Mom for a Day. Oy Vey!

My wife Kathi left to teach in L.A. this morning and so I became the POD (Parent on Duty), also known as “Substitute Mom.”

That was less than 12 hours ago & I’m totally frazzled.

Unlike most of my posts, this has nothing to do with media– think of it as highly individualized anthropology.  Cue the Michael Jackson music because I’m looking at the Dad in the Mirror.

Here’s my afternoon’s itinerary:

3:10pm: Left house to pick up my kids (H, the 10 year old girl; W, the 6 year old boy) and W’s friend P (also 6).  It’s pouring rain.  I remember to get the extra booster chair for P out of my car and take Kathi’s SUV.  We have P because it is our turn for Tae Kwon Do carpool.

3:20pm: There is no parking near the school.  I park two blocks away.  It is pouring rain. Yes, I know I already said that but it stays annoying so I’ll keep saying it.

3:25pm: 47 moms and 3 dads cluster around the front of the school. When I join my fellow dads I quip, “look, we’re in the dad ghetto.” “We should get a velvet rope around us,” one other dad says.  “Yes,” I reply. “But it’s to keep us out, not to keep them in.”  H emerges.  Big hug.  Seeing no W or P she says, “Oh! they must be in the bus line,” and disappears to fetch them.  IThe moment she is out of sight W and P show up.  Before they can dive into the educational labyrinth searching for H my hands arrest their movement. “No, we’re just going to wait here.”  Five minutes later H emerges, “Ah! there you are.”  We walk to the car.  It’s pouring rain.

3:45pm: Leaving W and P to play with Legos in the car, I take H into her choir practice through the — you guessed it — pouring rain.  Aaron, the talented choir leader, tells me that practice will end at 5:30pm.  This shatters my evening’s plan as I had everything scheduled around a 6:00pm end time.  I am now running late.  I hate running late.  I race to the SUV.

3:55pm: W and P place their orders at Señor Taco, the surprisingly good local joint.  We then dart to Petco to collect dog food.

4:05pm: Burritos and quesadilla acquired, we zoom back to our house.  It’s pouring rain.

4:15pm: W and P play 30 minutes of “Smash Bros. Brawl” on the Wii, eat dinner, change to Tae Kwon Do uniforms.

5:15pm: We jump back in the car and zoom back to the choir practice.  It’s pouring rain.  While driving I call in another order to Señor Taco — “Hi, Mary, it’s me again.”  “Hi Brad!” — this time dinner for H and for me.  I did it this way so that everybody’s food would be fresh upon dining.

5:30pm: H’s practice isn’t over.  I check on the boys.  There is no blood coating the windows of the car from the inside.  Sometimes in life you have to settle.

5:35pm: It still isn’t over.  I feel pressure in my forehead.  Is it a migraine?  a stroke?

5:40pm: Choir practice ends.  The stroke subsides, for now, and I chivvy H into the car through the pouring rain.  As she climbs in, one of her fingers floats near W. So — of course, how can I not have foreseen this? — W bites H’s finger.  There is no blood.  W denies doing it.  H stands her ground.  I make it clear that if I discover that this has actually happened later that such punishments will ensue as to make the Terror of the French Revolution seem like a mere barked shin, only I don’t say this in so many words.  W confesses.  “W,” I say.  “Impulse control!  Please work on it.”  I wonder if any of them will notice if I use the Google Mobile app on my iPhone to search the keyword “orphanage.”

5:45pm: I collect the second order at Señor Taco.

6:00pm: I deposit the boys at Tae Kwon Do and drive H home.  It is pouring rain.

6:10pm: I escort H into the house.  She has her choir book and the “you might have to wait for a while after practice” novel.  She has her roller backpack that contains the 68 pounds of books she ferries back and forth every day to the fifth grade (!).  “Honey, where’s your jacket?”  She looks about.  She looks some more.  I feel the inter-cranial pressure mount again. “Did you leave it at choir?” “You were rushing me!”  Intemperate words spring from my mouth.  That Dad of the Year Award will elude me in 2011 just like 2010, and 2009, and 2008….  I get her into the house, plate her dinner and set up a show she likes via Netflix on the iPad.  I send quick notes to Aaron and his wife Dierdre about the jacket, send a separate note to the executive director of the arts center asking him to forward it to Lost & Found, and then I dart out the door.

6:20pm: I call my wife.  We chat while I’m driving to the arts center for the third time in less than three hours.  I find an open door to the center but not to the choir room.  I use the flashlight app on my iPhone to illuminate corners of the choir room.  There is one forlorn fabric lump in the corner.  Is it her jacket, some other idiot child’s jacket or a disused instrument cover.  Who knows?  Still chatting with Kathi, I wander the halls, eliciting bizarre looks from people in sundry meetings.  No jacket.

6:35pm: I look at my watch. Holy mackerel!  Tae Kwon Do ends in 10 minutes and I’m 12 minutes away.  I zoom through the pouring rain.

6:50pm: Tae Kwon Do lets out 5 minutes late.  I am waiting, an insouciant smile on my face, trying to suggest that I’ve been waiting a while.  They are boys, and therefore oblivious.  I guide them back to the SUV through the pouring rain.  H calls my cell.  A package arrived.  Per the Paternal Prime Directive she did not open the door, but she suspects that it is a package from Amazon and wanted me to know.

7:00pm: P is returned to the bosom of his family.

7:05pm: W and I arrive home.  It is indeed a package from  I try to take W directly to the shower but he announces — in a voice that vibrates our neighbors’ windows — that he has to poop.

7:10pm: My burrito is cold.  I reheat it.  It now has paper stuck to it that is impossible to peel off.  “A good source of fiber,” I tell myself.

7:12pm: W emerges naked from the bathroom and dances in the loft, waggling his butt to show that he has wiped himself.  I escort him to the shower.

7:15pm: H rehearses her speech on manga for me.  It requires me to draw along with her.  I eat left handed.

7:20pm: I finish my burrito. The shower is still going.  “W?” I ask mounting the stairs.  My right knee twinges.  An old fencing injury.  Really.  My 12 year old Corgi, Dexter, huffs his way up the stairs next to me.  My knee just twinges.  He’s REALLY struggling.  “What?” I imagine him asking.  “You couldn’t have bought that one-level ranch home I liked so much?”  W is practicing Tae Kwon Do in the shower while making laser gun noises.  I suggest washing himself.

7:25pm: I suggest washing again.

7:28pm: I open the shower door and glower until he begins to bathe himself.  I go to check on H.

7:33pm:  W is now meditating under the water and not washing his hair.  I suggest that if he wishes to play video games again before puberty he rethink this stance.  He washes his hair.  Clean and looking like a large, peach-colored prune, he exits the shower.  “Please dry yourself,” I say and go back downstairs to make sure H has finished homework.

7:40pm: I return to the scene of the shower and find W practicing Tae Kwon Do, naked, in front of the mirror.  Just as I reach the door he KICKS the mirror and I hear a loud slapping noise not followed, thank heavens, by a series of tinkling noises.  “Don’t DO that!” I shriek.  “Impulse control, W, please!”

Tooth brushing follows.  I don’t know when.  I don’t remember what I was doing.  I might have blacked out.  No, wait.  Now I remember.  I went to the garage to get the DeLonghi space heater for W’s room, as it gets unnaturally cold at night and he is recovering from a cough. It looks like an old radiator from a New York apartment building, but it doesn’t make noise and doesn’t use electricity like a hair dryer.  I clean it and install it in his room.

7:55pm: The kids and I review their chore sheets and I award stickers for good behavior.  Down on my knees, at W’s level, I carefully go over the “don’t hit sister” line on the chore sheet.  “Do you deserve a sticker here?” “No.” “Why not?” “Because I bit sister and lied about it.”  “That’s right,” I say.  “And, by the way, because of this behavior you also lost dessert.  Sister gets dessert.  You do not.  Now please go upstairs.”  It is at this point that I see that a flurry of ants have colonized the island in the middle of our kitchen.  I see this because H has rested her arm on the island and 6 ants have crawled onto her sweatshirt.  I de-ant-i-fy her. At this point, W uses his arm to sweep across the island, infesting his pajamas with ants.  I de-ant-i-fy him and send him upstairs.  H generously agrees to read to him so that I can napalm the ants with Windex.  She dislikes bugs as much as I do.

8:05pm: Island cleaned, I come upstairs.  H trots off to her room to read.  I tuck W in and a thought occurs to me.  “W,” I say.  “Do you know what ‘impulse control’ means?” “No, Dad, actually, I don’t.”  I close my eyes and smile.  We then talk for a few minutes about the three words I’d like him to have in his head whenever a sudden desire to do something that might, perhaps, exceed the usual rules governing his day — kicking something, hitting somebody, throwing something sharp at high velocity toward the back of a waiter’s head in a restaurant (I speak hypothetically, of course).  “What words?” he asks.  “It’s simple, really,” I say.  “Just think, ‘wait a minute!’ whenever you have an irresistible urge to do something that might be bad, just think ‘wait a minute.'” He starts to talk about Bey Blades.  Laser sounds are involved.  “W,” I ask. “Can you tell me what I just said?”  There is a very long pause.  “Wait a minute?”  “Good,” I reply.  “I just like to know that you hear me once in a while.”  Kisses and hugs are exchanged.

8:20pm: I serve H her dessert — cherry pie and a glass of milk — and she happily reads her book while I empty the dishwasher, clean the kitchen, get the coffee pot ready for the morning, put the dog out in the pouring rain to relieve himself, and start going over tomorrow’s activities.  I notice that somewhere during the day the Henckle Kitchen Scissors Fairy has visited our house and stolen our scissors.  I let Dexter back in.  He nearly darts by me with muddy paws, but a quick lunge saves our carpets and my fencing past proves itself useful.

9:00pm: H is entirely ready for bed and happily reading her book.  She has only 20 pages to go, so I give her permission to finish the book so long as she rolls over and goes to bed upon finishing it.  She agrees.  I remind her that I will be waking her early to get ready for makeup picture day, as the pictures from the first go around show her beautiful face stretched by an expression one usually associates with electrocution.  She understands.  We discuss breakfast options (she is my picky eater).  Kisses and hugs are exchanged.

9:05pm: I begin writing this post.

9:41pm: H pops into the room to inform me that she has finished her book.  I sigh and wonder what the Google query on the iPhone managed to turn up.  However, since she is here it occurs to me to ask if she has indeed read the book for her Friday Book Club meeting, and if so what it might be.  She tells me that the title is “The Name of this Book is Secret” by Pseudonymous Bosch, but that she has not read it.  I send her to get the Kindle and proceed to download the book.  I also send a brief email to Kathi asking for confirmation on this title as well as if she happens to have brought the Henckle scissors with her to Los Angeles for mysterious reasons.

9:49pm: H returns to bed.

10:15pm: I go to check on H, listening at the door as she is a light sleeper and if I go in it will wake her.  It is possible that I hear the quiet murmurings of an audio book being played on her iPod Touch, but it could also be the sound of the now driving rain and howling wind whipping through the trees outside.  At least it’s quiet in there.  Sometimes in life you have to settle.

10:16pm: As I come back down the stairs I see that Dexter has levitated himself onto the couch.  If he had opposable thumbs I feel confident that he’d now be watching Animal Planet.

And that brings us to the present.

My wife amazes me.  She does this ALL THE TIME.  I feel like I must book a business trip just so that I can get some rest.

I’m going to join Dexter on the couch.  But since I have thumbs there will be no Animal Planet.

The coffee machine is set to go off at 6:00am.

Portland Startups to work with Target, Coca-Cola, Nike, Google, Wieden + Kennedy

Our industry has relapsed into a high digital startup fever, but this time with a new twist— brands working directly with entrepreneurs in order to find the next hot digital companies at the earliest possible stage and to stay at the sharpest edge of marketing innovation.

We’ve seen this elsewhere with the PepsiCo10 in New York and Europe, the Brandery in Cincinnati, and now PIE, the Portland Incubator Experiment, is about to launch its fall class right here in my town — Portland, Oregon – smack dab in the middle of the Silicon Forest.

What’s in it for the startup? $18,000, office space for three months and a rich community of other startups, PIE alums, the digital team at W+K and a mentor network that includes thought leaders from companies including Target, Coca-Cola, Nike and – as of just last week — Google.

You don’t have to be a Portlander to apply—applications so far have come in from the Northwest and as far as Vermont and Tennessee.

The deadline is August 8 at 11:59pm, so don’t wait—get cracking on that application today!

Imagine being an entrepreneur with a nifty idea who gets to work directly with folks who have rich startup experience of their own from Google and YouTube.

And on the flip side, many young digital companies begin with technology, then move to a terrific user experience, and only then do they think, “Hmmm, what about revenue? I know, let’s sell some ads!”

But that’s not how major brands want to get involved—they want to get baked into the process early, and they want opportunities beyond advertising, including strategic, technological and other communications-related innovations.

And what terrific advocates for brand-centric development in Target, Coca-Cola and Nike!

Apply today!


Further reading:

Netflix’s Big OOPS– didn’t these guys take Psych 101?

Topline takeway for this post: Netflix has screwed up, turning unconsidered background choices into front-of-mind considerations. They don’t understand how pleasure and satisfaction work.

I’m on vacation and somewhat unplugged, but I was still connected enought to receive a surprising email from Netflix yesterday saying that if I want to retain both unlimited streaming and one disk out at a time, then my price will jump from $9.99 per month to $15.98 per month– and that this will happen by September 1st.

Thin-slicing report: my first thought was, “huh, guess it’s time to cancel Netflix.”

(Side note: the inevitable social media death spiral has already begun, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.)

Whomever made this call at Netflix HQ doesn’t understand how locally unsatisfying but globally satisfying the current Netflix product is.

Even though I probably only borrow a dozen titles per year in disk form — and those disks become a Tivo-guilt-like homework assignment — my satisfaction index for those choices is moderate if unscrutinized. These are things I know I want to see to a sufficient extent that I’ll actually forego other options in order to have Netflix send me the disk. Netflix is so low-pressure compared to the other video rental services it is driving out of business (no late fees, etc.) that I don’t pay attention to how much of the $120 per year is wasted or not optimized– a real set it and forget it service. And the unlimited free streaming on top of that makes me even less likely to ponder the value.

So even though no local choice is a slam dunk — the way going to see “Cars 2” with my kids this week is likely to be an eventful and memorable outing — my global level of satisfaction with the service is acceptable.

Likewise, my endless Netflix instant-streaming queue is composed of things I vaguely want to see but haven’t gotten around to yet. “Huh, they’ve got ‘Hot Tub Time Machine,’ already… okaaaaay.” Most of what I watch on Netflix I watch alone, and so the choice of what to watch is quite arbitrary and mood driven. There is no killer content on Netflix — nothing I can’t get elsewhere if I really want to see it — just an amazing range of good-enough content for vegetating on the couch after a long day. I don’t do a cost-benefit analysis because I still think of the streaming as a freebie on top of the disk-rental agreement.

Until now.

Now, Netflix has forced me to think critically, and that’s never a good idea with a customer. Here’s a sample of my internal monologue:

Is $7.99 per month is a good enough price for unlimited Netflix streaming by itself. What about Hulu Plus? Golly, I’m already spending a ton on Comcast and they have free and fee VOD… do I really need Netflix? What about Amazon Prime? I already have an account there.  Should I spend the $94 I’m about to spend on Netflix streaming on a Roku box to hook Prime up to the big screen in the living room?

And the same is true for the disks: for $120 I can buy most of what I want, use VOD via Comcast or Vudu or Xbox/Zune, or look more carefully at the offerings at my local library.

In Barry Schwartz’s remarkable 2003 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, he articulates that the problem of internet plenitude is that for every choice we do make the opportunity costs of the choices we don’t make sucks away our satisfaction away from the lucky thing chosen.

The current Netlix service — the one going away in the fall that combines one disk with unlimited streaming –neatly jumps over the Paradox of Choice because the opportunity costs of each choice are ameliorated by a different sort of plenitude. If I don’t like the disk, I can stream.  If I don’t like the stream, then what about that disk lying on my desk?

Each service compensated for the faults of the other, but — I think — neither is worth paying for itself alone when there are so many alternatives.

Right now, I’m paying monthly or annual service charges for:

  1. Comcast Cable with Premium Channels
  2. Amazon Prime
  3. Netflix
  4. Hulu Plus
  5. Xbox Live Gold

Something’s gotta give.  Until that email yesterday I wouldn’t have imagined that Netflix would be on the list of likely evictees.

Now it is.

Simile Search: Please Help This Writer!

I’m looking for evocative comparisons that talk about how one thing so automatically comes with another that we take the pairing for granted. Like, “the juice comes with the meat” (except it often doesn’t) or “the warmth that comes with the fire” but preferably less flabby.  Something taste or smell related (for its Proustian oomph) would be ideal.  If you can think of any, please share in comments.

Here’s why I’m asking:

My new book length project (now that Redcrosse is here) is called “The Shakespeare Strategy” and is all about why Shakespeare’s working context helped to constitute his immense business and cultural success, and that leads to an argument about how we don’t pay enough attention to context — including physiological and psychological context — nowadays.  For frequent readers you’ll recognize some of this in my longtime fascination with eventness.

I’m still working on the elevator pitch, but you can see the seed of the thinking here:

Before we had VCRs, DVRs, DVDs, streaming video, individual songs on iTunes and, newly, individual articles sold independently of their magazines context came automatically with our experience of music, TV, movies, newspaper and magazine articles.  Even books came in context because we found them in bookstores, libraries or catalogs.

We now lack much of that formerly automatic context, which is why books like Steve Rosenbaum’s Curation Nation are so interesting and relevant.

So I’m looking for comparisons that convey automatic pairings… as well as comparisons showing formerly automatic pairing that — once detached — reveal how accidental and contingent the link between the two things really was. That is, “the commercials that come with the TV show” (before DVRs) or “the sting that comes with the angry bee” (except more positive).

Any ideas? Please help!

Short Post: There’s More to the Amazon story than Fast Company conveys

Kit Eaton over at Fast Company (a must read in general) blogged today about Amazon’s announcement that it now sells more e-Books than physical books.  Here’s a relevant snippet including a link to the Amazon press release:

Since April the first, for every 100 print-and-paper books Amazon has sold, it’s also sold 105 e-books, according to a fresh Amazon announcement.

Kindle e-readers arrived, along with a small but fast-growing digital bookstore, in November 2007–by July 2010, Amazon notes, Kindle book sales had surpassed hardcover book sales, and then six months later beat the paperback books sales rate. Now Amazon’s customers are “choosing Kindle books more often than print books. We had high hopes this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly,” says CEO Jeff Bezos, comparing Amazon’s 15-year heritage of selling physical books to just four years of e-book sales.

What’s missing from this story are the economics. Sure, Amazon sells more e-books than physical books, but that’s because the electronic editions are generally cheaper than the physcial ones.  Moreover, when the book isn’t published by a major house with discount deals at Wal-Mart, CostCo, Barnes & Noble, et cetera, then the gap between physical and electronic can be huge.

What I want to know is this: how do the titles on the 105 e-books compare to the physical books? What is the intersection on the Venn diagram of those two lists, and what is the total list price differential between them?

Amazon is an exciting new frontier for small publishing houses or author-published books in both fiction and non-fiction — the Romance genre alone is changing fast because of the Kindle publishing platform.  As meat-space bookstores die — and this happens increasingly — Amazon will become only more important for both physical and e-Books.

But this 105 v 100 press release is a non-story without significant context.




Super Storytelling Smackdown: “Smallville” vs. “Thor”

This is a post about the difference between experiencing a story and remembering it later, a distinction that we pay too little attention to in the media world.  I’ll talk about theater, movies, TV, Superman, Thor and Shakespeare, and there will be spoilers… lots of ’em about the “Smallville” series finale, but I’ll be careful when it comes to “Thor.”

Those readers who have been following this blog or my other work at all will know that I’m a lifelong superhero geek, and over this weekend I hit a rare caped trifecta, watching the “Smallville” series finale, taking in the new “Thor” movie and receiving a big box of comic books from the shop in Los Angeles where I’ve been going since 1998.  I’m chewing my way through the comics, loved Thor (a bit more on this at the end) and have had a weird response to the Smallville finale where the farther I get from it the less I like it.

Although I got bored with the Clark/Lana/Lex triangle a few years ago and skipped a half season, I’ve watched Smallville for 10 years through the births of my two children, big career changes and a move from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. The entire series has been a build up to the moment when Clark Kent puts on the blue costume and red cape and flies off to greet the world as Superman. I’ve spent a decade on this hero’s journey.

So why, in the much-advertised and long-awaited series finale did they deny us the money shot? Yes, we had Clark holding the costume, flying to the big battle while holding the costume, and then we had him, wearing the union suit, but in close up gazing lovingly through the round window of an airplane at Lois. Yes, we had a blue blur flying through the sky towards battle, and yes we had him – seven years later — (I did mention the spoilers, right?) running across the Daily Planet rooftop pulling open his shirt to reveal the big red S to show us that Clark now fully inhabited the Superman role.

But we didn’t have this:

or this:

or this:

Why not? At one point I thought, maybe Tom Welling got fat– the way William Shatner plumped up during every season of the original “Star Trek” series (they only took his shirt off during the early episodes each season), but a quick tour through Google Images suggests that this isn’t the case.

It’s a huge failure on the part of the series, one that got me mulling over the flaws in the finale with a microscope… and that’s usually a bad sign. Days later, I realized that in addition to the lack of a money shot we also never heard the word “Superman” as a name, although we did have a Nietzschean moment where a character referred to a superman in flashback.

The worst series finale in TV history was “Quantum Leap,” where in a bump shot at the end we learned that Sam Beckett never returned home, even though the entire series was predicated on that return. When I saw that I lurched forward clutching my stomach like I’d been stabbed. Smallville, in contrast, couldn’t resolve this season on its own terms, spending most of the two hours on the soap opera and only a few minutes on the heroics.

The show runners got distracted by a bunch of characters to whom the audience had said goodbye years ago, most particularly Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor and John Schneider’s Jonathan Kent.  Annette O’Toole’s Martha Kent made an appearance as well, but since her character hadn’t died a few seasons ago that made sense. Why the team didn’t bring back Kristen Kreuk’s Lana Lang (not that I wanted this) alongside everybody else has, I presume, more to do with Kreuk’s availability than anything else.

Yes, the mythology states that Superman will battle Lex Luthor forever, but we didn’t need to spend 10 minutes with Lex and Clark in conversation only to have Lex’s memory wiped in the final moments of the episode. Yes, the memory of Clark’s human father guides him, but we didn’t need to have the ghost of Jonathan Kent literally hand Clark the super suit.  Ghosts are not a key part of the Superman mythos.

Nor did we need to kill off Lionel Luthor (who oddly turned into Gollum between his last appearance and the finale) and Tess Mercer just because they have no place in the comic book mythology. One of the great strengths of Smallville was the tension between the comic book mythology and its own—the series stopped being consistent with the Superboy/Superman origin story in the pilot, so why care so much in the finale?

In the finale we got too much of the man and not nearly enough of the super, but that has always been the case with the series. The problem was that the emotional drama of the tenth season was abandoned in favor of the Clark-growing-up arc that the audience finished years ago.

However, when I watched the finale on Friday night I rather enjoyed it. The eventful-ness of watching it on that night, carving out time after the kids were asleep and my wife was doing other things upstairs, watching it nearly in real time (I got a late start but caught up via DVR), these things swept me up and gave me that special momentum of real-time experience… the tide that carries us through experience.

The only thing I noticed in the moment was the lack of the costumed money shot, and my dissatisfaction with that gap is what kept me thinking about the finale, probing it like a tongue searching for a missing tooth.  Then, to mix metaphors, the entire episode unraveled.

This phenomenon where time reduces satisfaction is well known in theater and makes a certain amount of common sense.  When we are in the middle of things, particularly things that possess a great deal of eventness, we are surfing a wave of experience rather than mulling it over. The critic Bernard Beckerman expressed it this way in his 1979 book “Dynamics of Drama:”

The memorial experience is not distinct from the theatrical but merely a continuation beyond direct contact with the presentation.  The form of action induces the theatrical experience directly but has an indirect effect upon the memorial experience.  When unable to return to the same artistic work, the playgoer must either avail himself of a facsimile, such as a second performance of the same production, or be content to recall the initial experience. Once removed from his fellow spectators, he gains a new perspective of the work.  Responses elicited in performance may seem alien in retrospect.  The process of rumination alters the work (157).

Rumination is key to the superhero genre because after seventy plus years of stories about these characters they are saturated with inescapable foreknowledge. Do a search on famous fictional characters and both Superman and Batman show up early.

Even people who don’t know much about superheroes – my wife, for example, before our son joined me in the cape-o-philiac club – approach the genre knowing that the stories are embedded in a network of earlier versions of the tales and will be followed by later versions. Deeply satisfying stories within these contexts are aware of all their predecessors and heirs.  J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise, for example, was brilliant in its deft balancing of the old and new versions of the universe.

And this brings me to “Thor,” which managed to weave into its two-hour span allusions to the 1960s “Thor” comic books, to King Lear, the Empire Strikes Back, the Lord of the Rings, the Lion in Winter and embedded itself neatly into the other Marvel Comics movies of the last few and next few years.  This isn’t transmedia in Henry Jenkins‘s sense so much as a deeply allusive network of references and parallels that increases the satisfaction of movie going for the experienced viewer and gives her or him a qualitatively different evening than the newcomer to the genre.

I won’t perpetrate big spoilers for “Thor” because the movie is so worth seeing on the big screen in a top-notch theater with stadium seating. Visually stunning, charmingly acted and with an immense sense of scope, the combination of director Kenneth Branagh channeling his own Shakespearean movies (“Henry V,” “Hamlet,” “Much Ado About Nothing”) and story architect J. Michael Straczynski (who redefined the modern science fiction epic with “Babylon 5” and has spent the last couple years on Superman and Wonder Woman in comics) means that this movie understands and embraces epic.

“Thor” is a thrill ride (plenty of money shots with this one), and as my wife and I talked over the movie at dinner afterwards we found some things to pick apart (Natalie Portman joining Elizabeth Shue in “The Saint” in the ranks of brainy-sexy-unbelievable astro-physicists… although Portman is more convincing) but nothing that caused the experience to collapse in retroactive dissatisfaction.

Instead, we talked about how Loki echoes Edmund in King Lear, how this film links up with “The Incredible Hulk,” the “Iron Man” movies and the forthcoming “Captain America” and “Avengers” movies, and how Chris Hemsworth’s body is possibly the movie’s single-greatest special effect (as was that of Megan Fox in the first “Transformers” film).

Rumination, in the case of Thor, deepened engagement with both the story and the performance of the story, with the structure of the narrative and the way that the execution and casting (e.g., Anthony Hopkins as a Lear-like Odin) linked that performance to other stories.

Culturally, we tend to suffer from what I think of as the tyranny of the object when it comes to stories. We evaluate the thing itself and not the context in which we experience that thing. Our ability to buy just one song on iTunes means that we don’t think as much about an album, and the birth of new one-off journalism at Byliner (and see my previous post about Fortune) means that we don’t think about publications in the same gestalt way that we used to.

Both Smallville and Thor, though, are deeply contextual in their meaning-making and in the experiences of that meaning. Smallville is the end of the beginning of the Superman story. Thor is the start of that hero’s journey on earth and in the middle of the current Marvel movie epic.

The growth of digital media and distribution has eroded the easy context that came with analog media the way “Cheers” came after “The Cosby Show” to create NBC’s anchor Thursday night.

I believe that in the next few years we will pay more attention to context, and that in doing so we’ll also be more aware of the gap between the memorial experience and the in-the-moment experience of storytelling.

Good storytellers deliver on the in-the-moment experience. Great storytellers do that and also think about memorial rumination.

The take-away? Go see “Thor” while it’s still in the theaters.

New Delhi arrival: first thoughts…

I arrived in New Delhi last night to attend and MC our launch of ad:tech New Delhi later this week.  It was a pleasant trip (thank you Continental Airlines) if just a little over 24 hours in length.  In a few minutes I’ll wander down to the lobby at the gorgeous Leela hotel in order to take a day trip to Agra and the Taj Majal– details and photos coming later.

So far I’ve seen little other than the hotel except for the shiny new international terminal at Indira Ghandi and the ride to the hotel.  There were still a few surprises:

  • Almost the first thing I saw were two adult men holding hands as they walked toward the terminal as I walked away, and clearly this was just good companionship rather than anything sexual– which my handy guidebook later confirmed.
  • Mothers weep at the departure of their adult sons the world over– this mom quietly lifted one fold of her sari, first to conceal her expression and then quietly to wipe her eye as her son strode off to his plane.
  • The main word I have for New Delhi so far is juxtaposition– some of the same cars I see in Oregon (I rode to the hotel in a Camry) driving next to tiny little cars that dart in and out of traffic like hummingbirds.  One car had curtains, nicely tied back, around every window… perhaps it has no air conditioning?
  • Since I’m a big wimp when it comes to spicy food (the heat, not the flavor) I was worried that I wouldn’t eat all week, but the dinner here at the Leela was fantastic– a tangy curry without the napalm scorch that I feared.  I still have a ready supply of Powerbars handy, but that’s just as much because at conferences I rarely have a chance to eat.

More soon!  Off to Agra!

The Shakespeare Brand: Yesterday’s iMedia Talk now UP on YouTube

UPDATE: More of the talk now embedded below.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of speaking at the iMedia Brand Summit– an event that I’ve been intimately associated with for years but at which I’ve rarely presented while wearing my research hat.  This talk is the seed of my next book length project, and I was delighted to see that most of it is already on YouTube this morning:


Here’s the handbook description:

On February 11, 2011 Disney released a new kids movie called “Gnomeo & Juliet” based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Why? What made Disney think that an animated love story about lawn gnomes would somehow be better – or, at least, more marketable — with a connection to a play first performed in London in 1595? The answer is simple: Shakespeare created one of history’s most powerful brands. Allusions to and adaptations of his plays permeate our culture, and not just in movies and TV. In Corpus Christi in 1845, while serving in the infantry, bored and waiting for the Mexican War to start, future President Ulysses S. Grant killed time playing the role of Desdemona– the female lead in “Othello.” Imagine George W. Bush or Barack Obama doing that! We don’t typically think of Shakespeare as a successful brand story, but we should because the way Shakespeare created, bonded with and nurtured his customer base has actionable lessons for marketers today. Don’t get distracted by the tights, skulls, swords and iambic pentameter: what really distinguished Shakespeare was his longitudinal and economic relationship with his customers. In today’s insight address, iMedia’s own Chief Content Officer (and a bona fide Shakespearean) will unpack this economic relationship and explore how deploying the Shakespeare Strategy can empower marketing in today’s digital media landscape.

I’ll post when Part II comes live or repost the whole thing to YouTube once I get the files.

Please let me know what you think!


Book Review: “Scrawl,” a terrific YA novel by Mark Shulman

Here’s the executive summary of this post: “Scrawl” reveals the inner life of a junior high school bully, a huge, violent, lower class, shambling boy named Tod Munn who is secretly brilliant but plays being an oaf to conceal his intelligence and retain his hidden-in-plain-sight status in the complex social economy of his school. We have so many books about the inner lives of girls or super-powered boys or just good-looking, well-intentioned kids who wind up in bad situations that it’s refreshing to read a novel that plumbs the personality of somebody who is trapped and has given up on himself and everyone around him. Shulman writes beautifully and keeps the book from turning into an ABC After School Special (they don’t even make those anymore, do they?) exercise in sentimentality. This is a terrific read for anybody, particularly if you like Young Adult (YA) fiction, from a small press with a small marketing budget. You’re only likely to hear about it by word of mouth, and my mouth is telling you to go buy it on Amazon or order it from your local bookstore.

The longer version: If you’re a Calvin & Hobbes fan like I am, then you might share my mental picture of Tod, which is Moe the elementary school bully.

A few years older and infinitely smarter than Moe, Tod lives with him mom, a seamstress at a down market dry cleaner, and his stepfather Dick, a gardener, who thinks as little of Tod as he has to say to him, which is mostly “keep it down in there.” Tod’s dad walked out of his life when he was a kid leaving behind only an apology letter that Tod hides in a suitcase under his bed. Poor, sleeping in an under-heated room in a rough-Manhattan-neighborhood apartment with paper thin walls and so little food that he eats both breakfast and lunch at the school cafeteria, Tod is a loser and knows it. He has two companions — not exactly friends so he calls them his “droogs” — named Rob and Rex, as well as a younger friend who he looks after on the sly named Bernie. Just about everybody is taken in by Tod’s tough guy persona — even the teachers who can’t reconcile his appearance and manner with his high grades — with the possible exception of Stu, a classmate of Tod’s who is blind.

The engine for the novel: Tod is in detention, having been caught doing something we don’t learn about until later and sentenced to a month with Mrs. Woodrow, the school guidance counselor, who makes him keep a journal after school every day while Rex and Rod, Tod’s co-conspirators, clean the school grounds in the freezing cold as their punishment. Being forced to write uncorks something in Tod, and despite his desire to remain invisible he finds himself describing the school, his home, his life and his lack of options all in arresting detail. From time to time, Mrs. Woodrow writes back to Tod, and it feels like the voice of God when that adult voice writing in italics interjects. As his perspective shifts due to his journaling, Tod’s school and home life also begin to open, although there are no scholarships to private school for this kid.

Shulman writes first person in Tod’s voice, and for the literary-critically minded of you the book is an exercise is “the skaz,” a Russian Formalist term that describes when a tale is told convincingly and unerringly from a character’s unusual perspective. The most famous American example of the skaz is Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”  Just about the only challenge of reading this delightful book is reconciling Tod’s appearance with his vocabulary and intelligence, and that’s a neat trick on Shulman’s part since we only have Tod’s own narrative to convince us of his appearance.

Here’s the opening paragraph from “Scrawl”:

Think about a pair of glasses for a second. You see them every day but you really don’t think about them, I bet. They’re just glass and metal, or glass and plastic. Little pieces of glass stuck on your face that mean everything. Maybe they mean you’re smart. Maybe they mean you’re rich. But definitely they mean you can’t see without them. Grind the glass this way, put in a slight curve, and you can see far. Change that curve a hair, just a tiny, minuscule difference, and you can see near. Grab the two lenses between your big hands and twist your wrist — just snap the part over the nose — now you can’t see anything for the rest of the day. That’s how it went for fat Ricardo Manzana.

What I like so much about that paragraph is that it starts with a typical writerly observation and then stomps right into Tod’s hulk persona. Shulman stops the reader from seeing through the lenses and makes us feel with Tod’s hands. That’s a neat trick.

Most teenagers feel isolated, misunderstood and powerless. The few that don’t are those kids who tragically peak in high school and get to be disappointed with the next sixty or eighty years of life. Tod Munn is isolated, misunderstood and — despite his physical strength and intelligence– powerless.  His story is well worth reading.

Personal Note: I met Mark Shulman on my last trip to New York, but despite spending all of Halloween together on a trick-or-treating playdate with our families he somehow never mentioned that his novel had been published just the previous month. That’s the kind of guy he is, which shocked this Los Angeleno who grew up with every waiter having a screenplay peeking out of his apron.  In fact, it wasn’t until a second Shulman visit when the truth came out, and Mark told Kathi, my wife about “Scrawl,” whereupon she happily bought a copy at The Strand.  Kathi read it first, and I picked it up a few days ago. My impetus for reading the book was personal, but I forgot that I know Mark within a few pages of the start because I was hooked– so hooked that I woke up at 4:00am today to finish the book and then marched right to my home office to write this.

You’ll like it too.