Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection

Hey Arnold!, the classic Nickelodeon animated TV series about a kid growing up in the big city, gave us many gifts during its witty and often melancholy five-season run, not the least of which is what I like to call the Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection.

The theory comes from “Arnold & Lila,” an episode in the show’s third season. In it, a series of Three’s Company-esque misunderstandings results in Arnold realizing he has feelings for his friend Lila, who, by the end of the episode, no longer feels the same way about him. (“I really admire you, and I treasure our friendship ever so much,” Lila says, as a way of letting Arnold down softly. “We can still be good friends, can’t we?”)

Afterward, while talking to another one of his friends about what happened, Arnold makes this astute observation:

It’s funny. When you like someone, and they don’t really like you back, it’s not so bad. But when you really like them-like them, but you find out they just like you, it hurts.

Here’s the theory in dank meme form, which I definitely didn’t make when a girl definitely didn’t turn me down for a date, because I’m definitely not a grown-ass adult who turns to late 1990s cartoons to seek comfort and wisdom when I’m feeling bummed.



It’s worth breaking down why this is true. When someone rejects you outright—not only do they not want to go out with you, but they don’t want anything to do with you—it sucks in the moment, but it’s easy to console yourself. They’re rejecting me because they don’t really know me, you can think. If they knew all the things that make me unique, if they knew my personality, my sense of humor, my quirks, then maybe it’d be different. In short, they just don’t have enough information, so they’re not rejecting me; they’re rejecting their incomplete idea of me—which, again, still kind of sucks, but you don’t take it too personally.

But when someone “partially” rejects you—that is, they like you, but they don’t like you-like you—that shit stings. You can’t hide behind the idea that they just don’t know you, because they obviously do: they like you! They see what you have to offer, and they totally appreciate it! They want you in their life—but not in that way. For whatever reason, it’s not quite enough for them to return your feelings. Why Arnold is right when he says it hurts is simple: they’re not rejecting you because they don’t know you; they’re rejecting you precisely because they do know you. (And double ouches if, in your heart of hearts, you know they’re making the right call—but that’s a different discussion for another day.)

The Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection is often cited as evidence of the insidiousness of the “friend zone,” which is annoying for two reasons: the feelings Arnold is describing are a little more nuanced than the friend zone, and, more significantly, the friend zone is bullshit.

* * *

When I was in high school, the friend zone referred to the belief that if you’ve been friends with someone for too long, a romantic relationship was impossible. Nobody ever seemed to have the exact figures for how long was too long, probably because it was, again, bullshit.

It’s not that by being “just friends” for a week, or a month, or whatever other arbitrary length of time, you magically become undateable; we had several counterexamples all around us of people who were good friends first, then started dating. Instead, what’s happening is that, in that time in which you were just friends, your friend learned something about you, your personality, or your beliefs that made you unattractive to or incompatible with them—or, perhaps, something that seemed charming or intriguing at first became less so after repeated exposure to it. There’s also the harsh possibility that many find difficult to face: your friend was never attracted to you in the first place and at no point were you ever a romantically viable prospect.

Curiously, the idea was embraced by both guys and girls, with guys generally being the friend zoned and girls being the friend zoners. (The friend zone seems to be a pretty heterosexual—and, indeed, heteronormative—concept.) For guys, this provided a way to save face when he was rejected; it’s not that he was unattractive, but rather, the inviolable laws of the friend zone are what they are. For girls, this provided a gentle way to reject a guy—either because they wanted to avoid upsetting the guy by offering a real reason (“you too ugly, bro”), or occasionally because they didn’t want to think of themselves as the type of person who’d reject a guy based on, say, the fact that he too ugly, bro (“I’m not shallow; it’s just the friend zone”). It was an exercise in self-delusion, with both guys and girls having incentives to perpetuate it.

That, obviously, is less than ideal. (Are we enabling guys whose egos are so fragile that they have to comfort themselves with lies? Are we conditioning girls to avoid expressing what they really think to make guys feel better about themselves? Are we telling girls it’s better to be nice than to be honest?) In practice, though, it played out harmlessly enough: the friend zone was accepted and unchallenged, and the rejected guy could, after licking his wounds, go back to being friends with the girl. Encouragingly, guys who were purportedly friend zoned generally didn’t blame the girl (“Damn bitch friend zoned me!”) but rather themselves (“My bad, I waited too long”), which helped make guys and girls less adversaries in dating and more fellow travelers bound by the same principles.

* * *

Of course, my high school was different from other high schools. We didn’t have lockers. Nobody went to prom, even when MTV decided to record and humiliate us. Our AP calc class was as frequently about math as it was about playing Monopoly while watching the 2000 Nicolas Cage film The Family Man, apparently the only DVD our media center had. And I’m pretty sure at least a part of our campus was a repurposed Waffle House, which would explain both the smell and the despair.

This wasn't a scientific poll, but I'd say it captured our collective sentiment nicely.

So I’m not sure if I grew up with a different understanding of the friend zone, or if the definition has changed. But now, when a man complains about the friend zone, it usually takes on a much creepier vibe: I was so nice to her, and that bitch friend zoned me! She was just leading me on! Typical woman friend zoning me because I’m nice, yet she’ll probably go out with some asshole who won’t treat her right!

Obviously, some caveats: There are women who do lead men on intentionally and manipulate emotions for their own benefit (hey, free dinner!), because women are people and some people are shitty. And yes, there are women who find niceness unattractive and assholery attractive, because women are people and some people have weird issues. But I feel confident that these cases don’t represent the majority of friend zone whining.

(Also, as an aside, my pet hypothesis is that being nice isn’t so much an inherently attractive thing, but rather an intensifier if you already find someone attractive. Like, niceness won’t do much if someone doesn’t think you’re cute, but if you’re cute and it turns out you’re nice, it makes you that much cuter. It is in this way that niceness is a lot like eyeglasses, tattoos, and impeccable grammar.)

This mindset comes from the idea that if a man does enough nice things for a woman, he’s entitled to her time, her affection, or her body. In this view, a woman isn’t a person with her own desires, but rather a puzzle to be solved and a prize to be won. Or not even that—she’s a product to be purchased, which he deserves because he paid for it with his niceness. This is a point rebutted by an oft-memed quote misattributed to Sylvia Plath:




This betrays a serious lack of empathy. All of the men bemoaning how nice guys get friend zoned would disagree that, if a woman he found repulsive baked him enough cookies or gave him enough gifts, he should ignore his own desires because she earned him and that overrides his feelings. All of these men would recognize that they get to decide with whom they go out and have sex, and “because she’s really, really nice and really, really likes you!” isn’t sufficient for them to set aside their own preferences.

But they generally don’t extend that same courtesy to the women they want to bone. And I get it—you’re the main character in your own story, and she’s your perfect dream girl. Super Mario Bros. taught you that if you do the right sequence of things, you earn the right to some Tanookie Mario with Princess Toadstool, even if she has expressed no interest in you and your shoes smell like squished Goomba.

However, she’s the main character in her own story, too, and just like you want someone you think is gorgeous and lovely, so does she. And you might not be that person, no matter how nice you are. It’s okay. It happens sometimes. You just have to deal.

* * *

One of the worst things about the friend zone is that it makes some men embarrassed of their friendships with women. Being friend zoned is seen as a mark of emasculation, and since there’s supposedly no other purpose of being friends with a woman besides having sex with her, every platonic friendship with a woman is viewed as an implied rejection and thus a failure. Every act of kindness shown to a woman that doesn’t result in her ripping off her clothes isn’t just a waste but a pathetic act of self-torture (“You picked her up from the airport? FRIEND ZONE LEVEL 100! She had a bad day at work and you listened to her for a few minutes without getting any ass? FRIEND ZONE LEVEL INFINITY!”). These men will have fewer friendships with women, which means they’ll have fewer women they care about, which means they’ll be more accepting of whatever misogynistic nonsense they read on some creepy subreddit. And the cycle of toxicity will self-perpetuate.

The reverse happens, too. If women are constantly suspicious of their male friends’ motives, they may decide that male platonic friendships are more trouble than they’re worth. Who wants to deal with the hurt when someone you thought was a really great friend just wanted to have sex with you? Who wants to be accused of leading someone on or berated for being a typical woman who can’t appreciate a nice guy?

(Also, what’s the deal with people saying that if a man is sexually attracted to a female friend, it’s proof that he’s not really her friend, or that male-female friendships are impossible? If a woman is attractive, there’s a decent chance that at least some of her male heterosexual friends would be pretty stoked to sleep with her. But if she doesn’t want to sleep with them, it’s entirely possible that they’re okay with that and value and appreciate her friendship anyway. In fact, it’s kind of fucked up that “is sexually attracted to a woman” and “genuinely values a woman’s friendship” are often accepted as mutually exclusive concepts—what the hell does that say about us? In any case, as the great Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby says, it can be two things.)

* * *

During the rest of Hey Arnold!’s run, Arnold still crushed on Lila. And Lila continued to view Arnold as purely a platonic friend, much to his chagrin. But Arnold didn’t accuse Lila of leading him on or complain that Lila was a stupid bitch who friend zoned him because she couldn’t see how nice of a guy he was.

Yes, asymmetrical affection sucks for the reason Arnold articulated perfectly, but Arnold found a way to deal with it without being a self-pitying asshole. As with most things in life, we should all be like Arnold.

Or maybe Gerald. That dude has a field named after him and has some pretty rad hair. Let’s be like him, too.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Some argle-bargle about Antonin Scalia


It’s kind of weird: I’m essentially a single issue voter—Supreme Court nominees!—when it comes to the presidency, but it seems ghoulish when I say plainly what I mean by that: I vote for the presidential candidate who is most likely to nominate people to the Supreme Court I’ll like when one of the justices kicks the bucket. It’s for exactly this situation that I voted for Barack Obama, but man, it sure feels mighty macabre when it happens.

Anyway, I disagree with virtually everything Scalia has said professionally, and even among the vanishingly small number of things with which he and I agreed, I’ve always thought he expressed himself, likely intentionally, in the most dickish way possible.

But I’ll say this: when Stephen Colbert did his amazing in-your-face roast of George W. Bush and the D.C. establishment during the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Scalia was seemingly the only person in the room who had a sense of humor about himself. So there’s that.



Anyway, enough argle-bargle from me. I hope Scalia’s friends and family will be okay—losing a loved one always sucks, especially when large swaths of the country will greet the news with a fair bit of morbid joy. But given Scalia’s fierce pugnacity and often gleeful trolling of his ideological opposites, I think he’d take it as the very sincere and high compliment I intend it as when I say that it’s a relief that the old Grumpy Bear’s finally off the Supreme Court.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A people’s history of 88 Advertising (a.k.a. the true origin of the legendary Doc Marsh)

This is Doc Marsh.


He’s a sandhill crane that somehow graduated from medical school (I know, makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life, too) and is now a physician at Marshfield Clinic, a network of hospitals and clinics in Wisconsin.

Doc Marsh is too modest to say so himself, but he’s a pretty big deal. I don’t mean to drop any names, but check out the good doctor hanging out with none other than rock star Eau Claire School Board At-Large—and in Charge—Commissioner Joe Luginbill, a.k.a. the bad boy of the City of Eau Claire Utility Appeals Board.



Yeah, the Joe Luginbill. That ain’t no Photoshop, yo.

The reason I know that Doc Marsh wouldn’t be a shameless namedropper is because, contrary to his origin story on the Marshfield Clinic website, Doc Marsh wasn’t created by Marshfield Clinic. Rather, this alumnus of the Avian School of Medicine was the product of the finest ragtag group of advertising professionals with whom I’ve had the privilege to work: 88 Advertising.

Truth be told, I hadn’t thought about Doc Marsh or 88 Advertising in years. But back to school week—with all these commercials for school supplies and dorm gear1—coupled with an unsolicited reminder from Facebook that I’m still an admin for the Doc Marsh fan page we set up has made me nostalgic for the halcyon days of senior spring semester. This nostalgia has, in turn, provided a stark reminder of my rapidly evaporating youth, the fading sense of limitless possibility, and the ephemerality of all things.

So join me as I work through this via the most effective of quarter-life crisis remedies: a needlessly exhaustive history on a topic with limited, if any, general appeal.

* * *

ADV4800, better known as Advertising Campaigns, is the capstone course in the advertising major at the University of Florida. The premise is simple: the class is divided into several teams (or “agencies”) of about eight students each, and each agency creates and pitches an advertising campaign for a real-life client with a real-life advertising challenge. The agency whose campaign most impresses the client wins.

It’s treated as Very Serious Business. Some advertising majors have described the class as basically having a full-time job; some plan their schedules so that ADV4800 is their only class during their final semester, while others supposedly quit their actual jobs in preparation for the Campaigns workload.

While that may be a bit much, there’s good reason to take the class seriously. If rumors are to be believed, past clients gave the winning agency pretty great prizes: a travel agency purportedly gave free plane tickets to Europe to one winning team several years ago; a brewery gave its winning team a year’s supply of beer. It’s entirely possible that these are apocryphal Campaigns urban legends, but even without fabulous prizes, you get a chance to impress a client and their ad agency, and maybe you can parlay that into an entry-level position fetching crullers and advancing Keynote slides after graduation—which is the greatest prize of all, right?

And make no mistake; the course is structured to be treated as Very Serious Business. To ensure everybody treats the project seriously, agencies have the ability to “fire” underperforming or unpleasant team members via unanimous vote. A fired employee would either have to complete the project from scratch by themselves (close to impossible, and almost certainly an F), find another agency to “hire” them (pretty difficult as well—who would want to risk taking on another team’s rejected riff-raff?), or drop the course and try again next semester (which means delaying graduation).2


* * *

88 Advertising was formed entirely by chance. In this case, “chance” is slang for “Sprint’s spectacularly bad coverage in Gainesville.”

When I was at UF, there were two professors you wanted for Campaigns. Both had well-deserved reputations for being smart, insightful, encouraging, and all-around amazing people. (Basically, they were the Joe Luginbills of advertising professors.) One of them—the professor in my first real advertising class and one of my favorite instructors ever—left UF. It was genuinely upsetting (seriously, he was amazing), but we understood; I suppose there are only so many jorts and flip-flops you can take before wanting a change of scenery.

Luckily, the other professor stuck around, and I snagged the last seat in his class. This would leave me all alone in Campaigns without my three friends from previous group projects, so I repeatedly refreshed the Drop/Add page on my laptop to check if more seats were available for them to join me. It seems thoughtful, until you realize I was asking three other people to rearrange their entire schedule just so that I don’t have to be alone. (Was I a selfish dick in college? I didn’t think so at the time, but in retrospect: maybe?)

Finally, I caught lightning in a bottle: three seats opened up. I texted my three friends immediately (“QUICK 3 SEATS IN CAMPAIGNS RIGHT NOW”); two of them grab seats within minutes; one, I’d learn when it was too late, never got the text. He got stuck in the other Campaigns class, unfortunately.

If he had gotten the text, though, 88 Advertising wouldn’t have existed. Some acquaintances from our previous courses had a group of five and needed exactly three more people to complete their team, and our smaller group of three just happened to be sitting right next to them. Ours was the first team formed.

It’s not exactly clear why we picked “88 Advertising” for our name, but the explanation we settled on was that 88 miles per hour was the speed required for time travel in the Back to the Future films. We set up an official (and immediately-neglected) team Twitter account and 88advertising.com, a website that had our logo and a clip of Doc Brown saying, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” (Because we’re such innovative and creative thinkers that we don’t follow predefined paths! And, also, because when we brainstorm, we operate at 1.21 gigawatts! Thankfully, my agency didn’t make unforgivable dorkiness a fireable offense.)




We later found out that some neo-Nazis use the number 88 as a symbol; “H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet, so “88” is “HH,” or “Heil Hitler.” This was obviously distressing, and in our second team meeting, we discussed changing the name. The consensus: well, we’re definitely not neo-Nazis, but we did already buy the domain name, so… yeah.

Also, we arbitrarily decided to become arch-rivals with another agency that called themselves Checkm8te and had a chess motif on their identity materials. As far as I can tell, it was entirely one-sided (though one of our classmates told us on Pitch Day that “the biggest competition is between you guys and Checkm8te,” so maybe we eventually willed a rivalry into existence) and for the stupidest reason: we thought of the idea to have a numerical name first, damn it.



(And also, how are you supposed to pronounce that? If it’s supposed to be like “checkmate,” shouldn’t the name be “Checkm8”? You’d pronounce Checkm8te like “checkmatete.” But I digress.)

* * *

When we discovered that our client would be Marshfield Clinic, we were kind of bummed. No offense to Wisconsin’s finest health care provider or anything, but our dreams of free tickets to Europe or limitless booze evaporated, and in its place… a free checkup, perhaps? Or a coupon for 25 percent off a pap smear or something? Alas, there would be no additional prize for winning beyond the standard $100 bonus—a C-note that, it should be noted, would have to be split eight ways. So basically, $12.50 for each of us was on the line.

But it didn’t matter. Ours was a group of competitive people, and we all wanted to win, even if the prize would be barely enough to cover a meal at Chili’s, excluding tip. That’s not unusual; Campaigns was designed to bring out the fighting spirit in even the most indifferent student. What was unusual was that we somehow adopted a team policy that we were a team powered by love.

To wit, here was a set of informal team principles that we wrote, presumably instead of, y’know, actually working:



For the record, we never delivered a presentation drunk. And man, we didn’t like Checkm8te.

It gets even cutesier. This is an actual excerpt from a draft of our team philosophy:

88 Advertising is a group of eight advertising professionals who are smart, creative, dedicated, and driven. And we pretty much love each other, too.

Dorky? Kind of. Truthful? You bet.

It’s the special kind of love that comes with being around people whom you respect and admire. We all bring something to the table, and we bring out the best in each other. We’re here for each other, and we support each other—even if we’re cringing at each others’ bad jokes, or attempting and failing to give each other high-fives, or scamming free sandals from American Eagle campus reps.

We say, with varying levels of facetiousness, that we’re the most loving team ever. But that’s not just a reflection of our sentimentalism; it’s a reflection of the work we can produce. It’s true that our work is a product of our love, but just as true is that our love is a product of our work: the more we see what we’re capable of, the more we learn about each other’s abilities, and the more time we spend with each other both professionally and personally, the more our affection for each other is affirmed.

Yikes, right?

I remember I had a hand in writing that, and as tongue-in-cheek as that excerpt sounds—especially for us, people who weren’t just “smart, creative, dedicated, and driven” but also at times a bunch of jaded smartasses—I think I was being sincere when I wrote it. It’s not just that I really liked my teammates (that American Eagle aside isn’t a weird joke; we, as a team, scored free footwear from American Eagle by surreptitiously following the campus reps around the Reitz Union North Lawn and pretending to stumble upon the giveaway—seriously, these were my peeps); I wanted to have at least some evidence before graduation that, despite the advertising field’s reputation for being a cutthroat, hypercompetitive, dog-eat-dog field, you could do good work predicated on respect, admiration, and affection for your colleagues.

And we lived up to that: we did become fast friends with each other. We ate lunch and dinner and frozen yogurt together, at first as “on the clock” meetings, but then just because. We’d go out for drinks or sushi, then, because we were adorable, note the trips as “team-building exercises” on our required weekly Agency Activity Reports. (In retrospect, it must’ve looked suspicious to our professor that we had a team meeting… at a bar in midtown… that ended at 3 AM.) We gave each other personal3 and professional advice, talked about our dreams and fears for post-collegiate life, and cheered each other on whenever one of us scored and/or aced a job interview.




* * *

Somewhere along the line, we decided we needed a Marshfield Clinic mascot. We had two criteria for deciding what animal we’d use:

  1. Is the animal native to Wisconsin?
  2. Is it easy to draw the animal wearing a lab coat?

Some furious Wikipediaing later, we decided on the sandhill crane. There was some concern over whether the sandhill crane is unique enough to Wisconsin—they’re all over the country, so these birds are native to Wisconsin in the same way a housecat is native to Florida—but then we saw how easy it was to draw a crane in a lab coat, so that pretty much sealed the deal. As a placeholder, we called our creation “Doctor Marshie” and made mental notes to come up with a better name ASAP. I assume at some point we were all just, eh, whatever, let’s just chop off two syllables and call it done.

We did some rough concept art, but then hired one of our roommates to clean up our sketches. (88 Advertising’s accounts payable records show that payment was rendered in full in the form of Pabst Blue Ribbon.) This was the first official graven image of Doc Marsh:



There exists an image of a maniacal, knife-wielding Doc Marsh that was included in the art we received. We declined to use it.

My proudest contribution was some truly heinous Doc Marsh puns on the Doc Marsh Facebook page:




Also of note: we ordered a sandhill crane stuffed animal to be a sort of Doc Marsh avatar that ultimately served no real purpose in our presentation besides lookin’ cute (which I thought was supposed to be my job, amirite ladies?) and was really more expensive than it should’ve been. And we temporarily “adopted” a sandhill crane named Chevor at the Wildwood Zoo in Marshfield, Wisconsin. We got a bio sheet and photo and everything!



I put “adopted” in scare quotes because none of us remember actually sending the zoo a check; we remember contacting them for more information, and then the adoption certificate arrived. So there’s a chance we screwed the Wildwood Zoo out of $35, which, if so: we apologize. But if it’s any consolation, we probably used the $35 for team-building exercises.

* * *



This story ends the way you think it does. 88 Advertising’s pitch was selected by Marshfield Clinic as the best creative pitch (two other agencies, which our old Twitter account tells me were called +Moxie and Lighthouse, shared the prize for best strategic pitch), and we each collected a sweet $12.50, which was indeed enough to cover a dinner at Chili’s.



That receipt was real, by the way, and happened entirely by chance.

At graduation, we all sat together, and each of us put an 88 Advertising logo on our caps. It sounds impossibly lame when I say it, but it’s true and I’m going to say it anyway: we spent our final moments as undergrads together. And we spent them chanting “88,” probably to the eyerolls of anybody within earshot who knew who we were.

Sometime between then and now, Marshfield Clinic actually made Doc Marsh a real thing—although they made him look younger and less fat, which, ugh, typical youth-obsessed, body-shaming advertising. Make no mistake; our industry is evil, and not even highly-educated, fictitious birds are safe.



Also, can we all get free Doc Marsh plushies or something? Because suddenly our $12.50 seems somehow inadequate.

* * *

The easy takeaway from my 88 Advertising experience is some clich├ęd notion about the importance of having coworkers you like and about whom you care deeply. That’s true enough: many people spend as much as half (or more!) of their waking life at work with their colleagues, and the people at work become an imaginary family of sorts. If you’re indifferent to your coworkers, work tends to be boring; if you hate your coworkers, work tends to be miserable; if you love your coworkers, that love can imbue the most meaningless of tasks with a sense of mission and purpose.

Ostensibly, that’s what happened here. There’s no real reason for any of us to care about a chain of medical practices in Wisconsin; even if, inexplicably, Marshfield Clinic and/or its advertising agency were so impressed by our work that they offered us jobs, it’s doubtful any of us would’ve moved to Wisconsin to take it. Yet, we cared—a lot.

Some of it was just natural competitiveness and a desire to end our time at UF on a high note, to be sure. But a lot of it was the joy that came from creating a community that could depend on each other and the mild high that comes from growing closer by having a shared vision. In retrospect, it’s remarkable how much we jelled; I don’t recall a single fight or argument or even a cross word, even during the most stressful times. (I remember the opposite, actually; when we were close to a project milestone, we’d send emails and texts asking each other what we could do to make each other’s lives easier, because we were fuckin’ adorbs.)

But that would be a lame takeaway. The truth is, for all the hype about how Campaigns recreates what things will be like in the real world, the course hasn’t resembled my lived reality of what real-world work life is like. Campaigns creates a situation in which everybody has the same goal, and your team members have every incentive to trust and be trusted, to do good work, and to be there for each other. In the real world, your coworkers are often incentivized to sabotage, backstab, and create the illusion of working hard without necessarily doing so, all to get their promotion or their raise. Hell, I’ve worked in low-stakes workplaces, and this still exists when there’s nothing of real value to be gained—people will act shittily just to get the slightly nicer cubicle or a raise that amounts to 55 cents an hour or the right to the kitty cat Post-it dispenser4.



* * *

When I think back to 88 Advertising, I think of this: By senior year, and especially by senior spring semester, I had all but completely stopped making an effort to meet new people—it’s the last few months of college, so what’s the point? It’s going to be tough enough to hang on to your friends that you’ve known since freshman year post-graduation—time, geography, and the pressures of becoming an adult in a then-bleak economy all have a way of reducing even the strongest of connections to a tenuous, occasional-text-or-Facebook-message dynamic—that relationships that gestate during the nine months of senior year will wind up stillborn by the time you start moving out of your college apartment.

Even at the apex of the 88 Advertising lovefest, I still wasn’t Pollyanna about these realities. I remember thinking more than a few times how much it sucked that, in all likelihood, these connections are going to be temporary. And, of course, for the most part, they were: of my seven 88 Advertising colleagues, I’ve talked to exactly two of them in the past three years. And while that’s disappointing to think about—when I mentally counted the years just now, I audibly said oh damn to myself—that seems about right.

Senior year was my favorite year of college, and it was in part thanks to 88 Advertising5. Having this group of people, even temporarily, to accompany me through my final months of college and act at times as a support group, cheering section, and collective confidant played a role in turning what could’ve been a terrifying and nauseating transitional time into probably the time I felt happiest and most at peace and, if not necessarily fearless about the future, then kind of scared-but-excited about it.

So that’s my real takeaway from—and the legacy of—88 Advertising: that impermanent connections have value, and just because something is temporary doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning. And that’s heady stuff for what is essentially just a study group for a class project, but hey: transitional times have a way of filling normally insignificant things with more meaning than they should have. These people were pretty great, and I’m glad I got to know them, even if it was just for a little bit.

Or, at least, that was my takeaway, until it turned out that Doc Marsh became a real thing. That’s a much less bittersweet legacy for 88 Advertising, so I’m happy to go with that instead.

* * *

Oh, and also, we learned that “Use Twitter!” will not be well-received as an answer to, “How can Marshfield Clinic reach out to the Amish community?”



I can’t confirm that 88 Advertising had anything to do with @MarshfieldAmish. But I can confirm that @MarshfieldAmish definitely got suspended. I regret nothing.



1I started writing this back in September. I decided to finish it after I wished one of my 88 Advertising colleagues a happy birthday and he expressed interest in reading it (and to make sure it was completed before Marty McFly Goes to the Future Day).

2I’ve always been fascinated by this aspect of Campaigns. Wouldn’t it be crazy strategy if someone joins an agency with the intention of being a mole for another agency? The mole steals all of the team’s work, then acts like an ass to get fired, then gets hired by the agency he was working for all along. It’s an amazing bit of chicanery—especially if the agency who’s supposed to hire the mole double-crosses him and declines to hire him in the end.


3I remember one of my teammates was going through a breakup, and I used my column in the campus newspaper to try to cheer her up, resulting in an article describing all the reasons why a breakup can be a good thing right there in the editorial pages. And although, yes, I totally had a crush on her, I’d like to point out my super awesome restraint in not asking her out on a date, because I figured either she’d say no OR she’d say yes and my awkward-ass self would have, probabilistically speaking, found a way to make the date go terribly, and either way, I didn’t want to risk making her feel uncomfortable having to work with either the Dude She Turned Down or the Dude With Whom She Went On A Shitty Date for an entire semester. Also, I thought she was really smart and pretty and I got a case of the cowardice. Really, either explanation works.6

4Just kidding—I got that kitty cat Post-it dispenser thanks to an awesome coworker, so that’s actually a bad example. But my general point stands.

5It was also thanks in huge part to my amazing senior year roommate, but this essay isn’t about him, and we don’t really get effusive about each other ever since we got dinner at a Cheesecake Factory and a well-meaning waitress thought we were a couple and started earnestly suggesting post-dinner date ideas for us. It’s my bad—I had a mustache at the time, so I can see how she could’ve gotten confused.

6Probably more the coward thing. Hey, she was so cool and so cute and I got a little intimidated. It happens. Don’t judge me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Relationships that end ≠ relationships that fail

I don't like how we say that any relationship that ends is one that failed. 

Because, seriously, if you helped each other be less alone and lonely for a while, or if you helped each other love more deeply or meaningfully, or if you helped each other become stronger, kinder, more thoughtful people — I mean, it sucks when a relationship ends because you couldn't make a long distance thing work, or you just didn't have a lot in common anymore, or someone was stunningly mediocre in bed1, but it's hard to characterize a relationship like that as, all things considered, a failure.

The relationships that fail are the ones that leave its members more thoughtless, more jaded, more isolated, more cynical, and crueler to themselves and others. Or, in other words, the relationships that fail are the ones that leave its members worse than if the relationship never happened.

We often don't have any control over whether a relationship ends, but we do have a lot of control over whether it fails. We should all try harder. 


1TOTES HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLE, LADIES, I SWEAR. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

“Perfect Vodka”? Yeah, no — let’s just keep calling it Coral Sky Amphitheatre

The former Coral Sky Amphitheatre—previously Cruzan Amphitheatre, Sound Advice Amphitheatre, Coral Sky Amphitheatre again, Mars Music Amphitheatre, and Coral Sky Amphitheatre the first time—has another new name: Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre. None of us should call it that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Perfect Vodka, and, frankly, the next time I make the decision to morosely nurse a broken heart with liquid therapy, I’m pleased to know that I’ve got a local, non-GMO, gluten-free option to fuel some inevitably pathetic texts imploring girls from yesteryear to take me back I didn’t mean it I’m so lonely [crying cat emoji]. And really, it’s not like “Coral Sky” is a particularly inspired name.

But companies regularly spend billions to influence what we think, say, and write, and we should stop being complicit in it.

This, first and foremost, includes news organizations. No honorable journalist would do pro bono shilling for a company, and no dishonorable journalist would do so without getting paid. Yet both are more than happy to drop a company’s name in an otherwise unrelated news story about a concert or sporting event or political rally, completely free of charge, because that company paid someone else for naming rights.

Some reporters may argue that they have a journalistic responsibility to properly identify the subjects in their stories using their self-declared names. For example, UNC-Chapel Hill announced in May that a building on their campus, Saunders Hall, would be renamed Carolina Hall. Nobody would quarrel with reporters using the new name because the new name reflects the evolution of race relations, respect for the school’s diverse student population, and the general notion that it’s not a keen idea to have school buildings named after Klansmen in the 21st century.

When Coral Sky becomes Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre, however, the only thing it reflects is the gaming by marketers of what constitutes a “name.” And when a venue runs through so many “names” based on who’s giving its owners money at the moment, it cedes the right to have a name; it instead becomes an unnamed venue that has very prominent ad space available. To put it more simply, if Live Nation insisted that the formal name of the amphitheatre was “Coral Sky Amphitheatre Sponsored By Perfect Vodka,” there isn’t an editor who wouldn’t zap the last four words. How is instead calling it “Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre” any better?

This is more than an inside-baseball, ethics-in-naming-journalism issue, however. It’s about reclaiming the way we think, the way we talk, and the way we view the world around us.

It’s not a coincidence that we think we need to go to “Publix” as opposed to “the grocery store,” or that we say we’re buying “Kleenex” instead of “facial issue”; it’s a part of a concerted effort to embed brands into every aspect of our conscious life. Try going a week without using brand names in conversation. Or even a day. It’s difficult, and even if you can do it, it’ll sound very unnatural to both you and those listening to you. That, too, is not a coincidence.

What makes venue sponsorships particularly egregious is that the companies involved are asking—nay, telling—us to use a brand name for no reason other than they say so. Dennis Cunningham, the president of Perfect Vodka, is quoted in the press release announcing the name change as saying that “[g]reat music and our smooth vodka are sure to make perfect memories,” which is revealing: they’re not just buying naming rights. They’re trying to buy a space in our memories—a space that they did not earn and have no business occupying.

There’s also something very worrying about getting accustomed to viewing everything around us as a medium for advertising. When we see that even things as fundamental as names are for sale at the right price, it trains us to view the places—and, by extension, the people—around us as mere commodities to be exploited then disposed of rather than things that have value, merit, and beauty beyond generating wealth. And South Florida—which, at its worst, is marked by conspicuous consumption, bulldozers, cosmetic surgery, and McMansions—doesn’t need any help fostering a culture of disposability.

To be fair, the venue at 601-7 Sansbury Way isn’t the Grand Canyon, and “Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre” isn’t the abomination that “Arizona Presents Verizon Gorge” would be. But it’s not inconceivable that an ambitious marketing executive will see a compliant public desensitized to the banal horrors of omnipresent branding and find new, previously sacrosanct places to stick their brand names and logos. The onus is on us to head that off now.

Our thoughts, our speech, and our culture shouldn’t be for sale. Live Nation can call its amphitheater whatever it wants, and Perfect Vodka can pay whatever it wants to Live Nation, but we shouldn’t go along with it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

It is so ordered

Photo: Ludovic Bertron via Wikipedia (CC BY)

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage—a.k.a., marriage—today in a 5-4 decision. Now is as good a time as any to re-post this picture of former Sen. Rick Santorum, autographed by sex advice columnist/LGBT activist/neologism coiner Dan Savage with his best wishes.



It’s pretty much the only autograph for which I’ve ever asked.

* * *

And a small anecdote: When I was in high school in 2006, my school district, as policy, blocked all LGBT-related websites, including those that provided resources and support for LGBT youth. (In what I’m sure was a complete coincidence, access to the websites of right-wing groups featuring anti-LGBT material—including Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and NARTH—were completely accessible.)

My high school’s online newspaper published an article about the policy; subsequently, our online newspaper got blocked as well.

Anti-LGBT web filtering policies and we were still stuck using Internet Explorer. Dark days indeed.

I remember when we were publishing that article, we felt kind of badass and edgy and controversial. I’m grateful that, thanks in part to five members of the Supreme Court today, sticking up for LGBT students doesn’t feel badass and edgy and controversial anymore; it just feels like the right, expected, common sense thing to do.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

This guy are sick

I remember back in high school (and the first year or so of college), I apparently had a thing for pretty girls with brown hair and green eyes. I say “apparently” because this wasn’t something I announced or was even initially aware of; my friends pointed it out—repeatedly—and just rolled with it.

There was a period when every time I told some people that I met a girl I liked, the first thing anyone would ask, independently of each other, was, “Brown hair and green eyes, right?” My response—“Hey, shut up! …But yes”—didn’t help matters.

Among my circle of friends in high school, it was reasonably well known that I had a crush on a friend who had brown hair and green eyes, which was notable because she and I had close-to-literally nothing in common. (In retrospect, it was weird that we were friends to begin with, but what can I say? I was a friendly dude in the eleventh grade.) Yet nobody questioned it because, again: brown hair and green eyes. Someone attempted to mount a defense on my behalf—“It’s not necessarily because of the hair and eyes, guys; don’t forget she has a really nice ass”—and that’s when I decided to embrace the brown-hair-green-eyes thing, because having a reputation for liking girls with certain hair and eye colors seemed less creepy than having a reputation for being an ass guy.

The reason I bring this up is because I’m belatedly realizing that there’s a strong chance that this came about in part—and likely in whole—out of sublimated feelings for Aeris Gainsborough. Listen, I’m not saying that I’m proud of this.

Also, the 1997 version of me would've had his mind blown if he had known what kind of flowers Aeris the Flower Girl was actually selling. He still would've fought anyone who made "She sure can handle a staff well" jokes, though, because how dare you disrespect sweet beautiful Aeris, damn it.

Anyway. I’m excited for the Final Fantasy VII remake. But not in that way, I swear.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Is it okay to ask out your waiter/waitress?

So you’re at a restaurant with a friend. At some point in the evening, perhaps in a lull in conversation between the removal of the plates formerly containing the rings of onion but before the presentation of the back ribs of baby, your friend leans over, gestures across the restaurant towards your server, and asks: “Pretty cute, right?”

And of course, your server is pretty cute. Plenty cute, in fact. And they seem really nice and sweet and charming. Even though you react in horror when your friend offers to exclaim, “MY BUDDY THINKS YOU’RE CUTE” when your server returns, a question flits across your mind: Is it okay to ask them out?

POINT: No, it’s not okay under any circumstances

Oh, you think your server’s cute? Congratulations—so did virtually everyone else they waited on today, and they’ve already had to deal with a barrage of unsolicited comments on their physical appearance, invasive questions about their personal life, high-larious innuendo-laden jokes pilfered from decade-old episodes of Entourage, and propositions beginning with the phrase, “What time do you get off… from work?” So why do you want to be a part of that?

The harsh reality is this: the basis of asking someone out is to explore a connection that you’ve made with them, and you probably didn’t make a connection with your server. The reason they seemed so sweet and charming? The reason they’re laughing at your jokes? The reason they’re not just saying hey, fuck off when you’re being all flirty with them? They want a good tip. Or, at least, they don’t want you to call over the manager and complain about how rude they were.

Because we insist on allowing the wildly outmoded system of tipping to be a thing, there’s an absurd asymmetry of power in the server-customer relationship that’s already fraught with tension. Don’t make it worse by making them worry that you’ll punish them with a shitty tip if they reject your advances or are otherwise insufficiently ego-stroking.

Look, there are plenty of wonderful, attractive people on whom you can hit who aren’t at work and aren’t just trying to get through their shift. Be considerate; don’t hit on people whose ability to make rent requires them to be a captive audience to you.

COUNTERPOINT: Yes, it’s okay as long as you’re polite

Let’s not exaggerate what we’re talking about here: it’s just a polite invitation to coffee at the end of your meal. If your server is old enough to have a job, your server is old enough to deal with this basic, mundane social interaction without it ruining their day.

That’s not to say that some customers can’t be total pieces of shit about it, and there’s no excuse for that. But it does no one any good to define “inconsiderate” down to such an extent that considerate people start to internalize the idea that merely asking someone out is an untenable imposition. Asking someone out at their work is less than ideal, to be sure, but it’s hardly a sin.

Let’s be real: plenty of people have gone on dates with their servers.  It could be that your server is just being friendly and gunning for a tip, but maybe they actually like you and think you’re cute. Both are possibilities, but why assume when you can know for sure? It’s not like your server is really in a position to ask you out.

Here’s the bottom line: Your server is an adult (…seriously, they are, right?). They should be able to handle a polite date request. Ours is a society where people are generally expected to find love and be in relationships, and that means sometimes people will ask other people out. Nobody should have to deal with assholes, of course, but polite invitations to coffee? That’s just a part of living in a world with other human beings.

* * *

If you’re going to ask your server out anyway

Be polite. Don’t be cocky, gross, creepy, or sexual—they’ve already likely heard all of that shit, and there’s a good chance they’ve already heard it earlier that day. (“But this one time my buddy Gizmo told this joke about titties and totally hooked up with our server!” Yeah, I know, some people inexplicably reward being a creep; it doesn’t make it okay to be creepy.)

Don’t monopolize their time. It’s understandable to want to build a rapport with your server so that you don’t seem like just another customer. Sometimes it works. But most of the time, you’re just making them squirm because they’ve got work to do and they don’t know how to extricate themselves from customers who are transparently hitting on them. If anything, take their lead: if they don’t seem chatty after you ask them how their day is going or what appetizer they recommend, don’t push it.

Ask them out after you’ve tipped. You can at least remove the “Is this going to adversely affect my tip?” aspect of the situation from the equation. Also: tip well (it varies, but it’s normally around 20 to 25 percent for dinner or brunch; 25 to 30 percent for a weekday lunch), but not absurdly well—it could be construed as trying to purchase a date with them.

Don’t be loud or ostentatious about it. In particular, don’t let other tables or their coworkers hear—being asked out in front of an audience is really uncomfortable. Plus, it sucks to be embarrassed in front of coworkers; they have to see those jerks every day, you know.

Take no for an answer. Understand that, because of the aforementioned asymmetry in the server-customer dynamic, your server may find a way to turn you down that sounds friendly, playful, or equivocal. If you don’t get an unmistakable “yes,” then you should take it as a “no.” Make sure you signal that you fully accept and understand it’s a “no” so that your server doesn’t think you’re a creep who will, like, follow them into the parking lot or whatever.

Consider asking them out with a note. It’s more passive and middle-schoolie than most people are comfortable with, but it’s actually a particularly considerate way to ask out your server: it avoids an awkward conversation, it’s private and audience-less, and if they’re not interested, they can easily turn you down with a pocket veto. Many—though, it should be noted, not all—people would appreciate that sort of thoughtfulness. (If you do this, you should probably assume that they’re not going to call instead of, say, constantly checking your phone. If you know you’re the type who will constantly check your phone, seriously: don’t do this.)

Use common sense. You’re 45, and your server looks like they’re taking an extra shift to pay for senior prom? Come on now.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

In defense of American tourists

I came perilously close to buying this T-shirt and making it a permanent part of my official international travel wardrobe:



The T-shirt is sold, appropriately enough, by the fine folks at struggling teen mall retailer and purveyor of amusing pizza-themed underwear American Eagle Outfitters, and the “All ‘Murican” refers only to the wearer of the shirt and not the shirt itself. (The shirt is “imported” per its product description, manufactured in what I’m sure are humane and not-at-all sweatshop-like conditions in a country whose workers are treated fairly and unexploitily1.)

And despite it appealing to the hipster-asshole side of me that likes things drenched in irony, I decided against it in part because wearing that shirt abroad is basically akin to wearing a shirt that says “I’M OBNOXIOUS, PLEASE MUG ME” emblazoned across the front.

But mostly I decided against it because I felt like I’d be reinforcing all manner of American tourist stereotypes: loud, inconsiderate, closed-minded, and zealously patriotic to the point of xenophobia.

Here’s the weird thing, though—the only people I’ve ever heard complain of obnoxious American tourists are other Americans, usually as a way of signaling that they’re among the few “good ones” and not the one of the plebs in Hawaiian shirts who boarded in Zone 3 and will make a beeline for the nearest McDonald’s as soon as they land. (I’ve also heard it from Canadians, but—I mean this with affection and respect because I have nothing but genuine love for our northern neighbours—we basically think of you guys as nice Americans with poutine.)

And while I don’t doubt that there are many non-Americans who find us annoying, the perpetuation of this stereotype feels a little bit like haughty yet insecure Americans trying to prove their worldly bona fides by shitting on their fellow countrymen—or, at least, their poorer, middle-American countrymen. This isn’t just elitist; it seems to be factually inaccurate.

Consider this: I’m sure there are plenty of Americans who are disrespectful and disdainful of other cultures, but those people generally don’t travel internationally. Hell, they don’t even get passports—only around 40 percent of us have one, despite the American passport being among the most powerfulif not the most powerful—in the world.

That’s not to say that, if you don’t have a passport, you’re uncultured ‘Murican swine; for instance, while the $135 application and execution fees for first-time passport applicants aren’t oppressive, they’re not nothing, and could very well represent a hardship for many families in a tight financial spot. But getting a passport is an affirmative step that at least suggests an interest in broadening one’s horizons and meeting people who aren’t like you.

Plus, consider how notoriously overworked the average American is and how few vacation days we get. (And consider a pervasive corporate culture that guilts employees who actually use their vacation days for anything other than sick days—and even then, are you sure you can’t wash down a couple of Advils with a bottle of Purell and come in for a few hours?) When an American—especially a working- and middle-class American—wants to travel abroad, it’s kind of a big deal: we’ve made the decision to cobble together several paychecks and our meager PTO not to do the easy thing (Las Vegas, Disney World, etc.) but to visit someplace new and unfamiliar that takes us out of our comfort zones. That’s kind of a weird thing for an asshole tourist to do.

What is fair, though, is saying that many of us are less sophisticated travelers. But to deride American tourists for that is like going to a Planet Fitness and laughing at fat people at the treadmill. Yes, I get it—we look hopelessly lame in Old Navy tees and cargo shorts2; our working knowledge of other countries is gleaned largely from Roadblocks and Detours on The Amazing Race; and we speak only one language because our high school only required two years of French, and even then, we squeaked by based on what we learned from Muzzy3.

But there’s a lot that’s great about American tourists. We’re friendly and warm and whatever your accent is, we’re instantly charmed by it. We’re excited and enthusiastic about everything, and we don’t bother pretending we’re not. We might not know your language, but we spent the plane ride over Googling how to say please and thank you and how are you doing? and, damn it, we’re going to do our best to make that work before moving onto pantomimes. And because of our country’s ridiculous labor laws, we tip absurdly well. We may be annoying sometimes, but I think there’s a lot to love about us.

My personal conspiracy theory is that this “obnoxious American tourist” stereotype is just a way for some Americans to keep the rest of us away from the world, sort of like how some folks don’t want their favorite band to become too popular. And the sad thing is, it works—at least some of those 60 percent of Americans who don’t have passports have to be people who’ve been told that the rest of the world will hate them so they don’t even bother. That’s bullshit.

So, my fellow Americans: stop with this stereotype. Stop repeating it—it’s not self-deprecating; it’s condescending, because you know you’re not talking about yourself when you say it. Stop fearing it—it’s not true, and there are plenty of places who will love to have you.

But most importantly, stop letting it flourish. There’s an easy way to stop it, and that’s by going abroad and being a counterexample. Plenty of American qualities make us natural travelers if only we’d just go. We’re curious, polite, adaptable, and a little brave—so let’s go. Worst comes to worst, there’ll probably be a McDonald’s when we get there.

* * *

I know this is a defense of American tourists, but can I take a moment to defend tourists in general? I never really understand why people complain about tourists visiting their town, or why so many bumper stickers and hacky cartoonists so frequently express a desire to murder visitors with guns.

Robert Ariail/Spartanburg Herald-Journal

When a tourist visits, what they’re basically saying is, “Hey, I think your city is so cool that I’m going to use what little spare time I have to check it out, and I’m going to pump all this sweet money into your local economy. Hope you don’t mind!”

And no, I don’t mind. I’m glad you’re here. Enjoy the beaches, y’all, and don’t forget there are PubSubs at Publix if you get hungry. I might be biased, though—people from out of state tend to be better drivers than Floridians, so, if nothing else, the roads feel safer when they’re here4.


1Not an actual word.

2This was an actual outfit I wore. A lot. In my defense, Italy’s pretty damn hot and everybody done scared me about muggers.

3Or Dora the Explorer, for these damn latter-millenials with their youth and their Instagram and their damn 21st century Nickelodeon.

4For the purpose of this moment of empathy, I’m not counting snowbirds as tourists. Those people will kill you.

Running a kindness deficit

When people use the phrase “kindness deficit,” they usually mean “a lack of kindness”; e.g., “Our society is experiencing a kindness deficit.”

People are free to use the phrase however they want, of course, but I don’t like that definition. First, it makes the phrase kind of unnecessary (just say “a lack of kindness,” right?), but more importantly, it ignores some of the nuances in using the deficit analogy.

Here’s a better definition: Just like a budget deficit occurs when a government spends more money than it takes in, a kindness deficit occurs when a person gives more kindness than s/he receives.

This is a more serious problem than someone merely not getting enough kindness. When people realize they’re giving much more love than they’re getting, they regret it. They feel stupid. They correct it by slowly closing their heart. They swear to never make the same mistake again.

And then the world becomes that much shittier.

It’s our job—all of us, collectively—to do what we can to prevent each other from regretting being kind. Look, we’re not personally responsible for rescuing every single human being, but we need to catch people when we can—when we see that the universe is kicking someone’s ass who doesn’t deserve it; when we see someone normally prodigal with their love start to be stingier with it; when we see the spirit and warmth start to fade from someone’s eyes.

It’s easy to talk a big game about wishing the world was friendlier and kinder and more wonderful, but this is what we can do to make it so. It’s one of the worst things in the world to make some regret being kind; corollarily, it’s one of the purest, most genuine acts of love to make someone feel good about it.

So yeah. We don’t even have to make them break even or anything. Most people don’t mind running a kindness deficit just as long as the deficit isn’t large enough to make them throw up their arms and say fuck it all. We just need to catch people when we can: large things are nice, but small things—a compliment, a candy bar, a hug, a thoughtful note—can nudge a deficit towards manageable and buy enough time until someone else more qualified can take over.

Human beings are warriors against misery, and we should be on the same team.