Friday, January 30, 2015

Life In America: Comedies Versus Tragedies

It was a defining moment early in my column writing career, when someone sent a complaint letter to my editor, making it my first and only complaint letter. I've had emails and blog comments, but no one has taken the time to write an actual complaint letter before or since.

Seventeen years later, I still remember what the letter actually said:

"Discussion of Pamela Anderson's boobs have no place in a humor column."

I was confused. Where else would you expect discussions of her boobs to be?

Okay, late night talk shows, but the point is — and the Internet. But the point is — yes, and her B-movie career. But you need to realize — well, obviously Baywatch reruns. But what I'm trying to say — yes, more stuff on the Internet.

What I'm trying to say is it made me realize there are two types of people in the world, those who appreciate Pamela Anderson's boobs, and those who don't.

Wait, that's not my point at all.

My point is there are two types of people in the world, those who appreciate humor, and those who don't. Those who think we need to laugh and enjoy life more, and those who think life is meant to be endured, and not enjoyed.

I worked with one group, and worked for the other. Given that I now own my own business, I'll let you guess which is which.

You've seen the old theater masks that symbolize Comedy and Tragedy. You're either happy, or you're not. You laugh about the good in life, or you cry about the bad in life. We know both types, the wise-cracking cut up who laughs at everything, and the melancholy Debbie Downer who finds misery in everything.

Let's call them Comedies and Tragedies.

Tragedies manufacture outrage, while Comedies can't be bothered with life's small difficulties. Tragedies are easily offended by their favorite hot button issues and will look for things to gripe about. Comedies like to poke Tragedies' favorite hot buttons, and then sit back and watch the fun.

I call it Poking The Bear. I like to play it on Facebook by posting articles about the negative effects of helicopter parenting when I know my helicopter parenting friends will read it, after they finish feeding their children organic peanut-free peanut butter sandwiches on gluten-free bread. I like to post pro-gay marriage news articles where my anti-gay marriage friends will see them.

Poke, poke, poke.

Comedies have wrinkles around their eyes from smiling so much, Tragedies have lines around their mouth from frowning. Comedies just smiled to feel their eyes wrinkle. Tragedies said, "I do too smile!"

Tragedies enjoy dramas and sad movies and depressing books. They watch the news every night and share the scariest stories at work the next day, convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket. They watch Parenthood and The Fosters, loved The American Sniper, and they read The Help. In hardback.

Comedies love, well, comedies — sitcoms, funny movies, and funny books. They watch Big Bang Theory and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They read Christopher Moore and Douglas Adams books. They get their news from The Daily Show, and are often better informed. And they don't make a grumpy face that makes them look like they haven't pooped in a week.

Comedies will think that last joke was funny, Tragedies will send angry letters saying "the word 'poop' has no place in a humor column." (You would've hated my boobs columns then.)

Comedies watch Scandal to make fun of it, Tragedies watch Mulaney and fail to see the humor in it. (Of course, so did the Comedies, which is why it was canceled.)

Personally, I don't see the need to entertain myself with sad stories — tales of war, bankruptcy, death, lost love, and personal suffering. I'm not saying these stories aren't important or worthy. They are. But the whole point of escapism is to escape real life sadness and pain. I want to laugh, not bathe in other people's miseries.

Comedies tell me that everything is going to be all right in the end. Tragedies tell me I'm one day closer to the sweet, sweet release of death.

In the end, we'll measure our lives by how much we laughed and how much we enjoyed the journey. Ultimately, we'll all measure the joy in our lives in pounds or in teaspoons.

Personally, I'm going to measure it in newspaper complaint letters. Check back next week for my column about gay weddings that serve non-gluten-free cake shaped like boobs.


Photo credit: Tim Green (Flickr, Creative Commons)


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, January 23, 2015

Karl the Curmudgeon and the Time Capsule

"Hey, Kid. Did you hear about this time capsule they opened up in Boston?"

I heard something about it on the news, I said. Something a couple of the founding fathers hid away to keep the law off their tail, or something like that?

"No, not at all. This was a real historical find."

Look, just because someone stuck a box in a closet 200 years ago doesn't mean it's historical. It just means they didn't do a good job of cleaning up.

We were sitting in The Tilted Windmill, our favorite Dutch bar, watching the Dutch national speed skating championships. I waved at Nicky the bartender for a couple more beers. He brought them over, and set them down. This round's on him, I said, pointing at my friend.

"This isn't any old time capsule, Kid," Karl looked around to see who might be listening, and then leaned in closer. "It's Paul Revere and Sam Adams' time capsule from 1795. It was buried in a cornerstone of an old building, and they recently opened it."

So? I asked. It's not a secret, and it still doesn't sound interesting.

"But think of the history!" he said. "They found some coins, some old newspapers, and a silver plate made by Revere himself. Isn't that cool? Actual objects handled by Revere and Adams. What did you think they would find?"

Mrs. Adams.

"Classy. Don't you care about history at all?"


Sort of, I said. I just don't see what the big deal was. It's not like they buried a secret treasure map. We already know all the cool stuff there is to know about those guys. It's in museums and history books. These guys have been studied and examined so much, the experts know more about them than their own mothers.

"I'm going to be opening a time capsule in May," said Karl, ignoring my cynicism. "I'm a little worried about it." He rubbed his face with his hands. "When I was 16, in 1965, they buried a time capsule at my high school, and several of us students put some items in it — school books, records, the school paper — to show people of the future what our lives were like."

We know what life was like back then. We can see it on TV and in used trinket stores. Hell, there's people like you to tell us about it. What's to worry about?

"That's not it," said Karl. "I'm worried about what else they'll find." He took another drink of his beer, and plonked it half-heartedly on the bar. This was serious.

"As one of their most famous graduates, they want me to be on hand to emcee the event and explain to the students and their parents what's in there. There's going to be a whole big ceremony in the auditorium and everything."

That's great. Congratulations. I'll bet you never expected that.

"No, I never did. I never thought this day would even come. Which is why, after we buried the time capsule, some of my buddies and I dug it back up, and dropped in an extra item."

Uh-oh. I don't like where this is going. What did you put in there?

"A pair of my underwear." I nearly did a spit-take with my beer.

Well, aren't you the rebellious one, I said.

"Give me a break, Kid. It was 1965, and I was 16. We were naive back then. Our idea of hijinks was filling up McDonald's after a football game and not ordering anything."

You mean when you weren't busy playing with your Flash Gordon radio decoder ring.

"Shut up."

So what are you going to do? I asked. You'll have a lot of explaining to do when they open the box, and there's a pair of tidy-whiteys in there.

"It gets worse. My mom had sewn my name in them. What am I going to do, Kid? They're right there on top of everything else."

If it were me, I'd announce my candidacy for office right then and there, and use their little discovery as my slogan.

"Seriously."

BVD. Better Vote Deckers.

"Come on!"

Just remember to keep your speech brief. Try not to lingerie too long.

"I'm serious!"

Of corset you are. I was laughing so hard, I was crying.

"You're not helping."

Perhapth you could even thing a thong.

"That's it, I'm leaving." He drained his beer and walked toward the door.

Karl, you're just not thinking outside the boxers.

Karl shouted something unintelligible and probably vulgar, and slammed the door. I wiped my eyes and saw Nicky holding the bill.

He said, "You should have given him some more support."

Nobody likes a smartass, Nicky.



Photo credit: MoveTheClouds (Flickr, Creative Commons)

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, January 16, 2015

The Adventures of Letterman (In memory of my mother, Linda Lee Maxwell)


Erik's mother passed away on Tuesday, January 13. So we are reprinting a column he wrote in 1997 about one of his favorite memories of his mother, learning, and cartoons.

As a father, I worry about things I never did as a bachelor, and instead think as a parent: Are the kids healthy? Are we feeding them right? Is that Barney the Purple Dinosaur on TV?

I also worry that my daughters are going to start dating earlier than I want (about 40 years too early), or that she is going to make me known across the world as "the father of the biggest serial killer in the entire world," or worst of all, marry an accountant.

When I was a child, my biggest concern was that I didn't miss Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. My baby sister and I watched them every day. But we never, ever missed The Electric Company.

My favorite segment was the Adventures of Letterman. Letterman, voiced by Gene Wilder, was a literary superhero whose costume was a leather football helmet and varsity letterman's sweater. And the letter on his sweater would be the very letter featured in the Electric Company episode. I could never get over the serendipity of it all.

Letterman's nemesis was the evil villain, SpellBinder, who looked like Boris from the Bullwinkle show, and was voiced by Zero Mostel. Spellbinder liked to change items into other items by using his magic wand to change a letter or two in the word — light into night, pickle into tickle. Many of these items had captions, telling the viewer what they were.

In one episode, a container of French fries had the word "snack" above it. One unlucky man sat down at the table, ready to enjoy his "snack" of fries. But Spellbinder had other plans. He zapped his magic wand, changing the "snack" into a. . . "SNAKE!"

The snake wrapped itself around the poor man, and he squeaked out a choked "help," as Spellbinder chuckled evilly. (I never figured out Spellbinder's real goal, but he seemed to enjoy himself.) It seemed the victim's cries would go unheard, but wait! One person did hear: Letterman!

"Faster than a rolling O, more powerful than a silent E, able to leap a capital T in a single bound, it's a bird, it's a plan, it's LETTERMAN!" the narrator, Joan Rivers, shouted. Letterman was attending Calvin Klein University this week, because he sported a 'CK' on his varsity sweater.

But Spellbinder was ready for him. Not only was the snake big enough to crush one helpless victim, he wrapped himself around Letterman too.

"Oh no, what will happen to our literary hero?!" my sister would shout. Actually, she made gurgly noises and pooped in her diaper, because she was a year old, but I knew what she meant.

Letterman wasn't the brightest bulb in the box, so it didn't immediately occur to him that his salvation was on his own chest. But soon, inspiration struck, and he acted.

Joan Rivers said, "Tearing the 'CK' from his varsity sweater, and placing it over the 'KE', he changes the snake. . . back into a snack!!"

This was the coolest thing ever, so I told my mom I wanted to be Letterman. She cut out a few letters — two M's, an L, and an O — and taped three of them to the wall, spelling LOM. She taped the other M to my chest.

Spellbinder had changed my mom into a LOM! I didn't know what that was, but it was nasty — purple and green, with tentacles and eyes growing out of its neck. My mother, always willing to play along with my insanity, even did Joan Rivers' part.

I coached her on her lines for several minutes, so when she started shouting, "faster than a rolling O, stronger than a silent E, able to leap capital T in a single bound!" I raced from the kitchen into the living room, chest puffed out to show off the "M" emblazoned on (taped to) my varsity sweater (Kool-Aid stained t-shirt).

"It's a bird, it's a plan, IT'S LETTERMAN!"

I did the rest of my narration: "Tearing the 'M' from his varsity sweater, Letterman places it over the 'L', changing the Lom back into Mom!"

I had saved the day, the city, and my house. My mom clapped and cheered, and thanked me profusely, assuring me she was very happy to no longer be a Lom.

Which was good for me, because Lom's don't give cookies to their sons.


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, January 09, 2015

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones

Erik is out of the office this week, so we're reprinting a column from 2004 to see if the political climate has changed at all in the intervening 11 years. Although the names have changed, the pettiness and whining have not.

It takes a lot to get politicians in an uproar. They're generally pretty easy going, level-headed, and not prone to immature outbursts about silly issues.

Wait, I was thinking of my children.

Politicians, on the other hand, have an overdeveloped sense of righteous indignation that flares up when they think it will serve a purpose. Which is whenever a journalist is nearby

It's happened twice in the past month, and people on both ends of the political spectrum have gotten their panties in a bunch over public comments made by someone on the other side.

A few weeks ago, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called some California Democrats "girlie men," recalling the Hans and Franz skits from "Saturday Night Live."

He blamed state Democrats for delaying the budget, claiming they were catering to special interests.

"If they don't have the guts to come up here in front of you and say, 'I don't want to represent you, I want to represent those special interests, the unions, the trial lawyers' — if they don't have the guts, I call them girlie men," Schwarzenegger said, according to a CNN.com story.

You would have thought Schwarzenegger had kicked a puppy and told a dirty joke to a group of nuns. Women's groups were apoplectic, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus was livid. Charges of homophobia and misogyny flew like bullets in a Schwarzenegger flick. But following in the tradition of the leaders of his party, the Republican governor didn't apologize for his remarks.

"If they complain too much about this, I guess they're making the governor's point," spokesman Rob Stutzman said to CNN.

The remark also offended actual girlie men around the country, who stamped their little feet and flung their Williams-Sonoma catalogs to the ground.

So with two simple words, Arnold was able to offend two different groups of Californians.

Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Senator John Kerry, managed a similar feat, although she only offended right-wing journalists.

Earlier this week, after being badgered by Colin McNickle, editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — a conservative newspaper — she pointed her finger at him and told him to "shove it."

I presume she didn't mean her finger.

Many news analysts and pundits wondered whether she would be a liability to her husband's presidential campaign.

Of course, these are the same pundits who started using the term "red meat" during the Democratic convention this week, so I wouldn't put too much stock into what they say.

Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, was asked by David Broder of The Washington Post, "Who's in charge of keeping her on message?"

"She just says what she thinks. She's her own person," Cahill replied. "So get bent!"

She really didn't say that last part, but I'm sure she wanted to.

"That's going to be wild if she gets to be first lady," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-IL.), in a story on HillNews.com.

Republicans were actually pretty quiet about the whole incident, which is not that surprising, given the party's gaffes in the last four years.

In 2000, on the campaign trail, then-Governor Bush leaned over to Dick Cheney and pointed out a reporter from the New York Times. "That's Adam Clymer," said Bush. "He's a major league a**hole." "Oh yeah, big time," Cheney added, his rapier wit working overtime.

The problem was, the dissing duo wasn't aware a microphone was picking up their little exchange. The "a**hole" heard 'round the world haunted them for a couple of weeks afterward.

And who can forget last month when, while on the Senate floor, Vice President Cheney invited Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to have sex with himself.

"Go f*** yourself," was actually what he said.

Needless to say, the Republicans can't really complain about Heinz Kerry's "shove it" statement when the Vice President of the United States goes around encouraging US Senators to commit unnatural and nearly impossible sexual acts.

But it makes me wonder, if I ever decide to run for public office, will my own unpredictability and off-the-cuff remarks prove to be a liability? Will I be lambasted by my opponents and the media because of my potty mouth? Would a remark like that eventually prove to be my undoing?

Who knows? But if anyone wants to make an issue of it, they can bite me!


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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Friday, January 02, 2015

This Curated List of Banned Words is Cray-Cray

"It's that most wonderful time of year / with curmudgeons all yelling / and everyone expelling / bad words with a sneer / it's that most wonderful time of the year!"

At the beginning of each year, if all the word nerds and syntax snobs have been good, Lake Superior State University (LSSU) gives us its List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.

This year was no different. On New Year's Eve 2014, LSSU curated its 39th list of much-hated words, and I'm re-curating it for the ninth year in a row. Or I was until a few minutes ago.


That's because "curated" made the list. It's a snooty, pretentious word for "collected" or "organized." Commonly referring to the job of museum collection organization, it's become the go-to marketing term that means "I copied other people's crap to look like I'm doing something useful." I see it a lot in my day job and I wish I could see less of it.

Maybe it will get buried under this year's polar vortex.

That's the fear-mongering word for "really cold weather," and it got the old ice axe as well. Now that TV meteorologists like needlessly frightening viewers too, "polar vortex" has become the fearsome word to describe when the temperature drops below 20.

According to LSSU, the word was submitted very early last year, when Kenneth Ross said, "Less than a week into the new year, and it's the most overused, meaningless word in the media."

Nice going, news media. You ruined a word in 1/52 of a year. That may be a new record, and you were the ones who gave us "fiscal cliff."

But LSSU got a jump on banning the word before anyone else (bae) when they burned a snowman named Mr. Polar Vortex during their annual Snowman Burning last spring.

I mention "bae" because that should have been burned too. It's used to describe your boyfriend or girlfriend. You put them "before anyone else," and use the word to aae — annoy everyone else.

It's so bad that S. Thoms of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan said, "I heard someone refer to their ramen noodles as 'bae'!"

I can understand putting a fettuccine bolognese before anyone else, but ramen? Eww, have some self-respect! No foodie would eat ramen.

At least not anymore, now that "foodie" has been banned. If only we could ban the people who call themselves foodies.

We used to call them gourmands. But now, foodies like to take selfies (banned in 2014) with their winie and beerie friends, two terms coined by Randall Chamberlain of Traverse City, Michigan.

"I crave good sleep too, but that does not make me a sleepie," said Gradeon DeCamp of Elk Rapids, Michigan.

I suppose if you could find new techniques and methods for hacking your sleep, that might make you a sleepie. Except now "hack" is banned. Those things we called "tips" or "shortcuts" are called hacks. Life hacks, travel hacks, food hacks, sleep hacks, video game hacks. You name it, someone's got a hack for it.

Of course you don't need hacks if you have a good skill set to begin with. Which is actually just a term for "skills." Which we need to start using again since "skill set" got whacked.

"Skill set" is the term for people who don't know about plural words, like "skills." They use it to sound all impressive and business-y. But if business people want to be efficient, doubling the number of words to express an idea isn't very efficient.

In fact, it's downright cray-cray.

That's apparently what young people are saying when they mean "crazy." While not officially doubling the number of words, they're just doubling down on the first syllable instead, as in "my bae is cray-cray."

"Cray-cray." It just sounds annoying. Or is that "annoy-annoy?" (For the sake of accuracy, LSSU spelled it "cra-cra," but everyone else spells it "cray-cray," which is just nuts.)

The big takeaway from all this?

One, we're no longer allowed to say "takeaway." The word that means the big idea you learned, the thing that stood out for you has been taken away from us.

The other big takeaway? People aren't happy. We love to complain. I hate that "literally" is slowly changing to mean "figuratively," something LSSU didn't ban. (Come on, you guys!) Other people hate words like "cray-cray" and "bae" and "foodie." We just can't be happy, no matter what.

It's like the country is being covered by a grumpiness vortex.


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on Amazon.com
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