Dig Like You Invented Digging

I collect these things…whatever you choose to call them, garden trowel, hand spade, little bitty shovel. I don’t collect them as in buy me one for my birthday. I collect them as in I can’t leave one on the shelf at a thrift store when it’s 77 cents. Also, I keep them stashed all over the back and front yard so there is always one handy because, yes, I lack focus.

But this one here is my favorite. It’s a Smith & Hawken, sort of a fancy brand when it comes to gardening. I would never pay what they ask for this new, though I think I did pay over a dollar for this one, used. It has a design flaw; a little tin cone fits over the spot where my index finger is. It comes loose eventually (this has happened to me on other S&H hand garden tools) and you need to cut it off with tin snips, or re-fasten it. Can you say, “superfluous”?

Other than this minor inconvenience, it is my favorite garden tool. It is stainless steel, so it doesn’t rust (admittedly, I like it when stuff rusts but in this case, I make an exception). The thing of it is is, the way it feels in my hand.  At last count, I own a dozen of these little shovel things and none of them feel as good in my hand as this one. It’s not only the weight, it’s the balance and, I’m sorry to say, the way it looks in my hand.

There are dozens of things about marketing that I know but cannot explain. I know that a certain word works better than another, but I can’t explain to you why. I just know.  I know that this font is wrong and that font is right and I cannot tell you anything about how I know.

Weight. Balance. Material. Design. Shape.

If anyone ever tells you they understand these things better than others do, in some objective sense, escort them, politely, out of your presence.  Nobody knows nothing.  If I invited you all over to test drive my little shovels and pick your favorite, the results would be… you guessed it, varied.

So what’s a marketing guy to do?

Pick the shovel that feels good in your hand and dig like hell. Dig like you own the soil. Dig like no other hand spades or garden trowels exist. Dig like you invented digging.

There’s a lot of marketing science out there, and I have written elsewhere about how that voodoo is all good and well. Mostly, it can bite me.

What I know for certain is, it has to feel good in your hand, the weight, the balance, the design of the thing. Listen to yourself first and give yourself extra points on the vote because who you are matters on a very basic level when it comes to growing whatever it is you are trying to grow, tomatoes or peas or whatnot. When they try and tell you otherwise, it is time to find a new garden.

I always drink beer, and when I do, I rarely drink Dos Equis.

[Originally Posted in December 2010] It’s true, I’m not a fan of Dos Equis the beer but I am a big fan of their ad campaign, The World’s Most Interesting Man. And I’m not alone. Facebook pages devoted to the character have over 200,000 fans combined (in 2012, Dos Equis folded Interesting Man into their corporate site, which has over 3 million fans) . The commercials are funny and well made. The entire campaign is a near pitch-perfect execution of the branding brief provided to the ad agency, Euro RSCG:

    • Distinctive (other than “Mexican-ness,” a direct quote from the agency’s initial research)
    • Desirable
    • Premium identity
    • Different from other brands
    • Cool brand
    • Worth paying more for

Okay, this list could be found in almost anyone’s branding brief, but then you look at “anyone’s” advertising and the execution does not live up to the intent.  Few industries produce as much advertising that looks as if it is cut from the same cloth as does the beer industry. The Dos Equis commercials are certainly distinctive and different from other brands. More importantly, they not only bring the brand intent to life, they delivered the desired measurable results.

Although Heineken USA, which owns the Dos Equis brand, first introduced The World’s Most Interesting Man in 2007, they did not go national with the campaign until 2009. Yup, right in the middle of the recession. Sales of Dos Equis in the US went up 27% while the most of the beer industry was seeing declines and it became one of the top 10 selling imports.

There are several things I love about all this, the first being that Heineken went for it during a recession and did not cower behind cost cutting, at least not in marketing the 2X. This, it seems to me, is how The World’s Most Interesting Man would have done it, attack when the chips are down.  But my favorite thing about the entire campaign is that the ad agency, Euro RSCG, appears to be breaking some rules.

Broken Rule #1: They used an old guy in a beer commercial. No, really, they did. The actor is 72.

Broken Rule #2: The old guy admits in the commercial that he doesn’t always drink beer. No, really, he does: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.”

I take notes for the specialty coffee industry from Broken Rule #2 because Broke Rule #1 is a bit of an illusion. Yes, the commercials feature a 72 year old man, but he is often surrounded by young women and the ads still capture the younger demographic because The World’s Most Interesting Man is everything 20 something guys actually think they will be and everything 30 something guys hope they will be. This is truly clever, a beer commercial that targets a wide demographic swath without relying on delusion or nostalgia from older men as they watch all the young and fit people having fun at the beach or out at a bar seemingly without other obligations.

[For a disquieting take on these kinds of traditional beer commercials, check out a public service commercial from the same advertising agency, Euro RSCG, here http://www.eurorscg.com (go to Our Work then TV Showcase and click INPES). And while you’re there watch their commercial for the Let’s Color Project sponsored by Dulux, which is Glidden Paint in the US. Also check out their commercials for Evian, Peugeot, and Canal+.]

The work-around on Rule #1 is clever , but Broken Rule #2 is just plain brilliant and raises questions for any marketer.  The brilliant part is that in the process of making a seemingly negative (but true) comment about beer, they frame the message that The World’s Most Interesting Man has a sophisticated palate and he ranges across a wide selection of drinks. He cannot settle down with just one kind of beverages and he never pretended he would. You knew what he was when he started drinking you.

Who doesn’t want to be so interesting that the answer to the question of what we like to drink might take a long time to answer. It depends. Where am I? Who am I with, kings or presidents? Have I just finished running with the bulls, or writing a novel?

And never mind the fact that drinking the same beer whenever you drink beer is the opposite of interesting. Yes, it’s a damn annoying detail but it is overshadowed by how well, in one brief feint with the marketing knife, they find our soft belly and sink it home. If this were not true, sales of Dos Equis would not have increased as dramatically as they did.

Dude, if you’re going to look this good when you reach retirement and look back on a life full of…action, maybe, then you had better be choosy about your beer. And, we know you know about wine and vodka and stuff too and don’t sit around drinking beer all day, but, you know, when you do, make sure it is as sophisticated as you are…brother.

I don’t buy it. You don’t buy it. But a whole bunch of beer drinkers did. Results.

Breaking the rules, written and lore. Thinking outside the box. Turning the problem inside out. Pick a cliché. For me, it’s about never letting an assumption escape alive. The specialty coffee industry, now well into its adulthood, has piled up its fair share of assumptions and sacred cows (speaking of clichés).   It’s not always easy to recognize them.  But when I do I try, if I have the presence of mind, to ask what if. Euro RSCG asked, What if we used an old guy and what if he sold a positive with a negative?

Your list will be different than my list, but here are some somewhat generic, but by no means benign, starters for coffee:

What if manual brewing (complete the question)?
What if barista competitions (complete the question)?
What if coffeehouses (complete the question)?
What if my target market (complete the question)?
What if instant coffee (complete the question)?
What if the supply (complete the question)?
What if China (complete the question)?
What if New York or London or Moscow (complete the question)?
What if Social Networking (complete the question)?
What if the temperature (complete the question)?
What if quality (complete the question)?

It might not be The World’s Most Interesting List, but I could gather a group of coffee professionals who would argue for a month about the most important sentence completion, let alone the answers to the resulting questions.

What an abundant place we find ourselves in as an industry segment if it is true that we can still argue about the questions before we even get to the answers.  What an empty place if we believe we understand the questions and have our answers filed and ready for the next reporter or grad student or industry presentation.

The World's Most Interesting Men

A Question of Magic

One of my favorite movies is Funny Bones with Oliver Platt, who plays a character that desperately wants to be funny but isn’t. What’s worse, he’s living in the shadow of his famous comedian father, played by Jerry Lewis. In one scene, the father explains to his son, “There are two types of comedians, a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”

I think there are magic bones magicians and non-magic bones magicians. Both can fool you and both are entertaining. One makes you say “how did you do that?” The other makes you say, “who the f#@k let you out of your bottle.”

This is an important distinction and has something to do with why magic is on my mind lately.

Asking “how did you do that?” is a common response to watching a magic trick. But when you’re watching a magic bones magician your initial response is not “how did you just trick me?” The most common initial response is disbelief, which actually means your very first response is to believe. You question your senses and even your sanity. You don’t wonder what the secret is or what is happening that you can’t see. You wonder when the seams at the corners of reality are going to be sewn back together.

When you watch people watching a magic bones magician, they do things like reaching out to the person next to them to steady themselves, or scream, or simply walk away. They almost always have a physical reaction, bending over, crouching, jumping, spinning, as if they need their body to help them absorb the force of the impact. One of the most innovative things about the street magic David Blaine filmed for TV in the 1990’s, beyond whittling the magician’s presenting premise and need to talk down to almost nothing, was to focus on these types of reaction.

If a magic bones magician is performing for a large audience, the applause comes slowly because people must remember themselves, where they are and the appropriate social response. They gasp; they look at their neighbor to see if their neighbor saw the same things and they wonder if they are dreaming, then they applaud.

The non-magic bones magician may be very skilled, a master technician, even a true sleight of hand artist and a talented entertainer. But almost everyone in his audience believes that if they knew the secrets, owned the proper accoutrements, and practiced; they could do the tricks too.

The magic bones magician makes you ashamed that you ever even owned that Mark Wilson magic set when you were seven and makes you vow never again to pull a quarter from a child’s ear.

When I was in high school I had the good fortune, by pure happenstance I think, to not only work at a magic shop but to meet, hear lectures from, and on occasion receive personal instruction from a group of magic bones magicians. You would not recognize any of their names. If you are a professional magician, you would recognize them all.

You know, I never recovered from that.

Good magicians (whether it is in their bones or not) walk a tight line of dynamic tension between your need and their own, your need for wonderment and their own need to travel secret passages that are near meaningless apart from the presence of those who do not know they exist. The fact that they are willing or actually desire to provide you with wonderment is what sets them apart from con artists. The fact that they have these secrets, some of them surprisingly profound in their wider implications, sets them apart from jugglers or acrobats or flamenco guitarists.

If there are tiers to these secret passages, and I believe there are…at Chilean miner depths, then I suppose I never saw more than a few top levels. But I have never forgotten what I saw there and the things I learned. Most of the time, I keep these things neatly tucked away and don’t think about them much. Maybe I even avoid them.

I generally stay out of magic shops, but if I should happen into one I am overwhelmed with the feeling of loss. It’s not really the feeling of personal loss; it’s a feeling of loss around the emptiness inside most magic shops. The secrets are not there. You can buy every trick in the place and learn them all and you will be a collection of paraphernalia and moves and people will ask you how you do it but no one will reach out for a shoulder to steady them when they watch. If you’re a magic bones magician in waiting, my guess is the first clue will be when you set aside the objects acquired from the magic shop and carry the principles you’ve learned to other things and other frames.

The feeling of loss I experience in magic shops is only personal to the extent that there is nothing in those places for me to recapture. Even if I decided to return to a proper study of magic, the things that I want to understand are not found in magic shops or on YouTube, and they most certainly don’t involve a deck of cards. Some of them are found in books, but only if you know how to read between the lines and past the last page. Still, I am a great fan of all sorts of magic, whether it comes from the bones or not, whether it is corny or stupefying, as long as it honors the places and people from which it came. And I appreciate anyone willing to walk that line of dynamic tension. I don’t care if you’re dressed like Fred Astaire in evening attire and putting together and pulling apart giant metal rings that serve no earthly purpose outside of a magic act, or if you’re dressed like a 1980’s glam rocker, I’ll watch if you’re willing to stand up and declare you’re a magician.

But my favorite magic is magic that happens along the way, magic with very little premise beyond circumstances that appear to be a part of going about our everyday lives. Years ago I was walking down the street with friends. I took the stir stick from one of their coffee cups and made it disappear right in front of their eyes. It vanished. It was as gone as gone can be. They all started cussing and looking around for the stir stick. That must have been eight years ago but those people still talk about it. They had never seen me do a magic trick before then and they have not seen me do one since. The satisfaction of that moment, when everything was right, was worth forgoing a manufactured repeat.

That trick was taught to me 30 years ago by a magic bones magician. That day was not the only time I had done the trick, but I really think it was the moment for which the trick was taught to me and, I have to admit, probably the only time the teaching was earned. I was disappointed to find the method, which to my mind is something like a haiku poem in its beauty and simplicity…even in its meter, described in a recently published book of magic, but that is how it goes. I’m sure it is not its first appearance in a book and I know it won’t be the last. For all their talk about keeping secrets, magicians love to write books and a stunning number have been published over the last 300 years. Despite this, very few secrets have taken up permanent residence in the public consciousness. I think the only real secret of magic that just about everyone believes they understand is the concept of misdirection.

The gap between what most people believe misdirection to be and what it is in all its fullness as used by magicians is part of the pact we (ye ol’ laypeople) make with the performers. We don’t want to know, we really don’t.

The 2006 movie, The Prestige, openly presents a great secret of magic as part of the narrative, indeed, as a completely overt theme within the movie. But it is easy to capture only the implications that float on the surface if you don’t ask the second and third questions and then ask those questions again outside the context of viewing the movie. But most of us won’t ask those questions outside the context of a given scene, let alone the context of the movie or while watching a magician in some other place and time. That is the gift, after all these years, which was given to me by my brief but very intense career in magic and by the magic bones magicians I met. I learned to ask another question. Then, ask another question. Then, ask another question. Long before the poet Rilke taught me to love the questions over the answers, I loved the wondering of how magic happened more than I loved the knowing. I think this is why I would always pick a magician’s biography or a magic history over a how-to book. One is full of questions and the other is all answers.

The one question I never ask is, “How did you do that?”

 

Funny vs. Funny

There is a good chance I have made you laugh, chuckle, or at least smile, and a better chance if you have spent time with me in person. I have a good sense of humor. I’m not bragging. I had almost nothing to do with it. Both of my parents are funny in day-to-day life, have good timing and a quick wit and can crack off a good one with regularity. As you expand into my extended family, especially the aunts on my dad’s side, this everyday humor is common and, well, normal. My siblings are funny. My wife is funny. My kids are funny. We have funny going on ‘round here.

But again, it is very very important to note, I am not bragging about this, mostly because, well, I can’t help it. And that is not always a good thing. I can and have made jokes at inappropriate times, or just too often, usually because I’m nervous. More than once, someone has had to ask me to stop joking. I try really hard to keep it in check, not only because a joke is not always called for, but because I have to admit, the percentage of funny against the percentage of jokes can sometimes be annoyingly deficient.

When I see people I have not seen in some time, there is a better than even chance they will mention laughing at something I said on Twitter or Facebook. You have to believe me, while I enjoy making people laugh, it is not something that makes me proud.

The reason for this is, while I’m funny, I am not “funny.”

When I was in college I always participated in variety shows and other performances, but usually behind the scenes, usually writing sketch comedy. One year, during a talent show, a guy named Tom took the stage. He was listed as a “stand-up.” He didn’t bomb, he died. He died so hard there was blood on the stage. He did not receive so much as a chuckle or even a forced courtesy laugh from his friends and family in the audience. We carried him off stage mid-set on a stretcher and put him right into a coffin.

As he regained his senses he chose me as the person he would talk to about his humiliation. I told him I had an appointment for a root canal, but he just kept talking.

He didn’t understand. He was the funniest of all his friends. When he was with his friends, they spent their time laughing so hard their stomachs cramped, usually at something he said. It was true. I didn’t know him very well but he had made me laugh on several occasions. He was funny, he just wasn’t funny. Tom had walked onstage without a prepared act because he thought he could wing it because that was what he did every single day and people laughed.

I took this lesson to heart. Although I did not understand why, I knew that funny in life did not equate to funny on stage. I felt like I could probably put in the work and the time to hone my craft and one day be funny on stage, but I knew I did not have the right type of intestinal fortitude to endure the years of pain.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned why funny in life does not mean funny on stage. I was listening to an interview with Jon Stewart and he explained, as if he knew I was listening, why funny in life did not mean funny on stage. It was simple. Stewart pointed out that on stage, you must provide the set-up and the punchline, cold, from scratch. In life, your friends or other people or the circumstances are providing the set-up and all you have to do is provide the punchline. Boom. That was it. I was never going to step out onto a cold cold stage where nobody was throwing set-ups for jokes in front of me. Writing your own set-up for auditory delivery of funny is really super hard. Much harder than jokes that are simply read…on Facebook or Twitter for example.

I have fun because my goal is always to make myself laugh and if I do that I have succeeded. If someone else laughs, it is nice sugary icing on the cake. I try and do no harm, not make too many jokes or joke because I’m nervous or joke because the room is too quiet. If sometimes I “write” a joke that includes its own set-up and people laugh, well, the percentages are with me. I have to pull it off now and then. It’s amateur luck.

Some of you will understand this as the “do funny vs. are funny,” or “Funny Bones” perspective. It’s an important paradigm in my life, and for more things  than just funny.

So you can stop asking me “Why I don’t…” Now you know. As for why I never tried my hand at writing comedy, well, that is a different type of intestinal fortitude and a different blog post.

Yo-Yo String Theory (from 2008)

At a recent picnic my six-year-old daughter won a yo-yo as a prize for playing a game. But it wasn’t a real yo-yo. It was a cheap give-away, the kind that come in a pack of six in the party aisle. It wasn’t  heavy enough to really work and it didn’t have the right type of string. Undaunted, my daughter tried to “make it work,” determined to master the secret technique. It was useless.  I couldn’t even make it work, and that’s saying something.

Thirty-two years ago the world was in the midst of a yo-yo craze…well, at least the world of 13 year old boys was in the middle of a yo-yo craze. Every single one of my friends owned several yo-yo’s and every kid I knew had at least one.

We yo-yoed as we walked to school and we yo-yoed as we walked home.  We even yo-yoed secretly during school, behind the gym during lunch and even in the hallway between classes, if it was crowded and you were sly. But it was risky business because yo-yoing at school was strictly forbidden. One-too-many students had taken a yo-yo to the eyebrow when some knucklehead attempted to execute “around the world” without looking behind him first. If you were caught using a yo-yo it would be confiscated and not returned until the end of the school year.

Unable to control the urge, all of us had wiped out our yo-yo at an inopportune moment only to have it taken away in the middle of “rock the baby.”  After school on the last day of my eighth grade year I dutifully made my way to the front office to wait in line behind all the other yo-yo fiends to have our property returned, each of us standing there with a tell-tell circle shape in our pocket. While possession was technically illegal, it was use that got you in trouble. I had three yo-yo’s returned on that last day of school. I knew one kid who had eleven given back. That guy was a legend and the only kid I knew who was ambidextrous with yo-yos.

On top of my six-year-old daughter’s frustration with the fake yo-yo was my four-year daughter’s profound disappointment that she too did not have a yo-yo.  It was more than I could take.  Later that day I headed down the street to a large national chain toy store to buy a couple of real yo-yo’s, maybe even three.

Growing up in suburbia, I cannot truly lament the demise of the independent toy store the way those who grew up in small towns can. The closest thing to Main Street I experienced growing up was the strip mall. But a few of those strip malls had small toy stores and what I remember about them was the invitation of chaos.

This was true of many independent retailers in my childhood. Small hardware stores, drug stores, record stores, book sellers, and the ubiquitous catch-all, the Five & Dime. These merchants did not have target markets, merchandizing programs, or marketing campaigns.  They carried too much inventory of too great a variety and it was often unorganized. These stores were crowded with stuff. These kinds of inefficiencies would eventually contribute to their demise, but the chaos was an invitation to linger, explore and discover. Around every corner was something different, something you didn’t know you were looking for until you found it. They were the great-great-grandparents of Target, without the pimped “designer” merchandise.

Walking into the big chain toy store was not an invitation to do anything other than shop efficiently.  The entry area guided me past the help desk and then through a selection of seasonally relevant merchandise before depositing me into a department full of large things, the large item department I suspect. There were playhouses and slides, jungle gyms, an animatronic baby dinosaur the size of a large dog and, lined up like soldiers in the middle of the department, a collection of giant and menacing Dora the Explorer dolls. The dolls were at least three feet tall and perhaps the scariest toys I have ever seen.

Turning to escape Dora’s persistent gaze, I looked up the aisle to my left:  cash registers, party supplies (no doubt, including six-packs of fake yo-yos) and the electronics department separated from the rest of the store by what appeared to be bullet proof glass. To my right were children’s clothes and a smattering of miscellaneous Barbie-pink. I could feel Dora’s culturally ambiguous puppy-eyes shooting darts in my back so I shuffled off to the right.

As I circled the store I peered down each aisle looking for yo-yos.  What became clear immediately was that cross-merchandizing now rules the universe.  From Sesame Street to Disney, the store was full of toys spawned by television and movies. And almost every single aisle contained at least one toy with the face of Miley Cyrus as Hanna Montana on the package. My own children were not immune to Hanna Montana-itis.  While I would receive an outpouring of gratitude for bring home yo-yos, I would be worshiped and adored if those yo-yos included the face of Hanna Montana.

Although the toy store was large and obviously had a significant inventory, I was struck by the sameness of the toys. Looking closer, I noticed that entire aisles were devoted to only one or two brands or several brands from only one or two manufacturers. Apparently, the demise of the independent toy seller had coincided with consolidation in the manufacturing sector.  But aside from the source of the toys, the redundancy bordered on ludicrous. The entire side of one aisle was devoted to professional wrestling action figures.  From a distance, this aisle looked no different than the aisle next to it, which was completely devoted to action figures of every stripe, from Star Wars to desert-ready GI Joes.

I finished my circle of the store and had not seen any yo-yo’s, Hanna Montana or otherwise.   I figured I must have missed them. I tried to think logically. They should be in games or sports, right? But I did not remember a game or a sports section. So I widened my search, walking down each aisle, and soon arrived at an anemic sports aisle with a few bats and balls and hockey sticks, but no yo-yo’s. I suppose the small selection in the sports department had something to do with the three or four large sporting goods retailers within a three mile radius of the toy store.  I moved on, looking for games.

It took a little time but eventually I found the game section, tucked into a corner near the entrance, behind the watchful eyes of the Dora dolls. I paced back and forth in front of the games, looking closely at the area where dozens of small hand-held games were hanging. No yo-yo’s. The customer service desk was just a few feet away so I stepped up and asked the clerk if she could direct me to the yo-yo’s.  She said that, “if we have any,” they would be in the game department, and she pointed to where I had just been.

If they had any? What could she mean by that?  A toy store without yo-yo’s? Impossible. I was about to ask where in the game section I might find the yo-yo’s, if they had any, when another clerk said, “sports.”

Needless to say, I checked both the games area and the sports area but did not find any yo-yo’s.  I was about to try again at the customer service desk when I remembered there was a drug store around the corner. True, it too was a national chain, but like it’s ancestors, the drugstores of my childhood, it maintained a relatively eclectic mix of merchandise.

When I was growing up, even the chain drugstores carried everything you needed to make it through ordinary living. In addition to picking up your prescription, you could buy deodorant, gum, yarn, pretzels, cinnamon flavored toothpicks, a Thermos, a cane, Windex, bean dip, rat traps, bird food, eye-liner, beer, magazines, light bulbs, a can opener, a hammer, toilet paper, a fishing lure, a birthday card, socks, and a scoop of ice cream for a nickel. But best of all, you could not only buy a yo-yo…you could buy yo-yo string.

Yo-yo string doesn’t last forever, especially if you’re yo-yoing all the way to and from school. It wears out even faster if your spending a lot of time letting the yo-yo “sleep” at the end of the string before giving it a little tug to bring it back up. Causing the yo-yo to sleep looks like a magic trick and takes some practice. It’s a required skill for the majority of yo-yo tricks. Among 13 year old boys in 1976, being able to let the yo-yo sleep for a long time and still get it to jump back into your hand was a sign of something akin to virility, and spontaneous contests broke out unendingly.  At the drugstore, every cashier had a stash of yo-yo string that you had to ask for, just like condoms. They came one to a package, ten cents.

The trip to the toy store had been a little depressing, but I was hopeful as I entered the drugstore. Surely they had not abandoned their roots and stopped carrying yo-yos. If there was only one toy on the toy aisle, it would have to be the yo-yo.  And sure enough, as I rounded the display of gift-box scotch and entered the toy aisle, I spotted two real yo-yo’s hanging from a peg. They were the very same yo-yo’s I had owned in countless colors as a kid, one Duncan Imperial, and one Duncan Butterfly.  I felt what was, for the occasion, a disproportionate sense of joy.

They were the only two yo-yo’s in the aisle and I walked grinning ear to ear to the front of the store, where a line of seven people stood in front of a single cashier. By the time it was my turn, the line had grown even longer behind me, but I could not resist. As the woman behind the counter rang up my yo-yo’s I asked, “By any chance do you sell yo-yo string?”

“What?”

“Yo-Yo string…you know, replacement string for yo-yo’s”

“They don’t come with string? Look, I see the string right there.”

“Yeah, but it will wear out and I was just wondering…”

“String wears out, it’s time to get a new yo-yo.”

Someone behind me in line groaned, so I let it drop. A few days later I still couldn’t get the idea of a toy store without yo-yo’s out of my head, so I sat down to write this essay. In fact, I titled it, “A Toy Store Without Yo-Yo’s. But as I began writing I realized it could not be true. I had simply missed them or, worse case, they were simply out of stock. Poor inventory management? Yes. A harbinger of the decline of western civilization? I couldn’t believe it.  I drove back to the toy store to look again and if I couldn’t find a yo-yo, to ask the manager what the hell was going on and question his or her patriotism.

I walked quickly past the help desk and the seasonal items and as I approached the game section from a direction I hadn’t before I saw them, a display full of yo-yo’s.  They were in a cardboard display unit provided by Duncan, the manufacturer. In fact, most of the yo-yo’s still had the rubber bands around them that held them in place during shipping. The display was opposite the game wall, so my back had been to it during my previous visit.

After a moment of grieving for my now meaningless righteous indignation, I laughed. Yes, the yo-yo’s were tucked away and poorly displayed, but they were there. I picked out an orange Butterfly and blue Imperial, this time for myself.

At first I didn’t return to this essay. I figured it was a dead issue. Had I only turned around on my first visit to the toy store I would have found them. The toy store did carry yo-yo’s. But a small sadness haunted me.

This essay is titled the Yo-Yo String Theory but it’s not about the fact that they no longer sell yo-yo string at the drugstore.  Ten seconds on the internet revealed that I could easily order all the yo-yo string I need, in a rainbow of colors, and it still costs about ten cents a string.  I hope it’s not about nostalgia, though I suspect it is to a great degree. More correctly, it’s about the fact that nostalgia matters to me, now. And by now, I mean, with age.

Functional Beautiful

I have been obsessed with this photograph for a few days. This is a farm worker’s kitchen in Essex New York. It is actually a reunion of workers who have worked on the farm, Essex Farm, which belongs to Kristin and Mark Kimball. I read about them.

The thing that obsesses me about this photo, this kitchen actually, is it is the most beautiful kitchen I think I have ever seen. It is, to my eyes, 100% functional…and gorgeous.

I am a huge fan of good design. I am a huge fan of very basic, just get it done, functionality. I sometimes cannot reconcile the two.

If you came to visit me, and we sat on my deck to have a beer, you could spend a lot of time exploring all the non-functional details of my container garden. I have moose, seagulls, lions wearing nightshirts, Irish pub signs, and a ever increasing variety of containers in which things are growing, from a crock pot to a retired smoker. All of this is not only functionally irrelevant, it is, in more ways than one, dysfunctional. At the same time, if you ate the potatoes I had the the BBQ tonight, you would have tasted green onion, sage, rosemary, basil, all of which I “harvested,” chopped and applied to the potatoes on the deck, as I was cooking. Very functional.

Off the deck: compost placement? Functional. Fire pit placement? Functional. Garden tool placement? Functional. Metal rack from which all the garden tools hang, which was originally intended to display collector plates? Functionally dysfunctional. My entire backyard? Well, it depends on what kind of animal you are.

There is so much freedom when functionality is the bottom line. Look at the photo. Look at the floor. Freedom. Look at the plates and the serving dishes. Freedom. But the freedom of functionality so often, probably always, comes hand-in-hand with very, very hard work.

I don’t think anything about the kitchen in the photo is intentional beyond the fact that it works for people who work. The calender fits…there. The mailboxes work…there. Hang the pots with what? Nails. Nails work. A shelf is what? Wood. A shelf is wood. Wood works.

So, I’m not sure I will discover how to reconcile the zombie gnome in my garden with the tomato cages that are just stacked randomly about the yard, waiting for their turn. But I do know that if the kitchen in the photo were my kitchen, I would be proud of it. But I also know that this is a kitchen where nobody stares absent-mindedly into the refrigerator during the commercial break, wondering what they might snack on.

Superman’s Mute Canary

Hope is on my mind. You too? Well, it is a classic top of mind topic, a lemon twist in the human condition. Prophets, poets, philosophers, they have beaten the concept to death…well, not quite to death. I mean, it is hope, after all. The point is I have nothing to add, not really. That’s why I chose it for my first-ever blog post.

I have nothing to say but I have gathered, unintentionally and over the years, a personal index of what others say around the idea of hope. The things that others say about unfathomable topics are comforting, of course, especially when the words are attributed ultimately to someone who keeps the blueprints for the universe on file in his office, in a file cabinet made of gopher bark, no doubt. It’s nice to know that others, omniscient or not, have arrived at some conclusions. But I am on the verge of a bottomless digression, so on with it.

Emily Dickinson famously versed that “hope is a thing with feathers.” The poem goes on to describe hope as Superman’s mute canary, or maybe Yankee Doodle Pigeon. Neither rain, sleet, snow, nor Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines can drop this bird.

(For those of you of a certain age or those of you who watch retro-toon channels, it will now take about 37 minutes for the song, “Stop That Pigeon” to stop repeating in your head)

Nearly the best part about Emily’s portrait of hope is that the super-bird lives in our soul. Nice. What better home for a ubiquitous if ambiguously defined concept than inside another ubiquitous if ambiguously defined concept. But I like it. I have learned that success is not only about showing up, it’s also about gaining access. But I don’t have to figure out how to get face time with hope or get hope to visit my website or read my resume. According to Ms. Dickinson, I don’t have to stalk hope. Hope is in my soul right here…or maybe it’s over there…but it could be under here, about two inches to the left.

Then there is Woody Allen, and Woody Allen is the best part of Emily’s poem. Years ago he published a collection of stories, many of them having appeared in the New Yorker. He named the collection Without Feathers because, well, his persona as a comedian and humorist was a man without hope, or perhaps more correctly, a man who has hope but it looks like a plucked Cornish hen and never takes flight. Now that I think about it, I’m sure that is what Woody Allen’s hope looks like, a featherless bird furiously flapping its buffalo wings.

But never mind that, the book itself is hilarious.  The first time I read it was on a road trip. I sat in the back seat reading and laughing so hard and so often that the other people in car became annoyed. You see, while the existence of the soul and therefore a bird cage for Yankee Doodle Pigeon night be dubious for some, myself among them at times, laughter is as tangible an experience as exists, and an experience within which hope really does take flight. It is difficult to despair while laughing, is my guess. Unless you are the caped crusaders arch enemy, The Joker.

This, I think, is why I watch comedy at night. Sir Francis Bacon said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that hope makes a great breakfast but a lousy dinner. The morning time, especially under the influence of good coffee, holds out the hope of many possibilities, accomplishments, wins, new starts. Anything can happen. At night time, it’s all over. This morning-time optimist club to which most of us belong (again, except for The Joker) reflects the seduction of hope and a siren song I try not to hear.

Which brings us to my very favorite saying about hope, most often attributed to the Oracle of Omaha himself, Warren Buffett, and the antidote to high hope and the accompanying crash. Buffett said, “Hope is not a strategy.” Hoping for things to happen is, for me, the quickest path to depression. Planning for things to happen can take me through the day and to my pillow on an even keel.

But then again, as a good friend of mine said, “Hope may not be a strategy, but it’s a hell of a campaign slogan.”

smc

 JUNE 2009