Monthly Archives: October 2006

Problem Child

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Yesterday I went to collect my mail at the post office, and one envelope stood out from the stack. It was a plain business envelope with a slight bluish tint to the paper and clear cellophane windows. On it was written in bold letters:

Please tell us what to do about Deborah Cooper
I looked at that for a while, and found myself unable to toss it into the recycling can. It was obviously a mass mailer having to do with magazine subscriptions, but it seemed too perfect an entreaty to throw away. I stuck the envelope in with the mail I would take home with me and went back to my car.

I have no idea what to do about Deborah Oak Cooper. I have known her for nearly twenty years now, and count her as one of my closest friends. She is irascible, funny as all hell, has a nose for trouble and a gift for magic. I mean, anyone who answers her phone by saying, “What fresh hell is this?” is someone worth knowing.

Deborah has gotten into her share of scrapes over the years. She’s had run-ins with lots of people, has stood up for righteous causes, made lots of mistakes, and always made an effort to publicly admit both her screw-ups and those of others. This has won her enmity in some circles, but also lots of admiration. Plenty of people over the years have thrown up their hands and sung some version of the chorus to “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” when talking about Oak and her latest escapades. With this mass mailer, was it possible that the Universe was now getting into the act?

Or was it just Vanity Fair, who in their rating of the King Mixers of the country have finally (and accurately) decided that Deborah Cooper is a force to be reckoned with? It was, after all, Deborah who first introduced me to Vanity Fair as we were travelling on a plane to some witchcamp one year. She declared it the perfect airplane reading fare, so I gave it a try and found that I had to agree. Then when my marriage started coming apart and life became very stressful, I decided that perhaps VF wasn’t just for airplanes anymore. I bought myself a subscription (so cheap! thank heavens for all that advertising!) and proceeded to shock people with the fact that I actually read the magazine.

Last year they offered me a free gift subscription for one of my friends if I would only re-subscribe, so it was a no-brainer to send a magazine surprise over to Deborah who started it all. Now they were coming back to me as though together we had caused a problem of national import. Were they regretting last year’s offer? Had they received letters to the effect that Deborah Cooper was a potential liability? Were they offering her (or me) a column in their magazine?

I have not opened the envelope to find out; I prefer it to stay as a koan. I think it deserves to be framed and laughed at for years to come by those of us who love Deborah and couldn’t imagine trundling through this life without her as a friend. She will egg you on, stands by your side, and give mostly good advice, all the while being as honest about her own foibles as it is possible to be. She is a stand-up witch and enormously fun company. I have no idea what to do about that, but this does seem like the right time to set the record straight.

Phrases to Die (four)

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(in which I come alarmingly close to sounding like Andy Rooney)

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology. I am a big fan of living in the industrialized world in the early 21st century. I like gadgets, I like whiz-bang graphics, I like spending endless hours sitting in front of a computer being productive while not having to move any of the major muscle groups.

BUT. Things have gotten out of hand, and here I am pointing the finger at marketing departments of every major company and editorial departments of every technology magazine. What started out as trumpeting a genuine ability to do stuff we couldn’t do before has turned into a farcical exercise of touting imaginary revolutions. Back in the day, yeah, we needed computers that could run faster. We needed software that could balance checkbooks and do page layout. Color screens were a nice step forward. But now we’re pretty much good to go.

Every so often some new gadget comes along that is useful, even cool. I don’t need any of them, though. Maybe one gadget every couple years. I used to jump just like Pavlov’s dogs every time the latest something would come out. I’d think and scheme and plan how to leverage this and sell that so I could afford the other. The other would arrive and I’d plug it in and set it up, and it would work pretty okay. But sooner or later it lost its glamour and became just another Thing, and things break. Things have problems, they have bugs or incompatabilities with other things that you don’t realize until you use them for a while.

After watching enough glamorous purchases turn into mere things, I finally learned to look at a product as a thing beforehand, while everyone is supposed to be entranced by its supernova looks and packaging. This cool-headed technique has saved me literally thousands of dollars so far. I can also take pride in doing my part to slow down our alarming trade deficit with all those gadget-producing nations.

The really annoying thing is that while every economist knows that people are buying fewer gadgets, no one in marketing seems to have realized that it’s time to cool the hyperbole machines. Page after page keeps getting cranked out with ad copy that literally compares you, the consumer, with the Master of the Universe once you buy the next great gizmo. This stuff is uninformative and boring to read, for starters. But more than that, people know (or they learn) that the more you buy something based on glamour, the bigger the let-down will be once the gizmo becomes just another thing in your house.

So here are my top four contenders for meaningless hype phrases that I never want to see again. Which is not to say that truly useful or exciting things shouldn’t be advertised as such. But really, we’re all tired of the bullshit, so let’s just stop it. Starting with these:

Unleash the Power of (fill in the blank). You will never again catch me reading any article that exposes how to unleash the power of anything. What possible good can this do? Why can’t Product X be powerful while it’s still leashed and under my control? I walk my dog on a leash. When I unleash him, he runs away. Why would I want your product to run away? And if you’re trying to say that without your product I may never tap into my inherent capabilities as a human being, that’s not just silly, it’s offensive. I never want to hear about Unleashing the Power of anything, ever again.

In a similar vein, I do not wish to Take Control of my desktop, my email, filing system, washing machine, or sewer connection. I am happy with the control I already have by virtue of being able to unplug or toss out anything that no longer works. I may or may not explore how to use more of the buttons on my remote. I might never learn more of the commands or hidden features of the software I own. If I do, you’ll be the first to know. But let’s call it what it is: Learning. I already am in control. I made a decision to buy something, and maybe someday I’ll make a decision to sell it. That’s control. All the rest, it’s called learning, and it’s what ordinary people do every day. If you’re telling me I can become a superhero, I’ll give you thirty seconds to make the pitch. Other than that, just treat me like an adult.

Giving You the Tools You Need. (more a blast at education, but marketers also take note) In August I went to help my daughter get settled at her new college. At the orientation we sat and listened for two and a half hours as the president, the CEO, Dean of Undergraduates, and a couple department chairs gave their spiels. Not one of them talked about giving my daughter the tools she needed to succeed at anything. I nearly wept with gratitude. I don’t think I have been to an orientation or graduation from pre-school to college in the last twenty years where some poor drone hasn’t waxed poetic about finding somewhere in that institution the tools needed to succeed. Rule of thumb: Skills are useful. Tools can be bought. Neither guarantees success. When graduates use this language, they don’t know what success is. When administrators use it, neither does the school. Proceed accordingly.

We Sell Solutions. No you don’t. You sell products, or services, or a combination of the two. A solution is a strategy or plan to solve a critical problem, for instance world hunger. Anything I buy that comes with an instruction manual is not a solution. It is a product. If I figure out how to configure your product it might help me solve some problems, but it is not in itself a solution to anything. Moreover, anything that requires me talking to somebody in Malaysia is not a solution. If you want to sell me a $100 upgrade next year and the year after that, you are not even selling products. You are selling packages of problems which only the next upgrade will fix.

Still not sure what you are selling? Then please, do us all a favor and go home early. Get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning, and maybe after a shower and a hot cup of coffee, you’ll discover something genuinely unique and valuable that has yet to be written about your product or service. When you figure out what that is, I’m all ears.

On Dreaming a Song

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It happened again recently, that most rarefied of dreams: I am performing a beautiful new song spontaneously as I compose it. The dream wakes me up, and on waking I remember part of the haunting melody and lyrics, and am able to transcribe them.

There are many ways to tell what condition our psyches are in. Sleeping soundly and waking refreshed is a reliable indicator of all-around health and well-being. Of course the stress of our crazy schedules means that this doesn’t happen every night, but even if we achieve this only a few times a month we can probably assume that we’re doing okay.

If we want to do better than that, though, we have to spend some time tending to the soul’s needs. Thomas Moore has written beautifully about that in Care of the Soul and his other books. Our dreams point to this deep desire for soul nourishment in a number of ways. Sometimes we will dream of a favorite activity we’ve been neglecting in our daily life and the dream reminds us how much we love it and how good it makes us feel. If we are paying attention, it is always a good idea to take the hint and make time in our lives to do whatever that is.

I think of soul health in terms of what I call “indicator species.” In order for me to be healthy in mind and body, for instance, I have to write. If I let other work take over and neglect my writing, I will start to feel depressed. If I don’t catch on right away, I’ll soon have a dream in which I am either forced by circumstances to write, or am desperate to write and am being denied by some nefarious force. Either way, I wake up and know, “Uh-oh, I have been neglecting my writing. Time to get down to it.” Balancing my inner need to write with all the other demands on my time is just a fact of my life. I need to write like I need to breathe. You can probably think of something in your own life that functions in the same way.

Usually dream directives are not ultimatums. They don’t tell me, for instance, to write at the expense of everything else in my life. They want writing to be turned up in the mix of things I do, but they know I still need to spend time doing those other things. Dreams, and the soul, are not interested in us being perfect. But they want us to put out a reasonable effort, and to try and achieve what I think of as a “zone of success.”

Being in the “zone” for me looks like taking a deeper look at those moments of transition when I’ve completed one set of tasks, say packing up a bunch of music orders, and am ready to move on to another task. I could just look at the to-do lists scattered on my desk, close my eyes, and point (I have indeed used this method, with mixed results). But unless there is something on those lists that is an urgent priority, I can remember my dream and take a couple moments to consult the internal mix. Is there something I’ve been neglecting? Are all my indicator species relatively well-fed? If the answer is no, I can take an hour or even a half-hour and write, and come out of it feeling more centered and with far more energy than I had before.

This is not to say that satisfying those indicator species is always fun or easy. Writing is hard work, and I have devised several excellent strategies for being at my computer intending to write, yet cleverly managing to avoid it (reading other people’s blogs is high on my list). Sometimes I have to write about really hard stuff, and it is not at all pleasant. But dreams know the difference between mere intention and actual effort, and they reward us for the latter.

This is part of how I read my dream of a new song. Sometime this summer I realized I had come to the end of the stories in a series of predictive dreams from earlier in my life, and that I was at a very rare life turning point. It was time to show up, pay attention, and put some effort into starting the new stories right, so I did. My completely exhilarating dream of the beautiful new song feels like a “two-thumbs-up” sign from the dreamworld. Even if my new direction is still unclear to me and there are a lot of unknowns, I’m off to a good start.

Of course, there is also a bit of compass-pointing in the dream, too. Anyone who knows me probably knows that playing and writing music is my core indicator species. It’s one of those elusive beasts of the forest that only comes out when conditions are just right. This is true in my waking life, where making music is a luxury (and also a creative challenge I am skilled at avoiding). I can go without it for a while and think things are fine, but then I experience it again and think, “How could I have thought that breathing was enough?” Clearly breathing is not enough anymore, and even though things are going along just fine, this dream is poking me in the belly a bit, saying, “Here’s the beginnings of a new song. Now play it.”