Sunday, November 28, 2010

Postal Holidays & Other Forsaken Traditions

Once upon a time, I used to send holiday cards to everyone I knew. That averaged 80 to 90 cards a year and could take me days to address, stamp and pop into the mail. Then, one year, there were some family issues draining my energy and it occurred to me that sending holiday cards was a waste of time, money and trees. So I went cold turkey and stopped sending them altogether.

Several friends were genuinely offended. Some drifted away never to be heard from again. Within two years I received only one or two cards, proving that the ones I received previously were only mailed in an unspoken agreement that "I'll send you one if you send me one." So I had the satisfaction of not only saving myself time and effort, but also helping others pair down their seasonal tasks.

Today, with the advent of Facebook and e-Cards, choosing not to do a mass mailing in December doesn't seem nearly as radical. The Green movement also tends to smile upon such a gesture. However, my desire to scale down at the holidays did not stop there. Several years ago, after our youngest child reached her teens, we decided we would no longer go to the trouble of putting up a Christmas tree. Why bother when every department store in the area had them up from late August through February? We still put out stockings, because that is part of our gift-giving tradition. Other than that, there are few decorations in our house.

Then last year, we told our siblings that we would buy gifts for all the children in the family, but not for adults. Anyone 18 years or older was on their own. Holidays are for children and the gifts that we grown siblings were giving each other just ended up in the attic anyway. Well, that was met with a lack of enthusiasm. Obviously, there was something terribly wrong with us. Too bad. We are not changing our minds and our budget is much healthier for it.

Don't get me wrong. We are not the bah-humbug types. What we have done, little by little over the years, is simplify the holidays and remove as many stresses as possible. As a result, the end of the year is a very pleasant time that focuses on getting together with family rather than gift-buying and decorating. That may horrify some holiday enthusiasts, but it works just fine for us.

If you want to decorate your yard with every blow-up Santa, reindeer and snowman known to man and put on a laser light show for the neighborhood, that's cool. We'll line up to watch. If you want to sing carols, decks your halls or mount a giant menorah on top of your car (one of our neighbors does this), then more power to you. We admire your energy and will enjoy it from the warmth of our generic living room. If you want to keep your outdoor holiday lights glowing 365 days a year, as many people do, we think that sucks, but it's your yard, not ours.

Everyone has their own approach/avoidance to the holidays and whatever works for you is fine. If you are looking to really enjoy yourself, however, let me encourage you to kick back, relax and do as little as possible. Forsaking tradition is a great way to celebrate the season!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Brands With Benefits

Are you using the sexy toilet paper?

We live in a society whose marketing and media are drenched in glistening sexuality. This can be evidenced in the luscious women gyrating in music videos; the buff, towel-clad man offering smug aftershave advice on the Web; and smirking old geezers soaking in side-by-side bathtubs on a beach. And by the way, why separate tubs? How does that work?

If we are to believe television, movies and advertisements, the world revolves around ensuring we are attractive enough and always at the ready to copulate with anything that moves. It's no mistake that this necessitates purchasing clothing, shoes, cosmetics, toiletries, weight-loss diets/supplements and/or plastic surgery. 

Television programs advise us on what not to wear, showcase the primitive mating habits of people at the Jersey shore and help us keep tabs on the how the stars are faring in their love livesas if such things are real news items.

Faced with this insipid stream of performance pressure, it's no wonder that there are record amounts of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs being popped liked candy.

Regardless of your take on all the well-orchestrated heavy breathing, sex sells. That means as long as even the faintest trace of libido throbs in the human cell, advertisers will be clamoring to associate their brands with our wafting pheromones. 

Are there any limits to the selling power of the mating dance? So far, it boasts a pretty comprehensive track record:  jeans, shoes, jewelry, perfume, toothpaste, hair growth tonics, cars, tropical vacationsyou name it. How far can this lunacy go?

I am throwing down the gauntlet. Here it is: Dear swaggering brand team on Madison Avenue, let's see if you can "go all the way!" I challenge you to develop a sex-based campaign to sell hemorrhoid cream, bed bug extermination and/or assisted living facilities. Anyone who answers the challenge will have their work posted here. It would make for interesting viewing and raise the phallic bar on American marketing gone wilding.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

She Asked for It

I work in advertising, Land of the Inexplicable. Let me explain.

A client called and asked me to attend a same-day rush meeting. I hopped in the car and drove 45 minutes to get to her company's headquarters. When I got there, the conference room was filled with eager young members of the brand team. I was being hired freelance as their writer.

I asked what the assignment was. I was told that a slide deck needed to be created for a new financial product. I asked for background information. There was none yet. I asked for references. There were none. I asked if anyone understood this new product. No one did. Given no materials or information, I sat dumbfounded as the team leader ended the meeting by telling me that the project was due in three days.

One time I had a client who wanted me to say that her productwhich had to be reviewed by the FDAhad a particular attribute. Unfortunately, after weeks of combing through all the studies we could find, the medical director and I found that her product actually did the opposite of what she wanted to claim. Rather than being good for a particular medical condition, it was, well, not so good. We informed her that no scientific evidence backed the ground-breaking claim she wanted to make. She told us she did not like our negative attitudes.

Sometimes products offer their own testimonials. I can remember writing an advertising campaign for an indoor plant watering can. It was a shiny copper color and had a long neck so it could easily reach hanging plants. I filled it with water and put it on  my desk for inspiration while I was developing ad concepts. By the end of the week, the can had rusted out and was leaking all over my desk. Not the best of products.

Just as clients and their products can be grist for therapists, so can employers. I recall walking into one advertising agency in which the lobby walls were covered, floor to ceiling, with creative awards. They represented every professional organization I had ever heard of and quite a few that were new to me. When I commented on it to the owner, he boasted that they had made all the awards up so that when clients entered their offices, they would be impressed. A bit disingenuous, I guess, but that's advertising.

Coworkers can also make your eyes roll up. At one agency where I worked, a pretty young woman with no talent or work ethic was endeavoring to forge her career by ingratiating herself to the executive vice president. He put her in charge of a direct mail campaign. Her approach worked rather well for a while as they often left the building and spent the day doing fun stuff while the rest of us got the work done. Eventually, however, she became bored and left the company. That's when a coworker found something unexpected in her office. Remember the mail campaign she was in charge of and for which the client had already paid? All the letters, hundreds of them, had been shoved under her desk.

So why do I work in such a dysfunctional field? Well, because I love writing. It doesn't matter if I work on a highly technical piece or a silly fluff product. I just love the process of crafting words on a page. So if I end up dealing on a daily basis with people who are on the wrong side of the asylum wall, that goes with the territory. Shed no tears of pity for me. Like some tawdry 1950s novel, I guess you could say that by persisting in this field, I asked for it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Naked Came the Danger

Anne Morrow Lindbergh once said that “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” I think she would be disappointed to see how the daring adventure of air travel that her husband pioneered has petered out to… well, er, meh. There is little to say on behalf of flying these days except that it can get you from point A to point B faster—at least if A and B are on opposite sides of the country or the ocean. How did a mode of travel associated with the far-flung adventures of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart become so mundane and neurotic?

Well, admittedly, the world has changed a bit since The Spirit of St. Louis crossed the Atlantic. It has gotten both more treacherous and more boring. First, the boring part: The most annoying events in airports used to be Hare Krishna followers asking for hand outs. No more. Now it's all about waiting. Waiting in lines for baggage checks. Waiting in line for security procedures. Waiting in line for boarding. If you're lucky, you've got a child in a stroller or friend in a wheelchair. They always get first dibs when passengers file on board.

And the treacherous part? Threatening objects like shampoo, nail files and mouthwash can be confiscated at will from your carry-on bag, condemning you to greasy hair, jagged nails and foul breath at your final destination. And the latest humiliation for weary travelers? Being compelled to stand in a scanner so some TSA pervert can look at you naked for fear you may be holding something dangerous between your legs. Gentlemen, make whatever comments you wish at this point.

Once you finally get on the plane and squeeze into your airline seatdamp and filled with crumbs from a child on the previous flightyou ignore a monotone pep talk on how to use oxygen masks or flotation devices should something unspeakably horrible occur. Right. Let’s be honest. If cabin pressure were lost or the plane began an unscheduled downward event, no amount of preparation would keep most passengers from screaming and beating their seat mates senseless with their dismembered armrests. Face it; most airplanes in distress do not land neatly in the Hudson River.

Yes. Flying is dangerous—not just because a several-ton vehicle is hurtling unnaturally at 500 miles an hour 30,000 or so feet above the Earth. A recent article cited aircraft bathrooms as one of the most disease-ridden places you could possibly find yourself. The passenger compartment serves as a dating service for you and recycling airborne pathogens. And strange people try to set their shoes or crotches on fire because they hate you and me. Or perhaps it is an act of suicide because they just found out that their tea or coffee is being made from recycled water out of the plane’s lavatory filtration tank.

When the plane finally hits the runway for a landing, your kidneys dance like bobble heads and the brakes screech like your captive soul. Your silver limo queues behind a line of aircraft that will take a good 20 minutes or more to find their final resting places. Eventually, you stagger off the plane with the gait of a numb-footed zombie. Then comes the final insult: you wait by the luggage carousel so you can watch dozens of suitcases that are NOT YOURS bang onto the conveyor belt and taunt you.

No more adventure. No standing akimbo with scarves blowing in the wind. Airplanes have been reduced to rancid sardine cans with wings. If you need to travel long distances, the wild blue yonder offers time-saving inconvenience. For shorter treks, you are better off taking a train or slapping on a backpack and skipping giddily down the road with your thumb in the air.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tenacious G at Rehab

Or... Grandma Rages Against the Machine

It’s not exactly what you may think. My 84-year-old mother is not at the Betty Ford Clinic drying out from a binge of alcohol or recreational drugs. After she was released from the hospital, she was required to go to an acute care rehab facility before her assisted living facility would take her back. Mom was not pleased. Her walking was a bit wobbly, so I could see the logic.

I drove her over to the facility, helped her settle in and finally left. The next morning at 7 a.m., I got a call from the facility that she was trying to “run away.” Actually, she got dressed, decided she did not want to be there and took action. The staff had their viewpoint, she had hers. Fortunately, a social worker my family had hired as an advocate intervened and convinced the staff that my mother was just disoriented because she was not at her home. They finally decided to let her stay rather than discharging her.

I was traveling for a few days and when I got back, Mom was walking like a pro. No more wobble. I asked to meet with the director of nursing and the physical therapy director and suggested to them that she was ready to leave. They thought she should stay for three more weeks—exactly the amount of time that is paid by Medicare. I disagreed strongly and they finally relented to let her leave the following Monday.

Unfortunately, Mom came down with something from the facility, which I then caught, so I was not able to visit her for a few days. When I finally returned, she was so tired she could hardly sit up and behaved like a zombie. I was puzzled. I’ve never seen Mom like this. Then the social worker there told me that because Mom had been agitated when she first arrived, the psychologist there put her on a medication to “calm her down.” Apparently, even though I am legally responsible for her medical decisions, they were not required to notify me about this.

She was given an anti-seizure medicine and an Alzheimer’s medicine—even though there was no diagnosis of Alzheimers. These drugs build up in the system over a period of days and apparently worked so well that she was practically in a catatonic state.

I called her doctor and asked that she be taken off the medications. My mother is feisty. If that is too inconvenient for a facility then they SHOULD discharge the patient rather than do a reenactment of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She is, after all, a human being, not a commodity. Is society so regimented that children and the elderly are being drugged up if they show an iota of spirit?

While I sympathize with what health care workers have to endure, they signed up for care giving when they took the job. My mother did not have much choice in being placed in their environment. She will be discharged tomorrow—and that can’t come too soon. Maybe on our way out, I’ll toss something heavy out the window in a commemorative gesture to Randle McMurphy and everyone else who has ever endured an involuntary lobotomy. Mom would like that—if she doesn’t grab it out of my hands, first, and do it herself.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Visualize World Ease

At every job I've had in the past ten years, I have run an employee lottery pool. Is this because I have a frustrated desire to become a professional bookie? Well, no. I think it is more likely because I and my fellow workers have a strong need to feel there is some small chance—albeit infinitesimal—that we might escape our lives of quiet desperation.

When I left my last full-time job before going freelance, I was asked if I would continue running the company lottery pool despite my corporate departure. After a brief intermission, I did so for almost a year. By then, most of the participants were no longer working for said company. A single hold-out employee asked if I would continue with him as the only member and I have done so.

One of the most entertaining activities related to lottery pools is the lunch-time conversations in which everyone takes turns explaining what they would do with the winnings. I've heard everything from setting up a charitable foundation to opening a beer and barbecue stand on a beach in Miami. Also popular is visiting everyone who has ever been annoying with a raised middle digit.

Most of us have agreed that if any of our number made the cliché statement that millions of dollars would not change his or her life that we would collectively lower our pants and moon the liar. The only way that amount of currency wouldn't make a difference in your life would be if you signed it over to me. Feel free to do so at any point.

Also, if you are already wealthy, please do not buy any tickets. It's cathartically fun to hear if someone who is unemployed, had their house foreclosed or needs an expensive life-saving operation has won millions. But if you are a successful doctor, lawyer or stockbroker, your lottery wins just make the rest of us feel darkly bitter. So don't spoil the psychology of this long-shot-at-wealth for the rest of us, okay?

I have often heard it said that "money does not buy happiness." Ironically, many recent studies have refuted that adage, showing that people living in upper income brackets do tend to have a higher happiness quotient. Duh.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that money does not GUARANTEE happiness. It will, however, provide you with a much more comfortable environment in which to be miserable, and all the pleasant distractions that riches can buy.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tenacious G at the Hospital

 Tenacious G makes friends. This is not another patient, just a Halloween decoration.

Hospitals are not fun. One could even say that they are no place for sick people. This past week my mother was a bit dizzy and walked like she had had one too many at the neighborhood bar. The nurse at the assisted living facility was concerned and suggested Mom be taken to the ER for an evaluation.

So off we drove to the local hospital. It took the staff there about three hours to determine that she should be admitted for more tests. It took another two hours for them to find a room—not just for Mom but for several other people in the ER. In the meantime, gurneys of other patients were piling up in the hallways. Apparently, there was a shift change and no one could be admitted until the new shift had made the rounds of existing patients. During our entire five-hour odyssey in Room A of the ER, Mom complained quite loudly that this was no way to run a hospital. Oddly enough, she was right.

When I visited her the next day, she had a nonfunctional phone. Granted, this is not as serious as a nonfunctional heart monitor, but being able to talk to loved ones is a morale booster. The nurse immediately replaced the defective phone with one that worked. Quickly, I texted everyone in the family with her new phone number, encouraging them all to call. I stepped out of the room for a moment and when I returned, the same nurse was grabbing the phone back. When she turned and realized I was still there, she started mumbling about how the phone had frayed wires and had to be replaced. This resulted in an unintended practical joke. Family members dutifully called Mom/Grandma, but no one could get through because there was no longer a phone.

During my visit on Day Three, Mom told me that “they” would not allow her to get out of bed by herself to go to the bathroom—reasonable considering her wobbly gait. Apparently, she had been asking for a while if she could go and was very uncomfortable. I went out to the nurse’s station to ask if someone could help her. “Of course!” said the nice lady there. Fifteen minutes later, I returned to the nice lady to ask why no one had yet come to assist Mom—and would it be all right if I did since Mom was on the verge of uremic poisoning? They preferred we wait, and five minutes later, a nurse came in and asked my mother if she wanted “to go potty.” I suggested to the nurse that since my mother was an adult, she need not speak to her that way. The nurse proceeded to lecture me on how she talked that way to everyone. One can only assume that she showed no particular bias when condescending to her public.

Another nurse came by to ask Mom questions that would assess her mental functioning. Mom was not pleased to be in the hospital and her way of expressing that was to answer the questions sarcastically, which was interpreted by the nurse as senility.

Next, a physical therapist came by with a walker to suggest to Mom that she might need a little help. Mom smiled, but was quietly seething. “I DON’T need a walker,” she insisted. Walkers, after all, were for old people. (Mom is only 84.) To prove how unnecessary the walker was, Mom raised it a few inches above the floor and shuffled quickly along without it. Unfortunately, her balance was a bit off and so she looked like a race car in a hospital gown careening out of control.

Finally on Day Four, Nurse Roberta called me in the afternoon to inform me that several days of tests had not found any evidence of a stroke, but it was determined that Mom would be discharged to a rehab facility in a nearby town. This, hopefully, would rid her of her drunken walk.

While Nurse Roberta was talking to me, the doctor was telling my mother that she was being discharged. Before we hung up the phone, my mother was already dressed, packed and ready to go. The nurse discovered this when she rushed to my mother’s room because Mom had disengaged all the heart monitor equipment, sending a flat-line reading to her desk
I arrived shortly after all the excitement. When Mom saw me, she hopped off the bed, ready to make a mad dash for the door. She had to be held back until the obligatory wheelchair was fetched for her departure.

As the sun set on St Clare’s Hospital, a weary staff watched us depart. “I’m glad to be out of THAT place,” Mom said. I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Apocalypse Autumn

 Join the movement. Available at:

 Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now emoted about how he loved the smell of napalm in the morning. Equally as stimulating is the sound of leaf-blowers at 7 a.m. in a suburban neighborhood. Whoever invented leaf-blowers should be flown to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands, to be tried for crimes against humanity. While I am not an advocate for the death penalty, this might be one deserving exception.

When I was young, there were no leaf-blowers—only people with rakes. The rhythmic thrashing sound of rakes combing the lawns was quite soothing. And while it was eventually banned for ecological reasons, the smell of burning leaves was autumnal incense that appealed to the zen pyromaniac in me.

That pastoral scene was not to remain. Instead, some sadistic moron with a marketing plan had to invent a gas-gulping noise machine that disturbs the peace and contributes to communal deafness. God forbid we should actually have to put some physical effort into anything. No more family raking, jumping around in the leaves and bagging or composting. We’re too busy reenacting that on Simms City with a circus clown.

The average blower packs 70 to 75 decibels of ear-numbing vibration at 50 feet according to a manufacturer's lobbyist, and is most likely louder at a closer distance. Leaf-blowers are routinely used less than 50 feet from unconsenting pedestrians and neighboring homes that may be occupied by long-suffering people like you and me.

The World Health Organization recommends a general daytime outdoor noise level of 55 decibels or less, and no more than 45 decibels to meet sleep criteria. That means that even a 65-decibel leaf-blower would be 100 times* too loud to allow healthful sleep, which in my house is often trying to occur at 7 a.m. on any given day.

Sometimes advocates of the Devil’s Yard Tool try to justify motorized ear torture by comparing it to the 65 decibels of a normal conversation. Right. I don’t care what study you cite, NO normal conversation sounds like a leaf-blower and no one with any common sense would buy that. You can sell that argument to the EPA along with the Brooklyn Bridge.

I imagine laziness and leaf-blowers are here to stay. So I’d just like to make one small request: Could the same genius who invented the Gardening Tool From Hell also invent a quiet motor for it? If guns can be silenced then so can leaf-blowers. It's all a matter of priorities. So give it a try. It just might earn you a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

*From 45 decibels to 65 decibels is two ten-fold increases, or 10 x 10.