about “This is health” look like? Would it talk about programs we do to help people eat healthier food? Get more exercise? Read more? Become more involved in their community? All of that fits into broader discussions about health, including social determinants of health and health equity.

What about my run for State Representative? Can we change “This is politics” into something positive? Can we talk about caring for the vulnerable amongst us, instead of how so much politics of today seems to be about grabbing what you can for yourself at the expense of everyone else around you? Instead of politics, should we talk about governance, citizenship, responsibility, or some related idea? After all, it seems like the cultural truths are currently stacked up against any positive image of politics.

As I think about the phrase, “This is…”, various phrases come to mind. “This is… American Idol”. “This is Spinal Tap”, “This is water”, “This is my body, which is given for you”.

What do we want to declare as cultural truths? What do we hope such declarations will bring about?

Memorial Day – 2014

The past couple of days, I’ve been seeing all kinds of post about how this is not National BBQ Day, National Car Shopping Day, National Start of Summer Day, and stuff like that. Typically, the post shows a soldier presenting to folded flag to a young boy, a Marine pausing by a monument of those who have died defending our country, or some other touching and important image.

This is an important message, but I think it is poorly executed. Too many wars have been fought because of black and white, either/or thinking. We are a great people. We can do better than this either/or thinking. We can pause at a grave of a soldier, watch or march in a Memorial Day parade, have a hot dog or hamburger with the volunteer fire department after the parade, perhaps even get a swim in at the beach, and have a BBQ with our extended family.

We need to honor those who have died defending our country. We should show this by stopping to remember their sacrifice as well as enjoying the freedom they died to defend. We also need to honor those suffering years after their deployments. For example, the Vietnam Vet in the hospital who has struggled with PTSD and alcoholism, whose liver has stopped functioning and for the loved ones that sit with him.

Happy Memorial Day, pass the ketchup.

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From Punch Cards to Cat Videos

“Do Not Fold, Bend, Mutilate or Spindle” The old phrase about computer punch cards in the sixties came to my mind Thursday as I attended OMMA Video as part of Internet Week in New York City. As experts talked about buying online video advertisements, based on increasingly sophisticated demographic information and programmatic buying, I had to wonder if the concern about being reduced to a number had far surpassed the greatest fears of those fifty years ago who protested the depersonalization that computers with their punch cards had brought.

Now, I understand the argument that improved targeting doesn’t depersonalize advertising, instead it makes it more specific, more personalized, but my mind drifts to the work of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”. Increasingly, our interactions have become transactional. They are losing the personal touch, the “I and thou”, the chance for transformation.

Perhaps that is because everything is becoming more and more about the numbers. We focus on ROIs, KPIs and how all of this ultimately relates to our “net worth”. At one point, I tweeted, “The talk about data, measurement and automation makes me think of Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

In contrast to all of this, the keynote speakers touched on something else, creativity. The first speaker, Mike Monello, CCO of Campfire, referenced Spreadable Media, Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. It sounds like I book I need to get.

Monello spoke about the reason people share content, to elevate their status, to define their community, and to strengthen bonds. It seems like this returns us closer to Buber. He spoke about putting the audience in the middle of the story, breaking down the fourth wall between the advertiser and the consumer and noted that people look for experiences, not content.

All of this comes to mind as I think about my campaign for State Representative. People are tired of politics, of the strategists that carefully run the numbers and craft messages to appeal to the largest demographic. I’ve been getting into discussions about this on Facebook recently.

For example, Whitney Hoffman, whom I met through Podcamp years ago, is running for State Representative. Recently, she wrote,

there seems to be a big gap between what politicians think folks need to know and what's effective, and how voters feel about it. For example, direct mail is a staple of politics, and data typically shows direct mail has a 1% conversion rate in retail, but very few people I talk to pay much attention to the glossy information that comes in the mail, and often toss it right away.

I had a great discussion with Whitney about this. It does seem like things like yard signs, bumper stickers, campaign websites, and direct mail, have little impact, other than showing that you’re a credible candidate. It is the same old politics by the numbers. But what we really need is politics that people will want to share, to define our communities and strengthen our bonds.

When people talk about content that gets shared online, they typically talk about cat videos. Cat videos make us feel good. Jane McGonigal talks about looking at pictures of cute animals in terms of building emotional resilience. It seems like there is an ever increasing need for emotional resilience, especially if you are at all politically active. So, the question that I asked of Whitney, and that I ask here is, how do we build emotional resilience into political discourse? Instead of sending out glossy direct mail, how can candidates reach out with messages that makes us emotionally stronger and builds our communities? What are the cat videos of your campaign?

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