That Time I Almost Broke My Back… Tonight

Tonight, after leaving work, I had what can only be described as an epic fall onto hard concrete. Here’s what happened…

Cuidado


If you are at all familiar with the entrance to NCCOG that is on Magnolia, across from the Lee University School of Music, you know the breezeway and railing that is beside it. My daughters wanted to show me how they could get up on the upper concrete from the street. Lyric, just did a steady climb, but Liliana grabbed the top rail and jumped up while holding on. I was very proud of them both.
That’s when I uttered what have been the last words of many men stronger and braver than I…

I think I can do that.

Why I Refuse to Work Miracles

Scotty_JefferiesTubeFor a long time I have been one of those people that takes what comes and tries to make the best of it. In my work, this meant receiving an almost impossible request and doing any and everything to make it happen, even if it meant ignoring my own needs, the needs of my family, the demands of my health, etc. to get it done because “it has to get done.”

Now, deadlines are one thing. Sometimes, those things happen. But a deadline is simply a term that means “this is when the work must be finished.” It does not, contrary to popular belief (and my own usage many times), mean “have the work finished by this time or you’re dead.” I held to this poisonous notion for so long.

I have received requests to get work done before. The time frame given was one that I knew was impossible. The people asking should have known it was impossible. However, more often than not I did whatever it took to get the job done out of fear that I would lose my job or that I might not seem indispensable.

I will tell you a vaguely worded story about the worst it ever got. I was on a deadline for a production, and the producer had failed to solidify things in an early enough time-frame. A lot of decisions/changes (that should have been made months prior) were made at the last-minute, and I wound up sleeping at my office, away from my wife and children, for five days. I’m not talking about a little out of town inconvenience. I’m talking about living 45 minutes away from the building where we were rehearsing and where my office was, but the workload thrown on to me in the last week was such that the hour-and-a-half commute would have made the deadline impossible to meet. I simply needed that extra “day” of work.

So, I stayed up late into the night in my office working, and when I couldn’t work anymore I lay down on my floor and slept. A few hours later I would wake up and start again. Surely, this proved not only my ability, loyalty and dedication, but that I was an indispensable member of a team, right?

Just over a month later, I was fired.

Now, I know things now that I didn’t know then, and my release had nothing to do with my performance, but other internal issues. Still, at the time, and even now though in a less severe way, it stung fiercely.

Why do I bring this up now?

Yesterday, I was editing a podcast episode for a client. He was interviewing Dr. Lois Frankel who wrote the book, “Nice Girls Still Don’t Get The Corner Office.” I must confess, when I read the title and show notes for this episode, I was less than enthusiastic. But it didn’t take long for me to become completely absorbed in what she was saying because I saw myself in every one of the “mistakes” (her book lists 133 mistakes that women make in business) she discussed on the show. Then I heard her speak to me directly. Well, not really, but she might as well have been. It hit me so hard I immediately composed a tweet (ever have one of those moments? Of course you have.) Later, I searched and found this:

Your boss asks you to do the impossible. You figure getting it done is the way to get ahead. Right? Wrong. Being a miracle worker only begets more requests to perform miracles; and every time you do, you raise the bar for yourself. You’ve heard that old adage—don’t work harder; work smarter? Well this is what it means. Next time you’re asked to move a mountain, say, “I’d be happy to do that. Let me tell you what I will need to make it happen in the timeframe you have requested.” … Miracle workers may get canonized, but they don’t always get recognized!

Did you read that?

Miracle workers may get canonized, but they don’t always get recognized!

I will always work hard. I will always do everything I can to make a deadline. But I simply refuse to work miracles. From this point on, I will live and die by my triangle of choices.
Pick Two Poster

#004: How to Have Your Best Year Ever [Podcast]

A very wise man once said, “By setting an intention, you set the course to achieving it.” That wise man is my friend, Michael Hyatt.

5 Days Color Logo

Michael has created a product called 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever. He designed it to help you get clear on your goals, discover what’s holding you back, and show you what you need to make progress today.

Click to Listen

Play

#002: What Is the Day One Philosophy? [Podcast]

Sometimes we live in the failures of our past, and sometimes we seek out our validation from past victories. But do those past failures or successes really matter?

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Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com

How you view your failures and successes matters, of course, but I believe there is a better way to live; one where you are informed by these events, but neither defined nor confined by them.

Click to Listen

Play

#001: Answering the What [Podcast]

How appropriate is it that this podcast is launching at the beginning of the calendar year? I am so excited to bring you the first episode of the Day One Podcast

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Have you ever been on the receiving end of news so shocking that it shook you out of your lethargy and into a life change? That’s what I share with you in this episode.

Click to Listen

Play

Podcast-less

Well, my friends, as of 1:34 am Monday morning, I am still waiting for iTunes to approve my podcast feed for this show. I have one in the can waiting for you, and I will probably record one on the way up to an appointment at the hospital tomorrow. Thanks for coming along with me on this ride.

Day One Podcast Art

I do want to give one quick tip this week for those of you considering dieting/weight loss…

It probably wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had to try to do this around Thanksgiving/Christmas. HOWEVER, it can be done! I’m living proof.

That said, I also have a confession: I ate about 1/4 of a blueberry biscuit today (Sunday). It’s the Pillsbury Blueberry biscuits and the thing is they stopped making those for years (the last time my wife and I found them was in 2002! 2002!!!!), and they really are/were some of my favorite things ever. I just couldn’t resist. Well, of course, I could have, but I didn’t. And I can try to justify it any way I want (it was only a little bit, etc.), but that’s not even the point.

Today I made a mistake (more about why it was a mistake in the actual podcast), and tonight I own it. No regret. No self-defeating words. No overblown condemnation. I did it. I shouldn’t have. Period. But that was today…

Tomorrow is Day One!

Question: Did you blow it today? Yesterday? Last week? How did you recover? DID you recover? Leave a comment and tell us about it. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

 

The Beginning

So, it hit me tonight: Today is the first day, James. It’s time to start moving.

Day One Podcast Art

Here are the bullet points:

  • I will be getting a gastric sleeve surgery in about 12 days.
  • I have a few health problems (most of them are not caused by my weight, but in fact have caused me, for many years, to be almost completely unable to lose weight).
  • I hate that it got this far without my, or someone else’s, intervention.
  • I am grateful to my doctor who found the problem and gave me hope.
  • I’m scared.

The Line

Anybody who knows me understands what this Blahg is about, but if you’re not one of those people let me fill you in: This is where I talk about anything that strikes my fancy, but doesn’t really fit into a neat category. I might spew about how much I hate Netflix (or possibly AT&T), how Stephen Sondheim being a colossal “failure” is actually inspirational, how I called it when Esperanza Spalding was going to win Best New Artist, or even how being Scottish doesn’t impede my funkiness.

Today, I have to write about something that isn’t fun. Yes, I’m “late to the party” on this one, but there’s a reason for that. See, today’s post is about Corey Monteith.

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Corey Monteith

The Short Version

Just in case you have no idea who I am talking about, here’s a summary from Wikipedia:

Cory Allan Michael Monteith (May 11, 1982 – July 13, 2013) was a Canadian actor and musician, best known for his role as Finn Hudson on the Fox television series Glee. Born in Calgary, Alberta, and raised in Victoria, British Columbia, Monteith had a troubled adolescence involving substance abuse from age 12; he left school at age 16. After an intervention by family and friends, he entered drug rehabilitation at age 19.

As an actor based in British Columbia, he had minor roles on television series before an audition tape of him singing “Can’t Fight This Feeling” helped to land him the biggest role of his career, Finn on Glee. Following his success on Glee, Monteith’s film work included the movie Monte Carlo and a starring role in Sisters & Brothers. In a 2011 interview with Parade magazine, he discussed his history of substance abuse as a teen, and in March 2013, he again sought treatment for addiction. On July 13, 2013, he died of a toxic combination of heroin and alcohol in a Vancouver hotel room.

There. Two paragraphs summing up a life. TWO!

If you note the date of his death, you see he died back in July.  So, why am I writing about this now?

I have been working in musical theatre in one form or another since my early teens. I just love it. So, when the television show Glee started I tuned in. I was, of course, excited about a mainstream television show bringing theatrical music to the attention of younger audiences, but the general enthusiasm of the show captivated me. We don’t have cable anymore so I never watched the show live, and I didn’t even watch it weekly. I usually watched in spurts via Hulu. Yeah, i have issues with the show, but those aren’t the topic here. Here is where I get to tell you about the dream I had.

I don’t often have memorable dreams. It isn’t unusual for me to not remember the dream at all. But several weeks ago, I dreamt of Corey Monteith.

Then a couple of weeks later it happened again. Same dream.

Last night it happened again.

All I can remember from the first dream is that I’m standing somewhere, Monteith turns a corner and I see him. As he’s walking past me he say’s, “What’s up, James?” I turn to watch him walk away, but he walks over to a bed and lays face down and dies.

The second dream was the same.

The third dream was the same, except this time as he walks past me he says, “What’s up, James? What are you waiting for?” Then he walks over to the bed, lays down and dies.

The Quarterback

So, tonight, I had an hour off (WHAT?!?!?) and I decided to watch the Glee “tribute” episode, The Quarterback.

This isn’t the time for critiquing, but it was hard to watch. One scene in particular caught my attention as horrible acting, but, at the same time, I could tell that what was going on was more about not breaking down and just getting through the scene. There were many relatable moments, but I want to talk about two of them.

Jane Lynch’s “Sue Sylvester is, without question, one of the funniest villains of all  time, but, as was true with so many moments in this show, there was a scene where Sue Sylvester disappeared and it felt like Jane Lynch saying “There’s no lesson here. There’s no happy ending. There’s nothing. He’s just gone. It’s just so pointless. All that potential.”

Similarly, in a scene where Mark Sailing’s “Noah Puckerman” is replanting the Finn Hudson Memorial Tree, he notes the plaque on the ground which reads:

Finn Hudson 1994 - 2013

Finn Hudson 1994 – 2013

Puckerman says, “The thing that’s tripping me out is this line right here between the two years… It’s his whole life right there. Everything that happened to him is in that line.” Coach Beiste replies, “What are you gonna do with your line now, Puckerman?”

The Moment

Yes, I cried through virtually every second of this episode. It was heartbreaking. I wept for Corey, for Lea, for the cast, for wasted potential, for lost dreams, for the fog that inevitably creeps in to haunt the lives of every person in Corey’s life that will keep them asking “what if?” forever, for all the others drowning in addiction because there are things they don’t know how to deal with, for the ones who look down their noses at those addicts – especially the ones who seems like they have every reason to live, the fame, the fortune, success, etc. – but don’t see the tragedy and loss… I wept for all of those things.

And then I remembered my dream.

What’s up, James? What are you waiting for?

Weird, huh?

So I leave you with this question, the same one I will be asking myself every day of my life from now on.

What are you going to do with your line?

The Credibility Shelf

I have been hesitant to share this, but… Here it is.  The other day I saw this ad in my Facebook feed.

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This is a clear example of Social Media Marketing done… just… WRONG. Look at the key elements:

  1. An author has a book, website and newsletter. Yay! Go Platform!
  2. Author’s book was named “Most Relevant Book of 2010.” That’s good. At least it was in 2010. That doesn’t make it a bad book now, but why am I seeing this ad today?!?
  3. The endorsing magazine is “Relevant Magazine.” This is a bi-monthly Christian magazine. I like them. They’ve interviewed me a couple of times. I bring them up because…
  4. The author is a former porn star and the connected picture in the ad she paid for real money for is a crop shot of her chest.

So, here are my thoughts: If you’re an ex-porn star and you have written a book about how terrible life in porn was, but the graphic you use is the one mentioned above I can’t even begin to take you seriously because either:

  1. You’re oblivious to the fact that this picture is inappropriate.
  2. You’re unaware that it’s being used (in either of these cases you aren’t monitoring your brand well).
  3. You’re still using your body to sell things.

When you’re building a Platform from which to build your business, sell your products or ideas, or to give voice to your expertise in a field or subject you must stay credible. 

This one ad undermines Shelley Lubben’s credibility, but it undermines Relevant Magazine’s credibility as well. Neither of those things should happen.

So, go subscribe to Relevant Magazine.

Go read Shelley’s book. I haven’t read it yet, but I have heard from people I trust that it’s really good if not a little disturbing.

But don’t make marketing mistakes like these. In today’s world, people look at your credibility shelf long before they take any serious interest in your product shelf.

Question: What do you think? Have you had your credibility questioned? What’s steps have you taken to shore up your credibility? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

I have a really interesting political point of view, and it’s not always something I say too loud at dinner tables here, but you can’t go from a $2,000-a-night suite at La Mirage to a penitentiary and really understand it and come out a liberal. You can’t. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone else, but it was very, very, very educational for me and has informed my proclivities and politics ever since.

Robert Downey Jr.
New York Times (New York: Article by David Carr, April 20 2008)

1170783_631413366883916_479617142_n25 people. $15.

I really want people to understand my last check was for $1.30 for 40 hours. I only make tips.

None of these people needed anything. I took great care I them and now I’m going home empty-handed.

Bonnie Marilyn

For all of us, life is death without adventure. And adventure only comes to those who are willing to be daring and take chances.

Prince
1985 American Music Awards

Injustice and Freckles

It’s been a terrible 24 hours. To give context for future reading, in the past 24 hours we had the verdict in the Zimmerman/Martin case in Florida, Casey Anthony is pregnant again and Cory Monteith died. Other bad stuff happened as well, but I just don’t have the strength to get into it right now. Instead, I want to write about Freckles.

Evangeline & Lyric

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My daughters are both blessed to have received the majority of their looks from their mother (Note: HOT!), but my youngest daughter, Lyric, got her complexion from me and my Scotch-Irish ancestry. That means pale skin.  It also means freckles.

As this years summer vacation began, my daughters obeyed the universal law of kiddom and jumped in the pool. My eldest, Liliana, immediately began to darken. Lyric? Freckles.

It bothered her. She thought she was ugly. I told her that I thought her freckles were cute. She wasn’t buying it.  So I told her about Evangeline Lilly. You remember… That show EVERYONE watched and then got mad at because it had a “terrible” finale (Another topic for another time). Well, I told her that on that show, Evangeline Lilly’s character “Kate” was often referred to as “Freckles,” and that she was the primary female romantic lead. Everybody thought she was beautiful, etc…

I showed her a picture…

“She is pretty,” Lyric said.

Smiles.

I thought it would be over.  A few weeks later, I picked up her iPod and saw this picture as the wallpaper:

evangeline-lilly_img_506359ea2e4dbabe18bdf9007e316b6b_800_0_0_0_0_0_ffffff_0_cb0f1I was taken aback. When did this happen?

“Lyric, why is there a picture of Evangeline Lilly as your wallpaper?”

“Oh, because of what you said. I put her on there to remind myself that my freckles are beautiful.”

No words.

Coming Soon!

MTINH Album Art (for Page)JHM Media is in pre-production of an exciting new project! Friends and followers have asked for this for a few years now, and only recently have all of the pieces fallen in place for it to happen. James Marler, founder and president of JHM Media, has worked as a music theory educator for almost two decades, and now he is bringing his approach to a new podcast.

James has received excellent student reviews at every college and secondary school he has taught, and has a record of the lowest rates of attrition at two universities. James is passionate about teaching the “language of music” in a way that encourages the student and instills in them a love for the art and skill of the practice. With James, every music theory class begins and ends with a phrase: “Music Theory Is Not Hard!”

At the collegiate level, far too many capable and promising students of music endure poor or flippant pedagogy and are dismayed at their progress. Attrition follows and the students suffer feelings of failure and a lack of direction. At the secondary level, students suffer from budget cuts that all but eliminate the arts from their education. If they have musical education at all, it is relegated to a few minutes a day, and precious little time is devoted to learning the “language of music.” In early education, students are often taught well, but many of the basic elements are improperly taught for the sake of expediency.

In this podcast, James will take the same approach he does in every class. The subjects will be taken slowly and steadily, with time given at the beginning of every class to review the material and take questions. So, if you are a student at any level or if you are just passively interested in music, this podcast will help you learn to speak the language. So, don’t worry… you can do this! Why? Because Music Theory Is Not Hard!

If you have any thoughts about this topic or have topics you’d like me to cover, please leave me a comment below or leave a voicemail by clicking the SpeakPipe “send voicemail” tab at the right.

Super Bowl XLVII Commercial Review

Ok, tweeps, peeps and FAM’s, not a lot of verbosity here.  I just wanted to throw in my two cents about tonight’s commercial-fest.

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The Giant Plate

My Favorites

Right off the bat, I have to say that, yes, I DO have a favorite, but I also have more than one.  However, if I had to take only one commercial away from tonight’s offering it would be this piece of genius rebuke…

RAM – The Farmer Commercial

People are calling it “The Farmer Commercial” not the RAM or Dodge or RAM Truck commercial.  God help us if we don’t correct this GMO food corruption and let our farmers get back to their work.

For sheer heart-rending moments, my other favorite of the evening.

Budweiser – The Clydesdale Brotherhood

Yes, it made me cry.  Both times.

And, no, neither of these commercials, in my view, “sell” their product as much as they appeal to the emotion of the consumer to see the company, and, by extension, the product offered, in a favorable light.

The Best

The competition this year was fierce (as usual).  But when I think about what makes a commercial work, I think a)it makes me want to product, b) it makes me believe that, somehow, my life will be better with the product, and c) it causes me to see competitors in a negative light.  When you add these three things to what was accomplished by the RAM and Budweiser commercials, you’ve got success.  If you can add to ALL of that, a “WOW”, then you’ve got yourself a commercial for the ages.

Three commercials, this year did all of those things for me.

#1 – Volkswagen “Get Happy, Get In”

Funny, well delivered, well-paced and makes me believe that, if I will just drive a Volkswagen (or even if I just get in one), I, too, can be relaxed and easy-going without a care in the world. I want to be those things, and this car, says the ad, will insure that I become all of them.

#2 – Taco Bell “Live Mas/Viva Young”

The “WOW” comes in scene after scene in this one. It actually makes me crave Taco Bell and, simultaneously, forget that I’m not much of a Taco Bell fan in the first place.  Mission Accomplished.

#3 – Audi “Prom”

For all those times in High School when you just knew that the right something would make things work for you, and would make you more than you were… Audi gives us the dream of every teenage loser. Not only will you remember it forever, but so will she. Black eye? Totally worth it. Where’s my Audi?

The Worst

#1 – Go Daddy “Perfect Match”

Don’t get me wrong on this one. I get acting. But this one accomplishes nothing, is unpleasant and proves that some people will do anything for money. How proud Bar Refaeli’s parents must be.

#2 – Axe “Apollo Lifeguard”

I despise Axe commercials. I am offended on behalf of women with a company that says that women are things just above the rank of animal who can be induced to ignore all rationality simply because they smell something.

#3 – Doritos “Fashionista Daddy”

I’m all for Daddy/Daughter time, but let’s look at what this commercial says:

Daddy – I know you’re my daughter, but I don’t have time for you right now… I have stuff to do.
Daughter – But, Daddy, I have Doritos.
Daddy – Oh, then let me debase myself because Doritos are really important to me.

Honorable Mention

Good commercials, but they didn’t quite make the cut.

#1. – GoDaddy “Your Big Idea”

This commercial almost made it into “The Best” section, but I chose to limit the sections to three.  What makes this commercial so great is that it would have worked if the entire commercial was just the first couple sitting on the couch the entire time delivering the content and then cut to a different couple on the plane finishing the line.  But the commercial creates a sense of urgency in the consumer by having the conversation play out in rapid-fire jump cuts across the conversations of many couples all over the world.

#2 – Kia “Space Babies”

Cute? Check. Clever? Check? But I only have seven full seconds in this 61 second commercial to connect with the product and what it can do for me.

#3 – Mercedes-Benz “Soul”

This commercial does a great job of connecting a car to a lifestyle. Would you sell your soul to the devil for that kind of lifestyle? Wait… you don’t have to. Good work. It would have made “The Best” section if Christopher Walken was the Devil.

Missed It By That Much Award

This would have been the best commercial of the evening. It’s immediate. Funny. It has the “WOW”. But, afterwards, neither I nor any of the people at the Super Bowl party where I was could immediately remember what the product was.

Don’t Bite The Hand That Feeds You Award

This award goes to the funnier version of the commercial that made the cut.  Apparently, you’re not allowed to make fun of the NFL and it’s penchant for suing over the unlicensed use of the words “Big Plate”.

There were, of course, more good and more bad, but… whatever.

Hostess: The Part No One Is Talking About

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend (completely unrelated to this situation) that went something like this:
Him: Unions are bad!
Me: Well, they do encourage some stupid stuff sometimes, but they’ve done a lot of good too.
Him: Yeah, a hundred years ago when they were needed.  Now they destroy the economy, education, and every other thing they touch.
You see, I believe in Free-Market Capitalism.  I do.  Of all the other socio-economic choices out there, it’s the best option.  That doesn’t mean it is without faults.

The one HUGE downside of Free-Market Capitalism is that the only bottom line that truly matters is the OWNER’S bottom line.  Not the employees.  A business owner is not compelled in any way to look after the interests of his employees.   For the most part, when you look back through the history of company’s, you don’t find people like Milton Hershey, who built a town around his factory and made sure his employees and their families were well-taken care of, educated, etc.  You find people who were willing to employ children at slave wages.  You find restaurant chains and other companies taking the costs out vengefully on their customers and their employees by raising costs (that part is kind of acceptable, except in cases like this) and on their employees by playing tricks like working them ALMOST full-time so they don’t have to pay out benefits, but still giving them enough hours to become, essentially, enslaved to the company. (When you add in the Obamacare situation, it just gets ridiculous)

But sometimes, unions take it too far.

I’ve tried to write this paragraph a few times.  The problem is, I always sound angrier, meaner and more upset than I actually am.  See, here’s the thing: I woke up this morning to find (at last count) 17 posts on Twitter and FB of people complaining about Hostess, Twinkie-making company extraordinaire, closing it’s doors for business.  I’ll paraphrase: “Oh no!” they cry. “No more twinkies!”

Now, I’ve never really been a fan of Twinkies.  I was more of a fruit pie guy, especially the old school ones with the Peanuts characters on the packaging.  But this is about more than Twinkies.  The Hostess family of products covers Ho-Ho’s (a snack especially dear to fans of LOST), Donettes, Suzy Q’s, Ding-Dongs and Zingers.  Not the healthiest of menu’s to be sure, but under the Hostess umbrella are brands such as Wonder (as in Wonderbread), Nature’s Pride (my family’s favorite breads.  No artificial flavors or colors, no trans fats, no artificial preservatives and no high fructose corn syrup.  That “Healthy Multi-Grain” loaf is incredible), Dolly Madison (the aforementioned Fruit Pies, and other fun pastries), Home Pride, Merita, Drake’s, and Beefsteak (oddly another bread line and not, in fact, all about cows).

Peoria Strike

You see, a nationwide strike by employees of only one of the unions the company employs - Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) – has, essentially, crippled the company.  The board of the company authorized the slow down to maximize estate value.  This came after Hostess Brands permanently closed three plants as a result of work stoppage.  The company announced that it would have no other choice than to liquidate if employees did not return to work and implement normal working conditions by 5 p.m., Nov. 15.  The BCTGM threatened members with heavy fines if they crossed picket lines.  The deadline came and went with no workers returning, and now Hostess Brands is closing its doors.

But what does that mean besides no more Twinkies?

Hostess Brands had an unprofitable cost structure.  Much of this is due to union wages and pension costs, but in addition to that the offer made to the BCTGM included wage, benefits and work rule concessions, as well as giving the 12 unions employed by Hostess Brands a 25% ownership stake in the company.  That offer wasn’t enough for the BCTGM. The union business agent said he’d prefer to see Hostess sold.

So, what this means in REAL numbers is this.

  • 33 Bakeries – Closed
  • 565 Distribution Centers – Closed
  • 570 Bakery Outlet Stores – Closed
  • 5,500 separate delivery routes – Ceased
  • 18,500 Employees – Out of Work

In today’s economy, where we have to play “Let’s Have Fun With Math” to get a 7.8% unemployment rate, but the numbers have obviously been manipulated, it is unthinkable to me that ANY union, tasked with representing the interests of the workers would allow almost 20,000 people to be put out of work (with the tangential numbers incalculable. But here’s an example.)

I’ve tried writing a paragraph that will end this post on a positive note.  I really like to do that.  But I just can’t find one.

Sorry.

DIsney, Lucas, & Star Wars: A New Hope

So, yesterday, the fanboys, wannabe-Jedi’s and the entire world got hit with the news: Disney bought George Lucas’s Lucasfilm, Ltd. for a staggering $4.05 Billion dollars. (That’s $4,000,500,000 if my math is right. UPDATE: It isn’t.  At any rate, that’s a lot of zeros.)  This was, on the main, a content purchase.  Robert Iger, CEO of Disney has been adding creative franchises like “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones” and the Marvel Universe  to Disney’s content in an effort to shore up revenue’s as the model for income changes in Hollywood saying “memorable characters will be valuable no matter what medium they appear in.”

That’s sound reasoning, I guess.  Though, Disney was once the industry leader in innovation, they seem now to be the Bain Capital of the entertainment world.  That’s not necesarrily a bad thing, but I hope it doesn’t mean they just no longer care about real innovation.  But that isn’t my topic today.  I’m here to talk about the implications and reactions to the historic news that Lucasfilms, Ltd. is going to be controlled by  someone other than George Lucas.  This is huge!  HUGE!!!

Fan reaction has been remarkably mixed.  Some see the merger as the only way the Star Wars universe could continue.  After all, George Lucas can’t live forever.  Some see it as the sign that the Star Wars universe is going to become a mixed bag quality.  After all, for every “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast”, Disney has given us a “Lion King 1 1/2″ and “Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas” and “Belle’s Magical Adventure.” Not terrible stuff, but not near the quality of the originals.  Of course, Twitter blew up.  Some of my favorites:

  • Lando and the Tramp.
  • Finding Greedo.
  • Snow White and the Seven Droids.
  • The Princess Leia Diaries.
  • Emperor Palpatine’s New Groove.
  • Droid Story.
  • That’s So Vader.
  • When You Wish Upon a Death Star.

The real news of the day was, yes, a new trilogy of Star Wars films (ostensibly Chapters VII, VIII and IX).  This was what bothered so many.  The rather lukewarm critical reception of the Prequel Trilogy (never mind the fan reaction or the staggering box office numbers), and Lucas’s constant tinkering with the original trilogy (Did Vader really have to say “No” at the end of “Jedi?” In a word? No.) has left many breathing a sigh of relief that the treasured films of our youth will not be harmed by more sub-standard movies.  But with this purchase, Disney assures a new Star Wars film as soon as 2015 with installments coming every 2 to 3 years.  And George Lucas won’t be involved in any of that.

Let me say that part again: George Lucas won’t be involved with the new Star Wars films or any other films from the franchise.

This really is the silver lining.

I’ve said for a long time that the only real problem with the Prequel Trilogy is that George Lucas was involved past the story level.  George Lucas is a great story writer.  He’s a great creator of worlds and creatures.  But he is absolutely not a script writer and he is not by any stretch of the imagination an actor’s director.  Consider the original trilogy:

Star Wars Episode IV: A New HopeDirector: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Director: Irvin Kirshner
Writer: Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
(Based on a story by George Lucas)

Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi
Director: Richard Marquand
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas
(and you just KNOW that old George was responsible for that remarkably awkward “I know I can bring him back to the good side” garbage.)

Now consider the Prequels:

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas and Jonathan Hales

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas

All written and directed by George Lucas.

But George is retiring.  He’s done.  It is, therefore, entirely possible that Episodes 7, 8, and 9 could redeem the franchise.  More importantly, we can look forward to Star Wars films that have precious little to do with the Skywalker clan.  Lucas made a huge universe.  There are many stories to explore.

So, I say, thanks George for creating the Star Wars universe and the rich characters there.  Thank you for giving me and my children countless nights of entertainment.  I hope you enjoy your retirement.  Have fun with your kids and grandkids and great-grandkids. Live long and prosper (See the joke I made there?)

For the fans and the rest of the world I say, lighten up.  Three subpar films didn’t ruin the franchise.  Constant tinkering with perfectly fine films didn’t ruin the franchise.  And now, one of the richest universes ever created is in the hands of a company that has a vested interest, and a proven history, in making quality entertainment.  Most importantly…

Yeah!  That!

Why Is Big Bird Getting Fired?

On Wednesday, October 4, 2012, President Barack Obama and Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney met for the first of a series of pre-election debates.  Of course, seconds after the debate pundits and “journalists” of both conservative and liberal leanings scrambled to dissect, explain and declare either Romney or Obama the winner.  Chris Matthews hilariously lost his mind and showed his true colors; Al Gore blamed Obama’s poor performance on the altitude (not even kidding) and poor Jim Lehrer, was flayed in the press for his lackluster performance as moderator.

Mitt Romney’s performance left many astounded.  He just didn’t seem to be the candidate that had been presented to them in the media.  (Almost like the news outlets were twisting the facts.  Shocking!)  President Obama spent much of Thursday rebutting Romney’s remarks, but his impassioned speeches left many wondering why he didn’t bring any of that up during the actual debate.  (Gotta love stump-speech writers, huh?!?)

But this is not a post about the debate so much as it is an opportunity for me to call SHENANIGANS!

At one point in the debate, Mitt Romney spoke to some of his cost-cutting, spending-slashing ideas and mentioned the approach he would have for PBS:

I’m sorry, Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS … I like PBS, I love Big Bird — I actually like you, too — but I am not going to keep spending money on things [we have] to borrow money from China to pay for…

Of course, with Romney’s strong showing in the debate, people have been jumping on this statement.  Meme’s have exploded, children are writing letters, and even the CEO of PBS, Paula Kerger, has gone so far as to call this simple statement an “attack.”

I have a real problem with this.  Oh, don’t misunderstand me… I get the idea.  But what I have a problem with is Romney’s (and every other person who ever mentions cutting federal funding for PBS) notion that cutting PBS funding means Big Bird is going to be on the street.  Every time, EVERY TIME anyone mentions cutting funds to PBS, the FIRST (and many times only) show mentioned is Sesame Street – the beloved long-running American children’s television series created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett.

Now, my children loved Sesame Street.  Honestly?  I loved and still love Sesame Street.  Sometimes I watch it by myself for fun.  And, no, I’m not remotely ashamed.  I have friends who work for Sesame Street.  They write songs.  They are amazing.  They are the reason Sesame Street is successful.  Not them personally, but because Sesame Street has, for decades, striven to present high quality educational entertainment.  Sesame Street has the goods.  Yay!

However, Sesame Street is not PBS. I was going to list all of the shows available on PBS (and, no, not all of them are serialized), but it would simply take up too much space.  Instead, I’ll give you the short version.  There are 749 of them.

749!

Sesame Street is only one of those.  Just one!  So why is it ALWAYS the one brought up when PBS cuts are mentioned? More importantly, does cutting PBS funding automatically mean “No More Sesame Street”?  Let’s talk turkey.

When it debuted in 1969, Sesame Street aired on only 67.6% of American televisions and garnered a 3.3 Nielsen rating (approximately 2 million households).  A decade later, over 9 million children under the age of six were estimated to be watching Sesame Street daily.  According to Cary O’Dell in the book, “Women Pioneers in Television: Biographies of Fifteen Industry Leaders“, in 1978 the Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street’s production company) began a shift from dependence on federal funding and began, instead, to depend on “licensing arrangements with toy companies and other manufacturers, publishing, and international sales for their funding.”  According to U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs, by 2006, Sesame Street had become “the most widely viewed children’s television show in the world” reaching 120 countries with 20 international independent versions.

Back to licensing: In 2004 over 68% of Sesame Street’s total revenue came from licensing and merchandise sales.  In 2008, licensing and merchandise sales alone garnered between $15-17 Million Dollars!  From 2003 to 2006, Sesame Street made more than $211 million from toy and consumer product sales (an average of $53 Million per year).  In 2011, then CEO Gary Knell received a salary of nearly a million dollars a year.

Finally, Sesame Street’s 2008 tax forms show a total revenue of $140 Million Dollars.  $140.  Million.  Dollars.  $140,000,000.00  What part of that was federal funding? $14,000,000.00 a whopping 10%.

The fact of the matter is that the good people, who are doing great work by the way, over at Sesame Street don’t need federal funding.  But if they lost it, it hurts their bottom line.  Now, it’s just my opinion, but if we really want to “spread the wealth” around, we could take just that $14,000,000.00 and give 280 families $50,000.  We could give 1400 families $10,000.  Or we could realize that we are a nation $16,001,076,400,000 (as I write this.  Check it out in real time here) in debt, and a company that is able to be financially solvent on its own doesn’t need a dime of tax-payers money.

I concede that cutting “Sesame Street” funding won’t fix the deficit, even cutting all of PBS’ funding won’t cut the deficit.  But that’s not the point.  There are many general grant funding issues that need to be dealt with in our government’s spending, and it’s going to take a lot of courage to make the tough calls.  I’m reminded of the story of the fall of Constantinople.  It’s said that even as the city was falling all around them, the priests inside engaged themselves in furious debate over how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.  I fear we, in America, are doing the same thing.  We quibble about 14 Million being taken away from a company that is remarkably financially solvent while the walls of our financial security crumble around us.  It’s time for all of us to put on our grown-up pants, tighten the belt a little and admit that if we don’t change how we treat money in this country we will not last for long; and the families who were foreclosed on and lost their homes because they bought houses they could not afford will be the prophetic shadow of things to come for the country at large.  One day, our creditors will come calling when they realize we can’t possibly afford to pay our debts.

Now, I’m going to go tuck my girls in for bed and make sure my girls have their Abby Cadabby dolls.

50 Shades (No Grey)

I had no intention of writing this post, much less crossing it over to my other blog Pulpit2Pavement, but something happened today that got me thinking.  I’m not going to go into the book’s “creation” process.  It really doesn’t matter that E.L. James created the entire series initially as a series of “Twilight”-based fan fiction, and how both the book industry and the buying public ignore that fact and treat the books like they are some kind of groundbreaking fiction.  I’ll ignore the fact that E.L. James did none of the hard work of an author – creating fresh and compelling characters with their own unique personalities, flaws and compulsions, or creating a unique world in which those characters live.

I won’t talk about how the plot of the books – down to the trilogy format and arc – is almost lifted whole cloth from Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series.

I won’t even talk about how the book’s success is both a slap in the face to writer’s who work their entire lives to come up with something that is “original”*, and a blaring example of how Rule 34 can be exploited to the unwitting masses.

I won’t even talk about the fact that if you changed Christian Grey’s name BACK to Edward Cullen, and Anastasia Steele’s name BACK to Bella Swan, nobody would know that they trilogy wasn’t simply books 5-8 of the Twilight series.

I won’t go into the morality of it all. Outside of the fact that what goes on in a married couple’s bedroom is their business, the morality of this books content has been covered in many, many, many places. That’s been done, and done very well.

No, what prompted this is a realization I made when I came across a Facebook friend’s request to to borrow the book.  I thought I would take a second and spare them the trouble. I summed up the book(s) for them like this:

I’ll save you the trouble.  It’s Twilight.”  Except Bella doesn’t turn into a vampire after High School.  Instead they go to college.  Also, Edward’s a perv.  The End.

Initially it was supposed to be a joke.  But then I got to thinking.  That set of sentences (almost fragments) really does sum up the entire trilogy.  Then I got to thinking: Can I do that with other great works of literature?  I’m not talking about the obligatory one sentence summary that conveys a books essence.  I’m talking about a book so bereft of real meat (as is so often the problem with fan-fiction) that its entire content can be conveyed with a few short sentences leaving the reader not missing that much.

__________________________________________________________________

*”Original” being an admittedly somewhat subjective term.

Service (Means Serve US)

I got an email this morning. Well, my name was on it, but apparently the same email was received by approximately 23,000,000 people.  It was an email which turned out to actually be a simple copy and paste job from Netflix’s Blog. (Really, James. Another Netflix post? Yeah, but hear me out on this one.)

I want to take a minute to deconstruct some of what Reed Hastings said, and why it was such a/another dismal failure on his part.

(The picture attached to this post is the screen capture from the new QWIKSTER.com service, but more on that in a moment.)

So, here is what Reed had to say.

I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.

Now that’s a good start! True it’s a couple of months too late, and would have been much better heard if it had happened as a real response to customer feedback and before Netflix was forced to announce that it would lose Starz! content in February 2012.

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming, and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. I’ll try to explain how this happened.

Unlike some who have responded on the Netflix blog, I appreciate what Reed says here. Yes, we felt that the price change, plan change, announcement of same and the way you loaded blog comments with scripted positive responses (“I love the price changes!” Please.) from Netflix employees was disrespectful… Wait a minute… maybe I don’t appreciate what you’re saying here, Reed. I (We, your customers) didn’t “feel” that you lacked respect and you humility… YOU LACKED RESPECT FOR YOUR CUSTOMERS!!!!

For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn’t make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business. Eventually these companies realize their error of not focusing enough on the new thing, and then the company fights desperately and hopelessly to recover. Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly.

In all sincerity, Hastings is spot on here.

When Netflix is evolving rapidly, however, I need to be extra-communicative. This is the key thing I got wrong.

Similarly, I received another email this morning from the ocean informing me it was wet. Hastings is missing it here. Right now, the real elephant in the room is the issue of the loss of Starz content.  This is going to be a massive loss for Netflix, yet Hastings has remained virtually silent on how he can justify his claim that the streaming content will continue to be rich with the loss of better than 1000 titles overnight.

In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success. We have done very well for a long time by steadily improving our service, without doing much CEO communication. Inside Netflix I say, “Actions speak louder than words,” and we should just keep improving our service.

This is probably the most honest part of this entire email.

But now I see that given the huge changes we have been recently making, I should have personally given a full justification to our members of why we are separating DVD and streaming, and charging for both. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do.

Let me decode: In retrospect, I still stand by what was an obviously terrible business choice, but I’ll explain to you why I’m sticking to my guns.

So here is what we are doing and why:

Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD, plus lots of TV series. We want to advertise the breadth of our incredible DVD offering so that as many people as possible know it still exists, and it is a great option for those who want the huge and comprehensive selection on DVD. DVD by mail may not last forever, but we want it to last as long as possible.

Here is the part to focus on: Hastings admits that the DVD subscription service is important because “nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD, plus lots of TV series.”  (This will be very important later) but he wrongly assumes that this is why customers “love” the DVD portion of the service.  It isn’t.

I also love our streaming service because it is integrated into my TV, and I can watch anytime I want. The benefits of our streaming service are really quite different from the benefits of DVD by mail. We feel we need to focus on rapid improvement as streaming technology and the market evolve, without having to maintain compatibility with our DVD by mail service.

Here, Hastings lets us know that, to Netflix, their focus is going to be improving their streaming service.  Again, that’s going to be complicated considering that, unless something drastic happens prior to February 2012, Netflix is going to lose ALL of Starz content (that includes Starz original programming, a LARGE backlog of films both classic and recent, SONY pictures content and ALL of the Disney content.  That means all of the Disney films, TV shows and series… all of it. If you’re a Netflix subscriber, go to the kids section and check out what kind of impact that’s going to be.), and, so far, Netflix has shown no hope of gaining content that will fill the gaping hole left by this exodus.

So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. It’s hard for me to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary and best: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”.

Hmmmm…. That sounds eerily similar to a “press release” written by yours truly…  It’s obvious that Hastings views DVD-by-mail service as something that will shortly be going the way of the dodo, so why doesn’t he just say that?!?

We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming.

I’m sorry, what… I fell asleep because that rationale was so boring. Also, I guess the Netflix research team did precious little research into brand development. (Warning! That link goes to the twitter account of someone who is absolutely NSFW)

Qwikster will be the same website and DVD service that everyone is used to. It is just a new name, and DVD members will go to qwikster.com to access their DVD queues and choose movies. One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade option, similar to our upgrade option for Blu-ray, for those who want to rent Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Members have been asking for video games for many years, and now that DVD by mail has its own team, we are finally getting it done. Other improvements will follow.Another advantage of separate websites is simplicity for our members.Each website will be focused on just one thing (DVDs or streaming) and will be even easier to use. A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated. So if you subscribe to both services, and if you need to change your credit card or email address, you would need to do it in two places. Similarly, if you rate or review a movie on Qwikster, it doesn’t show up on Netflix, and vice-versa.

So, now I have to deal with two different companies, essentially.  Thanks for making things easier.  And by making things easier, of course, I mean making things more complicated in every way possible.

There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!).

(You really have to picture Hastings saying this with a kind of smug laugh)

Members who subscribe to both services will have two entries on their credit card statements, one for Qwikster and one for Netflix. The total will be the same as the current charges.

Andy Rendich, who has been working on our DVD service for 12 years, and leading it for the last 4 years, will be the CEO of Qwikster. Andy and I made a short welcome video. (You’ll probably say we should avoid going into movie making after watching it.) We will let you know in a few weeks when the Qwikster.com website is up and ready. It is merely a renamed version of the Netflix DVD website, but with the addition of video games. You won’t have to do anything special if you subscribe to our DVD by mail service.

OH! You’re adding video games! That’s good.  Really.  Customers have been clamoring for that since Day 1! Oh… wait, you mean if I wanted to go to a DVD plan… I would pay the “reduced rate of $7.99/month, but if I wanted to add Blu-Ray, I would have to pay extra, and if I wanted to add video games I would have to pay extra over that.  Yeah… much easier.

For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that distinctive red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be the same for many of you. We’ll also return to marketing our DVD by mail service, with its amazing selection, now with the Qwikster brand.

Yes, Mr. Hastings… That’s why your customers are so upset… We can’t get over the loss of our beloved Netflix logo. That’s what it is. It’s amazing how you really have a sense of what’s important to us.

Some members will likely feel that we shouldn’t split the businesses, and that we shouldn’t rename our DVD by mail service. Our view is with this split of the businesses, we will be better at streaming, and we will be better at DVD by mail. It is possible we are moving too fast – it is hard to say. But going forward, Qwikster will continue to run the best DVD by mail service ever, throughout the United States. Netflix will offer the best streaming service for TV shows and movies, hopefully on a global basis. The additional streaming content we have coming in the next few months is substantial, and we are always working to improve our service further.

Again, I think this is legitimate. Here, Hastings is admitting that the focus is streaming. AND THAT IS FINE! But say that outright. Tell us you don’t want to have to deal with DVD-by-mail for much longer… we can handle that. Tell us that this move is the first step in a phase-out plan… we can handle that. What is making your customers upset, Hastings, is the spin you’re trying to put on all of this.

And, yes, they are moving too fast. I think that is beyond question. Whether Netflix will offer the “best streaming service for TV shows and movies” is easily debatable (if not an outright laughable claim).

I want to acknowledge and thank our many members that stuck with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly.

Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust.We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions.

Respectfully yours,

-Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix

It pains me to say, but this is really a case of “Too Little Too Late!” The problem is that Netflix forgot a very important CS lesson: “Service” means “Serve US!” (Thank you, Hank Hill) You’re thinking about the business as a way to make money for yourself. The consequence is that you forgot to think like a consumer. The SOLE reason Netflix was on top of the game (Read: WAS) was the great benefit of combining a streaming service with a DVD option. That way the consumer gets streaming movies (not a super selection in terms of new releases, but a still big selection of film & TV to choose from) AND a selection of DVD’s for the things that AREN’T available for streaming.

THIS is why my family loved Netflix.  THIS is why we switched and never looked back, and, in fact, had nothing but the highest praise for Netflix – praise that sent many of our friends running to the company.  We loved the idea of watching A DVD, then sending it back, watching movies or whatever via streaming until the next DVD came. That was the GREAT APPEAL of Netflix. That’s gone now.

Splitting the plans up like this was pointless. It has had a HUGE negative impact. (remember those near $300 stock prices? How are you feeling about the $155 low? Most CEO’s would have been fired if the value of a stock dropped by half in the span of two months.), and you follow it up with this TLTL “apology.”

This picture is a three-month analysis of Netflix stock.  The circled point is the date of the Netflix announcement of the plan/price change.  The price of the stock that day was $298.73 per share, an all time high for Netflix.  Today, barely two months past, the stock is at $155.19 per share. That’s almost half. HALF!

I still have streaming, and I’ll keep it, at least for a while. But, Netflix/Qwikster, you have to know that it would have been a million times better for you to simply eat a giant piece of humble pie, say “WE WERE WRONG! SORRY! PLEASE COME BACK!” and reinstate things to their former situation.

I said before and I’ll say again, BAD BUSINESS, Netflix. I’m glad I sold my shares when I did.

NETFLIX: A Response To The Response

I and a few other Netflix customers who took the time to post a reaction on Netflix’s blog were quoted in the International Business Times a couple of days ago.  It was in a related article that the “truth” (??? Maybe???) came out.  Apparently, Netflix wants this reaction because it is trying to get out of the DVD-by-mail business.  Since video streaming is the future and DVD-by-mail will go the way of the dodo, it stands to reason that Netflix is trying to make DVD-by-mail a less appealing choice.  But, if that is, in fact, the case, it seems to me that Netflix is still treating it’s customers badly.  Netflix has been competing with the negative PR, by saying that in comparison to their worldwide customer base, the negative responses on their blog and FB wall are insignificant, and ratio of response is indicative that most customers are happy with the idea.

This is not the way to handle your customers.  How many of us would have been so much happier (not completely, but bear with me for a moment) if Netflix had said:

Dear Customers,

We at Netflix have come to understand that Video Streaming is the wave of the future.  We have done much in the past couple of years to increase our streaming library <insert statistics here> and we have seen our customer base for video streaming grow significantly because of those efforts.  Additionally, our DVD-by-mail department and offerings has proven to be cost ineffective.  DVD’s which are returned to us damaged (if at all), have come to cost us, and ultimately our customers, more money than we make.  Therefore, as of Monday, July 18, 2011 we will be splitting these plans into two sections: 1) Video Streaming only, and 2) DVD-by-mail.  These plans will cost $7.99 each.  This new plan will affect new customers only. Our existing customers will continue on in their current plan.  However, all customers should know that as of January 1, 2013, Netflix will cease to function as a DVD-by-mail service.

This change will better serve both our shareholders and customers as it will free up our assets to increase both bandwidth and content for video streaming.  At Netflix, we cherish our customers and understand that their loyalty, your loyalty, not simply their subscriptions or dollars is what keeps us in business.  It is our sincerest hope that we can maintain that loyalty during this time of transition.

Please Note: This is NOT, sadly, an actual Netflix PR relase.

Now, if Netflix had said THAT, not only would NO ONE have cancelled their service this past week, but people would have clamored to get on board before Monday’s price hike.

You need better PR, Netflix.

Finally, let me address, the idea that the ratio of people responding negatively to the total number of customers shows that the negative response is insignificant…  We are not insignificant!  To the person reading this, YOU ARE NOT INSIGNIFICANT!!!!  Contact Netflix TODAY by calling 1-866-716-0414 and let them know how you feel about this price hike (because that’s really all it is).

ATTN NETFLIX (or “Owl Droppings” Again)

I wrote a  post on this blog back in August of 2010 wherein I vented my frustrations at HootSuite and AT&T regarding price changes for existing customers. And now, I’m hit again…

ATTN NETFLIX: In the past year, your stock has nearly tripledTRIPLED! in a time of economic downturn. The reason for this, the ONLY reason for this, is that you were smarter than EVERY other company that does anything close to what you do. You had streaming (for some new-ish titles and a lot of titles people may never have otherwise heard of – my family will forever be grateful for “gargantuan price hike. Think about this for a second… as of September 1, I will have to pay almost 65% over again to receive the EXACT SAME SERVICE that I was receiving on August 30. This is bad, BAD business (price gouging, if it was at a gas station) especially in these financial times.

My family has come to really appreciate you Netflix. Our many FB status updates and tweets validate this. During a time we could not afford cable or satellite service, but we HAD to have HS Internet (due to work and school) you supplied us with a pleasant and refreshing host of alternatives (the aforementioned “Pyarr Impossible,” “original and animated, and COUNTLESS others) while at the same time providing us with the occasional DVD to buffet out what was not available via streaming.  We knew that we could count on Netflix.  We encouraged people to join, lauding you as the single BEST option for a family’s television viewing experience.  We told people that the streaming plus one-DVD-at-a-time plan was the PERFECT solution for a family on a tight budget trying to find ways to combat the ridiculously high costs of cable and satellite plans.

But you know what my family NEVER did. We NEVER received more than five DVD’s a month. Never! Now explain to me as a shareholder in your company why you think that ANYONE would not be better served by staying with the streaming only plan and going to Redbox or Blockbuster express a few times a month (especially when I very often get emails and text messages for free rentals from these places).

In short, explain to me as a SHAREHOLDER IN YOUR COMPANY AS WELL AS A CUSTOMER why my stock is going to start dropping because you got greedy!

BAD FORM, Netflix!  Bad form, and VERY bad business!

For those who may ask, no, I don’t know what we will do with out Netflix subscription come September 1.  I sincerely hope they see the error of their ways as customers lash out and rise up in protest over this ridiculous decision.

Casey Anthony (Just This One Thing)

I was in college when the verdict came in at the OJ trial.  I remember my dorm virtually blowing up with collective ire over the assumed injustice.  Even this year I have heard people discuss the Simpson trial and get very worked up over that jury’s decision.  Today, I watched my FB and Twitter feeds mirror the explosion of indignation when the verdict of “Not Guilty” on three of the four counts against Casey Anthony was pronounced.  I have read statements rooted in hurt and dismay (“I hope the jurors sleep well tonight and don’t burst into flames!”), or were attempts to cling to peace in the storm (“I know that God is the righteous judge, and that Caylee is receiving perfect justice now.”), or that were on the very edge of legality (“On my way to Orlando with a shotgun and a shovel!  Who’s with me?”).  However, it is only in the last few minutes that I’ve read anything approaching what I am about to say.

Part of me is glad that Casey Anthony was found not guilty.  After following this story, reading summations and excerpts, the fact of the matter is this: the prosecution absolutely failed to do its job.  In this country 100% of the burden of proof is on the prosecution.  The person charged doesn’t have to prove that they are innocent; the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person charged is guilty.  That’s the entire premise behind “innocent until proven guilty.”  And, in this case, the prosecution did not prove Casey Anthony’s guilt.  They couldn’t even, ultimately, prove that little Caylee’s death was murder.

Casey Anthony’s actions while her daughter was missing (dead) were what convinced almost everyone that she was guilty (And just hang with me on that one for a second), but those actions make her a horrible… HORRIBLE mother, not a murderer.  It’s like the defense attorney said, to convict a juror has to “have an abiding conviction of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Let me be clear about one thing: I’m fairly certain that she is, in fact, guilty.  But the case against her is almost entirely circumstantial.

Long story short, the prosecution could not determine beyond a reasonable doubt the cause or manner of death.  Without the absence of reasonable doubt, a conviction can’t (and shouldn’t) happen.

However, there is another issue for me here.  Consider this: According to a study conducted in 2008* (coincidentally, the same year that little Caylee Anthony was killed, or died), showed that there were 20,000 murders committed, with only 15,000 arrests made.  Of those, only 14,000 actually went to court, and, of those, only 10,000 murder convictions were handed down.  What that means is that 4,000 court cases resulted in acquittal.

Where is the ire and indignation over those 4,000 cases?  Why is Caylee’s life (and the perceived injustice on her behalf) more important to us than these other 4,000?  Is it because Caylee was so cute (God, she really was) or because she was so young and had so much life ahead of her?  For my brothers and sisters in Christ, let me ask this, was Caylee’s soul more important than that of the other 4,000 victims who have received no justice  Or, even harder to say (or swallow), is her soul more important than her mother’s?

The facts of the aftermath (whether Casey Anthony is, in fact, innocent or guilty) are these:

  1. Casey Anthony’s life will never be the same.
  2. Casey Anthony will almost certainly never have anything approaching a normal life (“Hi, I’d like to apply for a job as a sales clerk in this fine Target store.”  ”Ok, and what’s your name?”  ”Ummmm… Casey Anthony.”  ”Yeah, get out!”)
  3. Casey Anthony’s family will almost certainly be destroyed over this.
  4. Casey Anthony will almost certainly never live another peaceful day for the rest of her life, whether from guilt or from fear that the aforementioned “seekers of justice” will come for her.
  5. Casey Anthony, according to the rule of law, is not guilty of this crime, but she will be forever treated like she is.

It may be very true that justice wasn’t served today, but just imagine for a moment that it was you in Casey Anthony’s chair and you had not, in fact, killed your daughter.  Aren’t you glad that we live in a country where your guilt must be proven and not your innocence?

Finally, I would like to share the advice of a good friend of mine.  If you are convinced that Casey Anthony is, in fact, guilty of this crime (as, again I can’t say this enough, I AM ALSO) then the only justice Caylee may know this side of Heaven can be found in your voice.  Take time out of your schedule to write, Lifetime (here), WE, (here), E! (here), HLN (here), Nancy Grace (here), Prosecutor Jeff Ashton and the other prosecutor’s (here), Defense Counsel Cheney Mason and the other defense attorneys (here) and anyone else that I can’t think of (or that you hear about) to let them know that you won’t take part of the purchase of ANY book, the viewing of any movie, made-for-TV or otherwise, and, if you want to be really hardcore, cancel subscription to channels that provide these.  In short “Don’t buy their books, don’t see their movie[s], don’t watch them on interview shows. Capitalism isn’t the last line of defense, but in this instance it might be the only one.”
A couple of postscripts:

I have turned off comment moderation, so say what you want, but I will neither read nor respond.  I meant what I said in the title; I’m just saying this one thing.

I really can’t say enough, I do think that Casey Anthony is, of not guilty, at the very least culpable in Caylee’s death.

Casey’s father creeps me out.  Google that for yourself.

Regarding my questions to fellow Christians: As far as we can tell, no victory was had today.  But no victory would have happened if she had been found guilty either.  Satan rejoices at the death of the lost and the righteous equally.  We should do neither.

I pray there is a special place in hell for the unrepentant killers of children.  At the same time, I pray that those guilty will truly repent, and I am grateful that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

*Numbers are rounded up based on averages from a seven year study.

Time To Pay The Rent

 

Recently, Diane Smith-Sadak, a theatre professor at Towson University stood helm at the school’s production of “RENT”. This should have been a simple matter, but it is slowly building steam as a watershed moment in educational theatre.
The short version? Sadak deleted five lines at the end of Act II and changed one line of lyric. Not a big deal right? Well, if you are at all familiar with the show, you can guess what she changed. The problem came when she got caught, and MTI (RENT’s licensing agency) threatened lawsuit.
If you want to read her ( Sorry, I just gagged a little) “defense” then go here and read her letter (along with a surprising spam of comments). Here is my response to her:

There are a couple of issues here, but before I get to them I want to confess, at the outset and in the interest of full disclosure, I am a writer of musical theatre. This biases me. I understand that. Now, let’s move on.

The argument that “Tickets were selling” (etc.) is ridiculous because the “new ending” (more on that in a moment) wasn’t selling the tickets. The name of the show was selling tickets; the RENT “brand” if you will was causing those tickets to fly out of the box office.  It’s remarkable arrogance to credit ticket sales of an existing brand – especially one so young – to an altered ending no one knew about.

More importantly, the “tortured/persecuted artist” defense is laughable.  The moment you go futzing with the text – nevermind MAJOR plot issues – you’re putting yourself in the role of writer, not director.  Short version: YOU’RE NOT THE WRITER! The director’s job is to interpret what the writer has written.  You failed when you tried to rewrite the ending.

As for the “new ending” itself, had you done your homework on the show you would have learned that Larson wrestled with this very decision.  There even exists a draft of the show wherein Mimi dies.  It almost made it to the final version.  Why isn’t it there?  Because a decision was made BY THE WRITER that to leave the audience with a sense of hope IN THE FACE AND IN SPITE OF this terrible disease was more important than “reality”.  Incidentally, this attitude was brought on by meetings he attended (think “Life Support”) where he was confronted by a man who explained that he was “living with, not dying from AIDS.”  Your cavalier dismissal of this decision cheapens his memory and his work on this show, no matter how much you might claim the contrary.

Finally, you claim to aspire to inspire your students.  Well, how about this: inspire them to create their OWN work and not rip off someone else’s.  Consider:

“Lexie? Mark. Call me a hypocrite, I need to retool the ending of LOST so that it makes sense and answers questions.” No… That’s not how that line goes… I remember…
“Lexie? Mark. Call me a hypocrite, I need to remake ‘The Godfather’ so that Michael can make it out of the family and go on to live a successful life as an honest politician and statesman who does noble things for the good of all.” No… That’s not it either… What did he say? Oh, yeah…
“Lexie? Mark. Call me a hypocrite, I need to finish MY OWN FILM!”

It’s a travesty what you have done in the name of “creating magical moments of Art.”   Also, you could try to convey that when you break the law, especially one you KNOW exists (and you really need to stop with that B.S. ” I never saw the contract” stuff, because 1) it’s insulting and 2) “Do Not Alter” is ALL OVER those scripts) you should expect to be called on it.  In all honesty I think you should be fired; not for changing the ending of “RENT” (which, just by the way, I think is a good change.  But that doesn’t mean I think it should be done.  The music is all wrong after that.) but for being a horrible example to the students in your charge.

So, here’s my question to you nice folks taking time out to read the Blahg: Was I too harsh?  Was I not harsh enough?  Where would/do you stand on this issue?

Owl Droppings

A while back – we’re talking months at the very least – a friend of mine (Podcast Answerman extraordinaire – Cliff Ravenscraft) introduced me to a wonderful social media tool: HootSuite.  It changed my life, really.  I had been on Twitter for a while and had just started to understand how to use Twitter as a social media connection & relationship building tool.  Because I am engaged in various ventures, that meant more than one Twitter account.  ”HootSuite,” says my friend, “is the BEST way to handle all of these accounts.  PLUS, you can do it on your computer or your iPhone.”  I tried it out and I was INSTANTLY hooked.

I’ve been using it now, as I said, several months and couldn’t be happier.  I have columns for all of the various bits of  information that I might want.  I have my different accounts all easily accessible in a tab at the top.  It’s been really the best tool!  To top it all of, it was FREE!!!

Until now…

HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes announced today that HootSuite was instituting something called “Freemium” plans. (Catchy name, if I do say so myself.)  The basic idea is this:  HootSuite has instituted several tiers of plans, four paid and one free.  They break down like this:

  • Platinum – $99.99/month.  Unlimited social networks, unlimited RSS feeds with up to 8 team members.  This tier is ad-free, with priority support, enhanced stats and the option (for an additional $45/month) for brand URL’s.
  • Gold – $49.99/month.  Same as the Platinum tier, but with no Brand URL option and an allowance for only 4 team members.
  • Silver – $19.99/month.  Same as the Platinum & Gold tiers, but no enhanced stats or Brand URL’s, and an allowance for only 1 additional team member.
  • Bronze – (Here’s where things get significantly different)  $4.99/month.  HootSuite still allows for unlimited social networks on this tier, but only 10 RSS feeds.  Additionally, on this tier, no team members are allowed, there is no priority support, no enhanced stats and no Brand URL’s.
  • Free – This tier allows up to five (5) social media networks, and 1 RSS feed.  That’s it.

Here’s the thing: Currently I moderate six (6) different networks.  Only one of those is my “personal” Twitter account.  Every other network is teamed by at least 1 other person.  It’s remarkably frustrating to me that:

Starting today, Wednesday, Aug. 11th, all new customers will be required to select a plan when signing-up. Then, the following week, all current HootSuite users will be asked to choose a package. We’ve created a migration wizard to assist you in choosing the best plan for your needs. – Ryan Holmes email announcement

So, even though I and untold thousands of others have been using HootSuite for months a certain way, now things are going to change.  We can’t even get grandfathered in; and that’s probably what really bugs me.

Back in 2005, I signed on for cellular service with AT&T. (Notice how I don’t hyperlink to them)  I was very happy with them until just a few months ago.  With the advent of the new iPhone 4, AT&T decided they were going to change the rules just a bit too.  Gone were the days of the”mandatory” unlimited data plan.  They were going to institute two new data plans, one of which was HALF THE PRICE of the unlimited data plan!  Upon checking, I realized that I rarely use even half of that data allowance in a given month.  I also found out that AT&T was going to (FINALLY) offer tethering (like every other nation on the planet that sells iPhones).  Here’s the catch: the “Tethering Option” is only available on the $25 data plan (sounds ok so far; after all it’s still less than what I was paying), but it costs and additional $20 dollars.  So what AT&T wants me to do, in order to be able what I should be able to do with my phone in the first place, is pay$15 more than I am paying now while at the same time switching me to a plan that will easily put me over the alloted data allowance that plan offers.

“James, you make no sense!!!”

Let me connect the dots.

I feel like I have been the victim of the old “Bait-and-Switch.”  I loved AT&T and never had a bad thing to say about them until June when they decided – in my opinion, it was because they have the market on iPhones (thank GOD for the recent DMCA ruling) – to totally change the rules in the middle of the game.  And I feel like the guys at HootSuite are doing the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a question of wanting to get something for free (even though that’s the way the tool was introduced).  HootSuite is introducing ads.  I can live with that (I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m guessing I can).  And I absolutely believe that they should be financially compensated for offering something different to new users.  I’ll go even further and say that I absolutely endorse and recommend HootSuite to people and companies who are managing multiple social media strategies.  Moreover, if your work garners you $150.00 extra a month to pay for the Platinum tier and you think it will effectively accomplish your goals, GET IT!!!

But, Ryan, seriously, my networks aren’t garnering even the $5 extra (read: EXTRA) a month that allows me to justify paying this.  In our current economy and in my family’s current financial situation we have to make every dollar count. (And, honestly, even if I made thousands upon thousands of dollars a week, I believe the responsibility is that same; I just don’t want to be misunderstood).  I probably wouldn’t be as upset about this (I’d still be upset, just not AS upset) if I hadn’t had to deal with AT&T earlier this summer.

You know, when I was a kid it was not uncommon to have a game that lasted all summer and we changed the rules every time somebody turned around and we had a blast doing it.

We’re not kids anymore.

Disclaimer: It was not my intention to misrepresent HootSuite, AT&T, Twitter or the forces of good & evil in the universe.  Please double check my claims with regards to cost with AT&T and/or HootsSuite.  Also, Ryan Holmes, you have created a great and wonderful product.

Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris

My father introduced me to John Donne.  I don’t know that John Donne was his favorite poet, but he always quoted him to me.  Any time I told him stories about bullies in school, or if I felt like a teacher was not fair with one of my classmates, or if I heard of people being abused (it was the late 70′s/early 80′s and child abuse was coming to the forefront of people’s minds) and said something ridiculous like “it’s not my business” or “I don’t want to get involved” I was sure to get a dose of the Bard of Bread Street.

The work my father loved the most was “Meditation XVI” or as it is commonly known, “For Whom The Bell Tolls.”  It is the third paragraph that has always fascinated me.  The scope of it is enormous.  This paragraph actually contains the colloquial title as well as the cliched “No man is an island.”

As I always say, in the interest of full disclosure, I was motivated to write this post for two reasons: 1) I have used this in lectures and sermons more times than I can count, but have never written it down, and 2) A tweep of mine, Matthew Turner, corrected someone’s quote earlier tonight and it really got me thinking about this.  So, let’s consider paragraph three of Meditation XVI.  Read below:

No man is an island.  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The actual quote correction was due to someone misquoting Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. who said in his famouse Letter From A Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  In light of this statement by Dr. King, let’s consider the enormous scope and tremendous weight of responsibility with which we are confronted by Donne’s statements.

“No man is an island” – I often think of the character Lenny Kosnowski from the TV show “Laverne & Shirley” when I hear this famous quote.  For those who don’t remember this televised gem, Lenny was never seen without two things: 1) His red & black racing jacket which was stitched on the back with his moniker “Lone Wolf” and, 2) his best friend Andrew “Squiggy” Squigman.  It’s a nothing kind of joke, but, nevertheless, I always remember Lenny, because it was this character that demonstrated Donne’s point.  One can consider himself a loner, but it is impossible to exist without community… even if your community is an aging greaser.

“Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” – Here again we see that the underlying thought which Donne is attempting to declare as truth is that there is a connection between every person no matter our differences.  I’ve never been to Washington State.  I’ve always wanted to go.  I’ve never been to Nebraska.  I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to go.  Regardless, both are part of The United States of America, and without them America would be diminished.  That leads me to…

“If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were” – This is huge, especially in our “I don’t care if you get yours, but I’m gonna get mine” culture.  Donne says here that if your friend’s house is somehow harmed (think fire, accident, Act of God, termite infestation, etc.) it is no different than if the same thing had happened to us.  This leads me to what is, for me, the most important and life-changing statement in this paragraph.

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” – Donne is, in this meditation, considering death as signified by the tolling of the bell (note: the title of this post translates “Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, you too must die.”); Ergo, his reference to another’s death.  However, this has come to mean something so much more to me.  It is not simply true that another man’s death diminishes me; but an injustice to another person is an injustice to me; physical harm to another is harm done to me; immorality against another is… you get the idea.  But by extension, whatever responsibility is given to the one harmed is placed on my shoulders as well.

Practically speaking, though I may never have known the horror of bing physically abused by my parents, I am responsible to speak for those who have.  Though I may never have felt the sting of police brutality because of the color of my skin, I am responsible to speak for those who have.  Though I may have never known the despair of homelessness, I am responsible to do what I can for those I encounter.

To close, I paraphrase, Any person’s troubles or pain harms me, for I am a part of the whole of mankind.  I add the implication, “As a child of God I am responsible to do whatever I can to help those in need.”

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Prince’s Lifetime Achievement Award Tribute

I make no secret of the near life-long admiration I have held for Prince; composer, arranger, producer, multi-instrumentalist, musician par excellence.  These facts are above dispute.  He is, in fact, all of these things and more.  On June 27, 2010 Prince was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BET Awards held in the historic Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.  Some will say that a Lifetime Achievement Award presented by a cable television station might be considered a dubious honor, but one must remember that Prince is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The Lifetime Achievement awards are sure to be rolling in from various camps over the next several years.

I won’t take time here to explain the ins and outs of my history with Prince; the ineffable “why” that might explain to you the fascination I have or the respect and awe that led me to consider myself not a fan but a student of this musical master.  Instead, I have been asked by a couple of people to give a review of the tribute itself.  I had not planned on this… but it sure sounds like fun.  Here we go.

The tribute began with a pre-recorded segment by Stevie Wonder who was, naturally, hilarious.  He gave a brief yet through synopsis of Prince’s talent and contributions to the world of popular music.  This was followed by a peck of performances of songs from the Prince catalog.  This, in my opinion as a musician, must be surely terrifying.  First, the performer has to choose a song.  This is no mean feat where the Princely vault is concerned.  Since 1979, at least one “authorized” studio album has been released every year; some of these have been double- and even triple-album sets.  Of the songs released as singles, many were coupled with a b-side song that was either just as good or at the very least has garnered a love from fans that is unparalleled in this history of popular music (more on this in a moment).  The performer then must find a song in this vast repository that suits their particular style.  That said, two performers in this tribute achieved great success in this attempt, one pulled it off by falling back on her vocal standbys, and one failed miserably.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t know about this even until it was already underway, but thanks to the wonder of Social Media that is Twitter (you can follow me by clicking here), a friend let me know what was going on.  The bad part of this was that I changed the channel to BET just as Trey Songz was starting Purple Rain.  Just one word of advice, Trey: PUT THE SONG DOWN AND WALK… NO… RUN AWAY FAST!!!!  This performance was God-Awful.  Then to follow it with a “pray for our troops” video slogan (I’m all for praying for the men & women currently in service, and I am even more so in favor of helping out their families as much as possible.  Please don’t miss my point.) just demonstrates that you are a “big-koalabeanhead” (Thanks Sheila E.) who simply does not get it.  I lashed out a little bit at this treason and the traitors in the audience who had the audacity to “raise [their] hands” in support of this willful act of musical malice, but then I was told that this wasn’t the actual tribute.  So I turned back.

The tribute began with Janelle Monae.  This lady is impressing me more and more over the past few years.  Her talent notwithstanding, this woman’s vision is inspirational.  But, what can you expect from a woman who originally wanted to rule Broadway.  She wowed me with her rendition of the quintessential opus from Prince’s “rockabilly” gems, Let’s Go Crazy.  True Prince fans would have recognized musical quotes from Prince’s B-side Girl (remember how I said earlier that Prince’s B-Sides were almost as important as his released singles?  See?) in the songs introduction.  When I heard her start the sermon at the beginning I had some reservations.  I was put at ease when I heard some of the musical changes before the beginning of the first verse (Prince has always said that it has to be better live than on the album).  As the song progressed it was almost impossible not to get caught up in her excitement and energy.  This was one totally knocked out of the park.

Janelle was followed by Esperanza Spalding.  Miss Spalding is a fine singer and bassist; easily a contender for Best new Artist this year.  I wouldn’t dream of taking that away from her or trying to intimate that she is anything other than a fine musician.  However, If I Was Your Girlfriend is a song that should never EVER be performed by a woman, and Miss Spalding’s choice of this song demonstrates a remarkable lack of understanding of the power of this lyric.  Consider one line in particular: “If I was your one and only friend, would you run to me if somebody hurt you, even if that somebody was me?”  This song is one of contrition and realization on the part of a man who didn’t treat the woman he loves right.  When a woman sings it, it loses ALL of its innate power.  I don’t want to be considered sexist here.  I think it is the rare occasion that a song is written that can’t be deftly rendered gender-neutral with a couple of well placed word changes, but this song is most definitely one that falls into that category.  Still, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I don’t appreciate or have anything but admiration for Ms. Spalding.  Like I said, Best New Artist is highly probable in this young woman’s future.

Following If I Was Your Girlfriend was a performance of what is perhaps that most well-known of Prince’s love songs: Adore.  I must, for reasons, to be explained a paragraph away, skip over this song and proceed directly to the final song in the tribute: Patti Labelle’s rendition of what is certainly Prince’s most widely-recognized song, Purple Rain.  What can be said about this performance, really?  It’s Patti LaBelle!  I don’t think her interpretation of the song was that great, and she did fall back on some trite vocal standbys.  Still, it was incredible!  However, I don’t think the tribute should have ended with this performance.  That leads me to Alicia Keys.

Miss Keys walked onto the stage to opening strains of Adore, and proceeded from the very first mellismatic ad-libs to own this song.  She took Prince’s aforementioned philosophy, and made the song her own.  This is no simple task.  Prince is all over the octave range in this song, and Alicia vocally missed her mark on more than one occasion.  It’s difficult for a vocalist to truly grab onto this song.  But Alicia hit the second bridge and CLIMBED ON THE PIANO!!!!!  Alicia was giving me a condition most “crucial”.  And it was this act of truly pouring herself into the song’s performance and baring herself emotionally that demonstrated not only an understanding of the material, but a love and respect for the one who created it.  In all honesty, I have to say that I have NEVER seen a performer demonstrate a level of understanding of Prince’s material as well as Alicia did in this performance.  I was reminded of the scene in the music biopic of Jerry Lee Lewis “Great Balls of Fire” when Jerry Lee (exquisitely played by Dennis Quaid) furious at being placed lower on the bill than Chuck Berry went out and played a furious two-song set and then at the close of Great Balls of Fire actually set his piano on fire.  At the close of Adore as the announcer began to announce another performer, I actually said out loud in my house (I don’t often talk to my television) “Who would want to follow THAT?!?!?”

All of this leads me to something that struck me during Patti LaBelle’s performance.  The camera cut to Prince a few times and I felt something from him that overwhelmed me.  Here is Patti LaBelle – the R&B legend that Prince (and I, for that matter) listened to on the radio when we were kids, and she was honoring him by singing HIS song.  While her performance was not my favorite, I think it was fitting that she closed the tribute.  Patti LaBelle doing THAT song demonstrates in the best possible way the wide reach and lasting impact of the music penned by the man that is the “Minneapolis Genius.”

(If you would like to see the tribute performance – sadly, minus Stevie Wonder’s pre-recorded tribute – click here.  You won’t be disappointed.)

The ‘Stache

He would have been 121 years old today.

He was an actor, comedian, writer, director, composer… truly, a Renaissance Man.

In support of increased artist control of their own work, he co-founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith.

Though there were many like him, Chaplin is the most recognizable face of that Silent-Film era.  I will never understand 7 of the 9 people who outrank him on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars list.

It does my children good to watch Chaplin’s films.  They are, almost without exception, thought-provoking, enlightening and always hilarious.  In a time when young people are alleged to have attention spans of, at the most, 13 minutes, watching a silent Chaplin film is more than entertainment – it is a benefit.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that Lambeth’s hometown hero is a superb role model.  Even a cursory examination of the man’s life would show this not to be the case.  But he followed his passion and he did so at his own risk and, often, in the face of authorities who were grossly abusing their own power (McCarthy, Hoover… anyone? anyone?)

And so, today I say, Happy Birthday, Mr. Chaplin.  You inspire me.  And, even though Hitler stole your mustache idea, we all know that he used his for evil… but yours was used for the good of us all.

Matthew 18 (aka, The Rules of Fight Club)

Once upon a time, I hated confrontation.  There were various reasons for this.  Mostly, I hate arguing or fighting about anything.  I believe that most anything can be settled by reasoned dialogue.  The other reason is that I find confrontation degenerating into a kind of conflict that becomes physical, and I tend to get dirty fast.  I don’t like that.  So, I have for a long time avoided confrontation as much as possible.

A couple of years ago, I found myself in the midst of a situation where my disdain for confrontation cost me dearly, both professionally and personally.  I like to think that I came out of this stronger and wiser and more able to handle confrontation (and the situations that easily lead to confrontations) or… in more earthy terms, NTSFA (look it up). :-)

Very recently, I heard (hearsay is lame, by the way) that there was someone speaking not simply ill of me, but saying things that were very nearly slanderous.  It threw me.  I really wanted to go dirty.  I really did, because I know that this isn’t the first time with this person.  Then, I remembered that there is a guide for confrontation.  Matthew 18 verses 15 – 17 read like this:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

So, it breaks down like this…  If a fellow believer says or does something against you (or, by extension, has fallen into some kind of sin of which you are aware and have a reason to engage them), then you are to go and speak with them privately.  Hopefully the two of you can work it out.  If you can’t, you go and take one or two fellow believers (in James’ view of this directive, these believers should rightfully be one to whom the person who has offended is accountable, and one person to whom the one who has been offended is accountable) to confront the person again.  This is where it gets tricky… If the person who has offended you still won’t listen, you are to go before the church and expose the sin.

Here’s where it gets trickier still.  If theys till won’t listen you are to treat them as:

  • pagan or a tax collector. (NIV)
  • Gentile and a tax collector (KJV, NASB, et. al)

Now that sounds AWESOME!  Until you remember how we are meant to treat the Gentiles and tax-collectors.  These people were considered the worst of sinners, and here’s what every Bible says about Jesus:

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’

So, essentially… I have no out.  I can’t get ticked off and go slam somebody.  I have to be in order.  I have to do things the right way.  That’s the only way.

Fight Club would be easier.

Am I Done?

A few days ago, I posted a status update on Facebook that went something like this:

I think I may have written every melody I have in me, because everything I’ve been writing is a variation on either my stuff or someone else’s.

In what is a very interesting story, my father bought an Ensoniq EPS sequencing keyboard for Christmas when I was a Senior in High School.  A few months later, at graduation, he bought a behemoth of a computer (my hand to God, the thing had a 5¼ inch Floppy Disk Drive) that had a music notation (not Finale) program on it.  This led to about a year of me writing and arranging music nearly 12-14 hours a day.  I barely slept.  A world I had never dreamed of was opened to me in those months.

In the years between 1990 and 1995 I wrote a lot to try just to find my voice.  It was during this time that my passion for musical theatre was supercharged.  I started no less than 6 musicals during those 5 years.  (Finished, no, but I did start them.) Ultimately, this led to a lot of writing for various theatre ventures while I was at Lee, and in 1999 I was accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program.  Best two years of my academic life!!!!  I was forced to write new material on a weekly basis.  Some of it was crap.  Some of it was good.  Some of it was freaking genius!  (When I say that, let me give it scope: I listen to it and I can’t believe that I wrote it.)

When I was in 9th grade, I left band for a semester to play football.  Long story short (LSS, for future reference), I didn’t condition properly and one day during a scrimmage game with another school, my knee was blown out.  It wasn’t terrible, but it was enough to sideline me long enough to get me back in band.  While I was on the football team I was in really good shape.  There was one excercise, though, that I hated: six inches.  You lay on your back and you raise your legs up off the ground approximately six inches, spread them apart, bring them back together and down, all at the coaches command. “Up! Out! Together! Down!”  I hated this exercise mostly because the coach was prone to take a walk on our stomachs while our legs where up.  That hurt.  A lot!  Nevertheless, I eventually got to where I could do six inches and not be in too much pain because of it.

I tried doing six inches the other day.  I really could not get it done.  I figured I would not be in any way close to where I was… but I was dying.  Hurting all the way into my back.  I had no idea.

I’ve been trying to write some songs for a play called “Hank & Gretchen.”  It’s a reimagining of Hansel & Gretel and it’s an adorable kids show.  I’ve been writing some songs with a friend of mine and he has really turned out some nice lyrics.  They keep with the playwright’s original intent and even use her verbal style (rare, I think when the lyricist is not also the bookwriter, or when the lyricist is not pillaging the book).  So, in writing music for his lyrics I have either pilfered or outright stolen the following songs in either melody or harmonic composition:

  • Can You Feel The Love Tonight (the verse)
  • So Many Things To Say Goodbye To (This one is mine, but still…)
  • Seasons of Love
  • Great Is The Lord
  • We’ve Only Just Begun (I know… sue me)
  • Finishing The Hat

And that’s just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

So, is it that I’ve have indeed exhausted my internal supply of melody or are my melody writing skills in the same place as my “six inch abdominal exercise” skills?  Am I just out of shape?

Sondheim – A Quick Reflection

Eighty years ago yesterday (March 22) Stephen Sondheim was born. The son of Etta Janet and Herbert Sondheim.  He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the only child of well-to-do parents.  After his parents divorced, he and his mother moved to a farm in Pennsylvania.  This move is important because it was there in Pennsylvania that he would meet his mentor Oscar Hammerstein.  (No this is not a full bio)

I have always loved Sondheim.  I remember distinctly that the first time I heard a song by him was on the TV show “Good Times” when a guest star sang “Send In The Clowns” from A Little Night Music.  After that, of course, came the inevitable West Side Story, and an introduction to other Sondheim gems such as Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.  These along with the exposure to the more traditional kid-friendly musicals like The Wizard of Oz (and The Wiz), Oklahoma (The London Stage Revival is wonderful) and Godspell ignited the love that I have for musical theatre.  I fell in love fast with the music of Andrew Lloyd Weber, but there’s always been Sondheim.

The following is reprinted from Broadway Babies Say Goodnight. It was reprinted in the magazine of the Stephen Sondheim Appreciation Society, to generally hostile reaction from readers:

Stephen Sondheim was a nobody until Anyone Can Whistle.  All he’d done previously was write three solid hits, one after another: West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But Anyone Can Whistle (1964) was his first cult flop — nine performances and out — and inaugurated the Sondheim we know today — a genius too special for the expense-account set, the bridge-&-tunnellers and all the other schmucks who’d prefer to be vegged out at Hello, Dolly! ‘Is Stephen Sondheim God?’ asked a headline in New York magazine in 1994.  But, if he is, he’s not one of those big-time mass-market gods for Congregationalists and Baptists, but the deity of a remote tribe largely sealed off from the outside world — like those cargo culters in the South Pacific who worship the Duke of Edinburgh.

Yes, Sondheim tends to flop.  Pacific Overtures, Assassins, Merrily We Roll Along, Company all did poorly in their individual runs, but have still become very important and widely respected parts of the Broadway Repertoire.  Sondheim is too… something.  Cerebral?  No, that just insults the listeners.  Clever?  Heady?  Good???

Sondheim is, as most artists are his own worst critic.  I cite the lyric for “Maria” from West Side Story.  In a cursory web search you hear people say things like “deftly written,” “gentle lyric expressing the wonder of love” etc.  Sondheim doesn’t like it.  He has been quoted as saying that “Maria” shows his immaturity as a writer.  Specifically the following lyric:

Maria, say it loud and there’s music playing

Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.

Sondheim says that her name shouldn’t be almost like praying, when throughout the rest of the song Tony says what Maria is, not what she almost is.  Well, Mr. Sondheim, that may be your least favorite lyric, but I adore it. A good Catholic boy like Tony wouldn’t blaspheme the Holy Virgin Mother, but he would certainly connect the whisper of his beloved’s name to the same sense of awe he …might find in the midst of his recitation of the Rosary. Excellent work, sir!

But artists can be persnickety perfectionists even on our best days.  Why is that?  In the musical Sunday In The Park With George, Sondheim, along with his collaborator James Lapine, decided to create a musical based on… wait for it… a painting.  That’s right… Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte by French painter George Suerat.  In this show, Sondheim and Lapine tell the fictionalized story of Suerat and the process through which he created the iconic painting.  But the show is, on some levels, about the creative process as evidenced by the opening monologue:

“White… a blank page or canvas.  The challenge?  Bring order to the whole through design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony.”

Literally, the artist creates something out of nothing.  At the deepest level, the show is about not the creative process, but the creative compulsion.

Below is my favorite lyric from this show (To set the scene, George and his lover Dot have had yet another fight because she feels he ignores her due to this creative compulsion.  George sits in the park and flips through his sketchbook, reviewing sketches of various characters we have met):

Mademoiselles… You end me, pal…
Second bottle… Ah, she looks for me…
Bonnet flapping… Yapping…
Ruff!… Chicken… Pastry…

Yes, she looks for me – good.
Let her look for me to tell me why she left me-
As I always knew she would.
I had thought she understood.
They have never understood,
And no reason that they should.
But if anybody could…
Finishing the hat, how you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world From a window
While you finish the hat.

Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window go…
Until they distance and die,
Until there’s nothing but sky

And how you’re always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick or the dog or the light,
How the kind of woman willing to wait’s
Not the kind that you want to find waiting
To return you to the night,
Dizzy from the height,
Coming from the hat,
Studying the hat,
Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that.

Studying a face, stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way like a window,
But to see – It’s the only way to see.

And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, “Well, I give what I give.”
But the women who won’t wait for you knows
That, however you live, there’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky, Finishing a hat…
Starting on a hat..
Finishing a hat…
Look, I made a hat…
Where there never was a hat!

[emphasis mine]

It’s that compulsion that drives the artist; the need to see the vision fulfilled.  Sondheim embraces his flops and has said that even in the worst situation that the show was “exactly what it was meant to be.”  That’s why Stephen Sondheim can flop. Happy Birthday, O Great One!

Health Care for My Student Loans

So, the health care bill just passed.  What does that even mean?  I’ve heard my liberal friends say that it means everyone will get proper health care… I’ve heard my conservative friends say that it’s another (if not the final) nail in the coffin that will lead us to socialism/communism.

I don’t know… I’m conflicted over this whole thing.  Off the top of my head, though, here are some of my immediate issues:

  • Am I seriously meant to believe that the members of congress (all of them who voted – I remain stupefied that as I watch the voting there are still numbers in the NV column.  How can you have a job where it’s OK to NOT do your job???) who voted for this bill have actually read and understand it?
  • With the focus on abortion (a serious matter, to be sure) there seems to be no coverage on the issue of cost except to say that it is going to cost a TON of money.  Whence comes the money?
  • Why does it tax “Cadillac” health care plans?  So, is it that, if I don’t take governmental health care, then I get taxed over and above all of my other taxes???
  • Do people who are high-fiving each other and gloating at their conservative “enemies” realize that the points in this bill won’t even go into effect until 2014???
  • On the one hand I appreciate the fact that maybe, just maybe, there are members of congress who are earnestly voting their own conscience. However, that fact leads to my primary issue.

I’ve been looking into the polls.  I’ve not found one poll (not one) that shows a majority of those polled who want this bill.  The lowest number was 52%, the highest almost 75% against.  AGAINST!!!  And yet this bill still passed.  That’s the problem I have.  I will let where I stand on this bill remain a secret… for now.  However, I read an interesting article the other day that casts a most interesting light on this issue.  I quote Bud Simmons:

The spectacle of a far leftist president literally forcing socialized medicine down the throat of an unwilling center-right America is reminiscent, perhaps more than any other contemporary metaphor, of date rape.

A man determined to have his way with a woman may start off seducing her with lies, flattery and the usual pretense of caring about her. But at a critical moment, when she says, “Stop, I’m not comfortable with this and don’t want to go any further,” he has a choice: Either do the right thing and back off, or abandon all prior pretensions and take her by force.

As president, Barack Obama courted us with sweet talk, but America grew increasingly uncomfortable with his advances and firmly said, “Stop” – in fact, screamed bloody murder for months. Yet Obama remains obsessed with forcing himself on America.

Wow! “Date rape” An interesting connection… possibly riddled with negative repercussions for Bud, but it forces me to wonder… is he wrong?

With an average of 6 out of 10 Americans strongly opposed to this bill, why would they continue to, again in the words of Mr. Simmons, “[force] socialized medicine down the throat of an unwilling center-right America”???

The other issue here is the one of student loans. Now, I went to NYU for my grad degree. Best mistake/Worst good thing I ever did. I wouldn’t trade my education or experiences there for anything, but I came out of NYU (Just NYU) with almost $100,000 in student loan debt. Now, Washington is taking over that as well… That’s a lot for one bill to handle.

To my liberal friends, I say… chill out a little bit and stop saying hateful things like you wish this or that Republican Rep. or Senator would die.  That’s lame and pathetic, and shame on you!

To my conservative friends I say… chill out a little bit.  This country was born out of debate.  We were still debating the exact nature of our country almost 100 years after we Declared that we were a nation.  This health care bill may be one of the worst things to ever happen to America.  But it may not.  Either way, get out and vote.  I looked at other polls too… A lot of conservatives stay home on election day(s) while they count on their conservative neighbors (because whether anyone likes it or not, there are more conservatives in this country than there are liberals… that’s just how it is.) to carry their weight.

One final point… There are a lot of points in this bill that are HUGE selling points:

  • Insurance companies can not reject you for pre-existing conditions
    • That’s a big deal because sometimes you stay on a particular plan for 10 or 20 years, become diagnosed with cancer or something and the insurance company can deny you coverage.  Think you’re gonna get those premiums back?
  • Children stay covered until 26.  This ensures coverage through (normal) college years and even into grad school, which allows a child to have decent coverage until they can actually getting on their feet.

It also has some Mack Truck size holes:

Both the reconciliation bill and the Senate bill call for creating state-based American Health Benefit Exchanges and Small Business Health Options Program Exchanges that will be administered by a governmental agency or non-profit organization. Individuals and small businesses up to 100 people will be able to purchase insurance through these exchanges.

  • One aspect of this bill calls for the creation of “state-based American Health Benefit Exchanges and Small Business Health Options Program Exchanges.”  Individuals and small businesses can purchase insurance through these exchanges.  So, you work at a tiny business that only has 10 people, so the pay is adequate but the possibility of insurance benefits from your employer is laughable, right?  Well, here’s your answer!  The problem is this exchange will be administered by “a governmental agency or non-profit organization.”  So, not only do they lawmakers not have all the answers on these questions, they passed the bill without having the answers.
  • In 2014, everyone must purchase health insurance or face a $695 annual fine.  So, if I happen to go a year unemployed (a not unprecedented achievment) and I don’t purchase one of the governmental sponsored plans, then I get penalized?  What happened to choice?

So, essentially, we have seen tonight the federal takeover of health insurance and student loans.  Forget, corporate bailouts… if we are so determined to go down this road, give me $250,000 to pay off my student loans (or just cancel them altogether) so that I can get out from under the thundercloud of my inability to pay my over $1200/month student loan bill that RUINS my credit and makes me a “risk” to potential employers.

Well, at least if I’m not employed I’ll have health care… maybe.

Just ‘Cause I’m Scottish Don’t Mean I Ain’t Funky

I’m Scottish.  What does that mean?  Well, first of all, I’m not pure Scottish.  I’m also of Germanic descent (the family moved to Scotland where the name was modified from “Mahler” to Marler”) on my father’s side, though my mother comes from a pure marriage of MacKinnons and Hares.  Well, not SO pure, Great Grandmother was Cherokee.  This doesn’t affect me much except for my beard which is nearly impossible to grow.  But, in terms of percentage, I’m Scottish.  That means I’m remarkably pale, barrel-chested and short-legged, and that I have a “gargantuan cranium.”  I like being Scottish.  Kilts are cool, haggis, it turns out is not that bad when made correctly and, as a wise man once said, “If it’s not Scottish, IT’S CRAP!!!

The other day I was flipping through the channels in a rare moment of blissful diversion and I hit the very beginning of “Undercover Brother.”  This movie has quite a long opening sequence before it gets to the opening credits.  It’s these opening credits, and more importantly the music playing behind them, that is the focus of this post.

I don’t insert automatic music into posts or web pages because that gets annoying.  However, if I were to post even just the first two counts of this song, you would know it.  It’s iconic.  It’s definitive.  The song is “Pick Up The Pieces” by The Average White Band.  Yeah… That’s right.  The Average White Band.

Aside from the BRILLIANCE of director Malcolm D. Lee of using this song as the theme (It’s a movie about the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. taking on “The Man” and his systematic attempt to erase black culture from America; in the process of the story unfolding though, we learn that the thing we should focus on is not the things that make us different (It doesn’t make you white just because you like mayonaise on your sandwiches, for example, anymore than it makes you black if you like chicken and waffles – and, yes, this is a parenthetical inside a parenthetical) but how important it is that we strive for equality. And he accomplishes that in THE OPENING CREDITS by using this song.  Like I said, BRILLIANT!!!!), I was struck by the humor of the contrast.  “The movie ‘Undercover Brother” has a title sequence with music by The Average White Band.  I laughed so hard…

Anyway, it got me to thinking about AWB and their influence on me and music in general, so I started to do some research.  Turns out, The Average White Band is still around today in 2010 (in a very different lineup) making music, performing concerts and releasing CD’s.  It also just happens that the album (those black round things made out of vinyl) AWB on which we can find this great instrumental, was a breakthrough in the STATES after being released initially in the UK.  What’s the significance?  The Average White Band was comprised, at its inception, by six WHITE SCOTTISH guys.  I even have proof!

Yes, these six Scottish dudes, wrote, performed and released a song that would become the biggest selling instrumental in rock history, hit #10 on the disco singles chart, #5 on the Black singles chart, #1 on the Pop singles chart; and did I mention that it is one of the iconic funk songs of all time.

This gives me hope.  I often worry that I have lost some funk that I had in my youth.  Once upon a time”Big Money J” (yes, EVERYBODY had a name in the B-Boy era), I could do “The Walk”, “cut a mix on my two turntables,” “get the party started” and still be home in time to get enough sleep for church on Sunday morning.

The past two decades though have seen James focus a LOT on musical theatre, and choral music.  I sometimes worry about my funkyness.  But then, I pull out “Computer Games” by George Clinton, or “Funkadelic” “Maggot Brain” or “The Electric Spanking of War Babies” by Funkadelic, or, basically, anything by Prince and I remember that funk is like riding a bicycle; If you fall off, throw that bicycle on the side of the street and beat it to death with your bass guitar.  Or soemthing like that.

Anyway, in case anybody was wondering, I’m Scottish and I’m still “testing positive for the funk. (I’ll gladly pee in anybody’s cup.)”

Long-Haired Hippie

No, this is not a picture of me… or my dog.

I have a tradition.  It’s kind of dumb, as you will see, but I like it a lot.  Here it is: whenever I am in rehearsal for a show, I don’t cut my hair until the day before the premiere.  I’ve been doing it this way for over 15 years, and I have had nothing but good reviews for every show I’ve been a part of ever since.  A couple of months ago I started working with Humble Swan Productions on “Peter Pan” (Buy the DVD here).  Since then, you know… no haircut.

My wife likes it because it’s getting back to that “Errol Flynn” length (her quote not mine) it was when we met.  Of course, it’s next to impossible to style, but whatever… I like it because, well, I like long hair, and I am finally able to grow it or not if I wish.

You see, in August of 2008 I resigned what was a fairly comfortable position at a church in Hixson, TN.  Unfortunately, my timing was horrible as the “Economic Downturn” or “National Recession” or “Global Financial Crisis” (or whichever label best suits your personal theology of PR) was just starting.  I spent a couple of months finishing a project that had been years in the making and then began a job hunt in earnest.  Sadly, yeah… the whole “national economic global panic” thing…

So, recently, I decided – based on a coincidence/providential occurrence – to expand my vision and go into legitimate business for myself.  I considered my skillset, my contacts, my equipment and abilities and I am making the plunge.  Woo Hoo!  That’s part of what JamesMarler.com is all about.

The thing is though… the other day I lost myself in a serious panic attack.  Business for yourself! That means YOU are the BOSS!!!  Which, in my case, means I am the Boss!!!  It’s weird to think that I am not hoping for a nice comfy corporate or church job to help me  in my retirement planning, or health care concerns.  There will be no such thing as a pay check if I have an off week.  No sick days.  No paid vacation.  None of of the cushy perks that come with being employed by someone else.

Still, in doing the job that made me consider all of this in the first place… I had a blast!  It was hardly work.  And, if nothing else, at least in the interim I get to wear my hair however I want.

I’m A Colored People

People who know me will, I would hope, attest to the fact that I am not one to steer clear of “controversial” subjects.   At the same time, I don’t stir up trouble where trouble is uncalled for.  All that said, I felt compelled to respond to a blog post entitled “Who Will Give It Up?” by my good friend and brother James McClary as well as to responses given him by various others to the same.

DISCLAIMER: I use terms of ethnic identity in this article to for the purposes of clarity only. I wish I didn’t have to… But I guess we will get to that in a minute.

AN INTRODUCTION
First of all, it seems that James had two ideas going on in his article: 1) A kind of general malaise regarding the lack of ethnic diversity in his friendships [summation and verbiage absolutely mine], and 2) the thesis that one cannot focus on both an ethnic identity and a Christ-centric identity.  I understand the malaise.  In high school, I had many friends of divergent ethnic backgrounds (of course, in Mobile, AL that pretty much meant African-American, the occasional Latino/Hispanic and even rarer Middle to Far-Eastern Asian friend).  Currently as I scroll the list in my phone, there seems to be a far greater number of white (ugh! more on that later) people there than of any other ethnic background.   It is slightly incongruous with my high school experience.

Still, there is at least one African-American that my daughters call titi (aunt).  I was more than happy, proud even, to lovingly associate myself as a “twin” with two of the loveliest women I have ever met (yay for June 5th B’Day’s) – and it is, for me, only incidental and ultimately unimportant that they are African-American.  Also, I have had (embarrassing admission forthcoming) many romantic relationships with women of varying ethnicities (NOTE: To be clear, it’s embarrassing only because of the word “many.”), and I am married to a first-generation Puerto Rican.  So, is my malaise, the same as another James’?  Probably not; so, why am I bothering to write?

FOUNDATIONS
Let me lay as a foundation for my thoughts a comment that will most assuredly cause a stream of hate mail, flames, and, at the very least, misunderstandings.  (It is my hope, though, that I be afforded a chance to fully explain.)  I am confounded by the constant descriptor of the upcoming inaugural as an “historic event.” (i.e. “Local Leaders Get Ready For Historic Inauguration,” “Washington in overdrive for historic inauguration,” “Obama’s historic inauguration features music legends, service projects, much more.”)  While I understand and appreciate the very certain distinctiveness of this incoming president and, by extension, his inauguration, I would like to point out that EVERY inauguration is historic.  Every new president is a potential hero that will encounter and overcome massive obstacles that distinguish him (or her) as a leader for the generations.  Likewise, every new president is a potential moron that duped just enough people to get himself elected.  Every four (or eight) years we elect and inaugurate a person who at one point in his life, messed his pants, made fart noises with his armpits, tried to burp the alphabet, cheated on homework, a test or somebody, and is ultimately a dice roll away from becoming either a blazing triumph or a colossal failure.  (OK, James, what is your point? Let me fly for a while…)

I have a very distinct memory from my childhood of sitting in my living room and watching a portion of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech from the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is such an iconic piece of rhetoric that I can hardly imagine there is anyone in the world that hasn’t heard it, but I, on that day, had never heard those moving and magnificent words.   I still remember the chills that ran over my body and the tears that came to my eyes the first time I heard the words “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  I was seven.  I didn’t really know what character was, but I fully understood what Dr. King meant by the first part of that sentence.  It was then that I decided that the color of someone’s skin would absolutely not matter to me. Period.

SKIN TONE
I have tried through the course of my life to negate skin color as either an identifier or a mark of division.  Throughout my high school, and even into my college career, I always checked “other” on the “race” box and wrote in “human.”   I will not allow myself to be identified as white because I’m not white (in Jen Toksvig’s words “I’m kind of a peachy color, actually”, and by my own demonstration I am actually two toned.); I acknowledge my ethnic heritage (which is VASTLY varied) mostly when I find it funny (i.e. I understand that the primary reason my skull is so FREAKING large is because of my Scottish ancestors.   Thanks.  Also, I can’t grow a good beard because I have just enough Native American (Cherokee) in me to nix that whole idea.  There are others, but the point is that I find all of that funny.), and I do my level best to not use ethnic identifiers for others (especially in front of my daughters).

I recall (embarrassing admission #2 coming) from the third season of “The Real World” (don’t you dare laugh at me) the cast member Cory Murphy, described by housemate Judd Winick in his book, Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss and What I Learned as “an unassuming and naive Christian girl from Fresno, California,” was involved in an incident where she made some, apparently, insensitive comments to her housemate Mohammed’s girlfriend by asking her if she was “half-white” due to her light skin-tone.   This led to a discussion among the housemates which ultimately led to Cory tearfully admitting that she comes from a “rather ‘white’ world.” More specifically, I recall a scene (it could have been around the same situation) where, after a conversation regarding ethnic identity, Cory was crying over the fact that she didn’t have a culture the way that Pam (Asian-American), or Pedro and Rachel (Cuban-American) did.   I was very disturbed by this primarily because it flew so violently into the face of what I had been trying to do my entire life.

I don’t wish to sound naive. I understand that not everyone (for that matter, hardly anyone) shares my view on this.   I also understand that there are people in this world who have been the victims of remarkable prejudice and ignorance, as well as inexcusable behavior based solely on the color of their skin that, in turn, colors (pun absolutely NOT intended) their worldview.   Certainly someone who has been taunted or threatened because their skin is black (or some shade darker – or lighter for that matter – than the moron doing the taunting/threatening) is going to be affected by this for the rest of their life.  I understand that.   I have been at the receiving end of it.  (What?!?!?!?! A “white” guy has been the victim of racism???? Yeah… but I won’t go into it because it’s not the point.)  I have even been present when my wife and mother-in-law were the victims of it.   A friend of mine… a sister really, the titi mentioned in paragraph three, was recently the recipient of a rather back-handed (unintentional, I am sure, but back-handed nonetheless) compliment. It went along these lines, “I always said you were the most beautiful black girl that I knew, but [sometimes] you pass all of us white girls too…”

Am I just rambling now?   Wasn’t I supposed to address some of the points in James McClary’s article (and in some of the responses as well)?   Yes I was, but I needed to say all of the above to establish a basis for my comments.

THE RESPONSE
I believe that James is experiencing both a kind of “white guilt” of the kind that Cory (see above) was experiencing as well as a frustration over ethnic division in the Christian church.  Further, because I know James I think I can safely say without fear of hurting his feelings that the article felt that it was written – as is the danger of most blogs – on the fly.  (That said, regarding the impromptu nature of blogs, has anyone besides me noticed that “blog” is also the sound you make when you vomit? Moving on…)  I read the words and I understand what James means because I know him.  I also understand that those who may not know James the way I do might respond, well, as many of them did.

Now let me respond to some specific comments…

I ran into [a friend from HS] again at UTC with his fiance who was looking for a specific room in the theater department.  I have his number, but I’ve yet to call him… why?

Because John Lennon was right; “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.”  Also, James, you haven’t called… because you haven’t called.   It’s not a big deal.   There are many people with whom I was friends in HS and college that I haven’t spoken to in years.  I had, or even still have, their phone numbers, but I don’t call and it has nothing whatsoever to do with their skin color.

Another old friend I met as he and his brother were driving by Brainerd Rd. and as they saw me waiting for the bus they offered to take me to school. …he congratulated me on my successful 3 years of marriage and wished me luck.  I don’t know if I would ever see him or his brother again.

But would you know if you would ever see him again if he was Asian, or Hispanic or White?

[An article] then began to go into how black churches are too preoccupied on neighborhood achievement these days because of the prospect of achieving the “American Dream.”  Ok, so what?  That still doesn’t explain to me why blacks and whites don’t stay friends after high school.

What about all the friends of the same ethnicity we have from HS that are no longer in contact with us?

For instance, I know for a fact that I’m acting so ‘white’ right now because I’m even analyzing all of this.  If you think about it for sec, it’s quite stupid that I am compelled to post my thoughts on a public forum, but for some reason I feel it’s out of necessity.

Yikes!  So, only white people blog?   Only white people are analytical?   See, I know that’s not what he meant but it is what he… well, meant.  Over and over in the news, in various forms of media we see not only white people but people from every ethnicity portrayed as having certain characteristics.  (Most of the time we call that stereotyping, but let’s not get into that here.)  The Big Lie Theory basically states that “people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”  When one hears the “characteristics” and “shortcomings” of white people over and over again, it is understandable that some people will come to believe it, even subconsciously.  So, go easy on James here.

Nowadays, it has actually become part of ethnic identities to be at church; ever think of that?


It irks me that James came so close here to saying, again what I think, what he was trying to say but missed. It disturbs me that the only churches that don’t have ethnic identifiers are “white churches.” (i.e., “You know it’s that black church over off of Highway 153” or “Yeah, they go to the Hispanic church over behind the college.”)  Let me rephrase in such a way that shouldn’t surprise too much: it irks me that churches have cultural/ethnic identifiers of any kind.

Most whites go to church because they otherwise feel condemned not to go because of pressure from their peers.


The real problem here is the word “most.” Or maybe it’s the word “whites.” Conceivably it’s the words “most whites.” You’re stereotyping James.

…it is … difficult to add adults to a congregation, because they have convinced themselves that their identity is already secure.


I buy this statement, in the above vacuum only.

This is also why especially in white churches there are multiple church “members” who continue to dive into alcohol, pornography, adultery, bitterness, murder… they are not there to look for Christ; they’re there to achieve a white identity.


And the response from Kimberly Mathis Brooks:

I HAVE never EVER associated a “white” identity with pornography, bitterness, murder, alcohol, etc. To say that identifying yourself as a “white” person means that you associate with all those things is ridiculous, demeaning, and ignorant of basic human faults.


Kimberly has a point, but, here again, I think it’s mostly because James didn’t take time to edit well.  I feel safe saying that I know for certain that James in NO way meant to imply that “identifying yourself as a ‘white’ person means that you associate” yourself with “alcohol, pornography, adultery, bitterness [and/or] murder…” His point was, rather to illustrate that the church members (specifically the “white” church members to whom he had earlier referred. Again, stereotyping…) to whom he was referring were not at church to seek any kind of real enlightenment or truth but instead to develop a cultural identity (which is FAR broader than simply an ethnic identity).

There were some who responded to James by telling stories about how they had been the victims of prejudice.  To that I respond as follows:

It seems certain to me that you have been harmed by ignorance and prejudice.  I’m sorry for that, but I am not sorry for that as a white person. I’m sorry as a fellow human being.  As a very good friend of mine once wrote, “When any man is wronged, not just one is maligned. The ripples expand to touch all of mankind.”  And, as a much more famous person wrote: “No man [or, for our purposes here, no ethnic group, no race, no group with similar skin tones] is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind (emphasis mine), and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

To James McClary’s post, Donnie Johnson Sackey wrote:

I think that if we move toward ignoring race and ethnicity, as they play important mitigating circumstances in certain institutions (i.e. the black church), this will only help to further the logics of racial supremacy since it appears to favor the status quo within our American culture.  In other words, we would be solidifying the same racial caste system that we’ve been “trying” to eliminate for over 100 years.


Categorizations in the human race based on phenotypical characteristics are the mark of intolerance and division.  To agree to your above statement is to say that the best thing for all people to do is to embrace an almost Garvian anti-miscegenationist worldview, come together and assign to each category a specific land mass and group them all there for all time.  I understand that may not have been your intent, but it is the logical extension of your statement.  I understand your thought that race and ethnicity “play important mitigating circumstances” in our collective experience (see paragraph 8), but if we can’t “move toward ignoring race and ethnicity” then racism will NEVER cease to be a problem.

And that is my real point.   What difference does it make what to which ethnic group your friend from high school or college or that past job with whom you have lost touch belongs?  What difference does it make, ultimately, which ethnic group claims our in-coming bi-racial (ugh!) president? What difference does it make, between you and me (whoever you are), what difference there is in our skin tones.  We’re all colored people to one degree or another.  I haven’t even met an albino that was truly achromatic.  I say again in paraphrase for purposes of closing that, the harm that comes to any person of any ethnic group for any reason diminishes me, for I am his brother and he is mine because we are the both of us, human.  We are, the both of us, a colored people.

Dumb Teens or Jaded Adults???

Symbol or Fad

In her article “It’s Official – Teens Are Getting Dumber” Jennifer Jordan makes the following assertion:

We all know that teenagers are stupid. Rather, they act stupid. Having been teens ourselves and now being adult enough to be able to reflect back, most of us agree that at one time or another, most teens are, well, dumb. Pregnancy pacts, virginity rings and Marilyn Manson obsessions aside, now it turns out that sentiment might actually be true!


Now, I don’t usually slam people who write this kind of stuff (for the sake of clarity and full disclosure, Ms. Jordan’s article is not, in fact, about the stupidity of the three items she mentioned on her opening paragraph.), and I mean no disrespect to Jennifer as a person, BUT…

  • Pregnancy pacts – Dumb
  • Marilyn Manson obsessions – dumb
  • Manic viewing and pining for the life of “The Hills”, The O.C.” etc. – dumb
  • Most things that teenagers do – at least partially dumb

Virginity rings?  This is probably the sanest thing I have heard come out of teendom since I was one (app. 17 years ago).   It’s bad enough that teens get ridiculed by those older than they for doing and saying all of the dumb stuff they do and say, (and you remember what it’s like to be a teenager… you have intense feelings, you say and do all of these things that you realize – maybe in the moment, maybe later – are dumb, but you don’t need people to point it out to you. Anyway…).  The last thing teens need is for people older than they to tell them that the good stuff they do (i.e. virinity rings) is dumb.

Let’s focus here for a moment.  We live in a world where having sex even one time can be a death sentence (or even just a remarkably embarrassing trip to the doctor’s office); even oral sex can be physically and emotionally devastating, and let’s not forget to mention the potentially devastating effects of unplanned pregnancies.  Here you have a group of teens making a valiant effort to resist not just peer pressure, but their own urges and make a stand for physical sexual fidelity.   We are all a visual people and this group of teens has determined that an excellent reminder of their pledge to remain chaste and faithful to their FUTURE (no less) spouse is more important than wantonly following the crowd or their hormones.  Also there is the added bonus of allowing other teens to know what they are getting into should they choose to pursue a relationship with them.   And, finally (at least for my purposes here), there is the open door created to discuss sex in a healthy way with their peers which is afforded to these teens by their choice to wear Virginity Rings.

Short version: Don’t disrespect the youth for something to which you might never have the fortitude to commit.

So… What do you think?

Only In America

Today I look back on our national history and I note some things:

  1. Less than 150 years ago, Africans and their descendants were slaves in this country.
  2. Less than 100 years ago, Segregation laws vexed and divided our nation along the lines of color.
  3. Less than 50 years ago people of every color began to work in earnest to achieve civil rights for all without regard to race or ethnic origin.
  4. Less than 10 years ago, Islamic terrorists achieved a stunning victory in their campaign of terror against “The Great Satan” by flying commercial jet liners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
  5. Less than 1 minute ago, I watched a man named Barack Hussein Obama, born of a Kenyan father and an American Caucasian mother (Racial identities noted for clarification only.), take the oath of office and be sworn in as the President of the United States.

Only in America.

As I reflect on the import of this day, I remember an exchange between my best friend Lee Arthur D., my six-year-old self and an adult neighbor. Lee Arthur said that one day he was going to be president. The adult neighbor said to him, “we’ll never have a colored president.” I said to the neighbor, “you shouldn’t say things like that.” And that was the end of it. We left. I guess even at six years old, we understood that there was no sense engaging that level of ridiculousness.

I don’t share the level of excitement that some I know are feeling today. I appreciate it. For some, their candidate got elected; for some there is a connection to the importance that President Obama is African-American; for others they are simply excited for change (however reasonable or unreasonable their own expectations might be for President Obama’s ability to affect that change). I didn’t vote for President Obama (I didn’t consider him experienced enough; also, it troubled me that early on in his senate term he said he would not run for president. Anyway…), I am not African-American (I barely care about that as those who know me and/or have read previous posts by me – insert knowing chuckle here – are sure to understand, but I appreciate that excitement.) and I am, as I have been with every new president since I have been old enough to care, cautiously optimistic. I hope for good things. I dream for great things. I have seen how the office and its burdens bring potentially great men low.

Still, today is an awesome day. I see in the faces of many a kind of joy in being an American that I haven’t seen in a long time. And, even more importantly, never again can anyone say that there is a limitation on dreams. Lee Arthur… I told you that man was stupid. There is no glass ceiling, not anymore. Every child, regardless of their skin tone can say, with certainty, I can be a janitor or the President of the United States. It’s up to me.

Only in America.

Six16en Things

So, there’s this thing going on over at Facebook.  It’s one of those forwarded notes that most people equate to SPAM.  For me, it’s an exercise in transparency.  Also, it says as much to me as it does about me.  The task is simple: Write 16 random things about yourself.  So, here goes…

  1. I remember where my parents were sitting when they told me they were getting a divorce. We had a nice living room in our house on Amhurst Drive; there was a couch on the long wall opposite the front window and two reclining chairs facing the wall to the couch’s left. One was my mother’s and one was my father’s. They called me into the living room and my dad was sitting on the arm of his chair and my mom was sitting on the arm of hers. I knew they had been crying and I knew that whatever was coming was not good. I remember my dad saying the actual words “Your mom and I are getting a divorce” and I just broke down. I was seven.
  2. I have loved three women in my life. I have been inspired by or completely enamored of several. Yet, I find it completely sad that we live in a world where I can’t tell these people what they have meant to me.
  3. I am writing four books at the moment; One is a book on the Spring Feasts, One is a book on the Fall Feasts, One is a devotional for musicians and one might hopefully rectify at least one situation mentioned in item #2
  4. Speaking of musicians, I am one… Most people know that, but here’s the random part: I wish I had the guts to be a full-time performer because, in private, I rock the entire house.
  5. I understand the “vanity of pleasure” better than I ever thought I would.
  6. The 28 months between February of 1997 and May of 1999 was the second best two+ years of my non-married life.
  7. I love Prince and every note of music he’s ever written, and I could not possibly care who knows it.
  8. I have one dream job that I know I have virtually no chance of getting and, every now and then, it makes me sad.
  9. My daughters have unusual birthdays. One was born on August 20th (which was a very significant day in my life); and the other was born on September 29th, the birthday of the person who helped to make August 20th such an important day in my life. I bring it up here because I believe with every strand of my DNA that my daughters were born on the days they were born as a message to me from God that He was restoring what had been stolen.
  10. Bookshelves are the most important part of any house to me. In the house mentioned in item #1 my dad had installed these blue bookshelves that lined almost completely lined two walls in my bedroom. They were filled with books and I loved to read (still do) at least a little every day. Ever since my parents divorce, if I ever move into an apartment a house, a job with an office whatever… I am not truly moved in until bookshelves are in place and full. The pitiful part of this is that I still sometimes hesitate to do this part of the move in process out of fear that I will only be there temporarily, and I will have lost home again.
  11. Though I am in love with learning and hope to be in the educational process until my heart stops beating, I despise academia and reckon diplomas to have just about as much intrinsic value as the rolls of Charmin in my bathroom. The problem is that, while I believe this I do love to learn and have earned a few of those pointless pieces of papaer along the way (I am currently in the process of getting another one), but that has caused some people in the “real world” to think that I view the living world like the “hallowed halls of academia”; conversely, peers in the academic world view my approach as too feral to be applicable in the ivory towers of learning… so either way I’m toast.
  12. I secretly beat myself up (metaphorically speaking) because I despise how I am so able to be jealous of other people’s success. It’s not that I don’t want it for them… but I want to be truly successful at what I have chosen to do as well. Still… It makes me feel like a punk.
  13. I’m very intimidated by my father; not because he’s been horrible to me or has achieved some remarkable level of success. I think, it is instead because I have – for reasons I am completely unable to pinpoint – never felt like I could possibly be good enough for him. He’s never said so, at least not that way (in fact it’s been almost the opposite). Weird, eh?
  14. (Note: This is the dumbest thing about me, but I am trying to be honest) I am completely megalomanical in that I am terrified to truly finish anything that might be great because I fear that upon its completion I will die.
  15. I have never had more than 2 real friends in my immediate vicinity at any point in my life. In the course of my life I think I have had 6 real stick-with-you-forever-take-a-bullet-for-you-and-know-you-would-for-me friends. I love those people with everything in me and would love them even through betrayal.
  16. The fact of the matter is, I am SO bad at playing my cards close to the vest that it’s hard to find any list of things about me that can be simply random and not horrible. Most of my secrets are things that are secret because I am too desperately afraid to share them with anyone.