Wednesday, December 17, 2014

If your holiday sucks, I hope you’ll consider letting us know on social media

I hope you have a genuinely lovely holiday, filled with warmth, love, and joy. But if your holiday sucks, I hope you’ll consider letting us know on social media.

The ability of Facebook, et al. to make everybody miserable is well-documented. People present the best versions of themselves on social media, downplaying or completely omitting the negative aspects of their lives and exaggerating the positive aspects. When others compare their lives, warts and all, to the ostensibly perfect lives they see in their News Feed, it compels them to put on a similar façade on their own Facebook page—and the process repeats, assuring a cycle of perpetually stolen joy. It’s not a problem social media created, but, as this short film by the Higton Bros. demonstrates, social media has certainly amplified it.


This is particularly true during the holidays. Posts about perfect families and perfect Christmas trees and perfect gifts are everywhere, and, for the most part, it’s easy enough to contextualize or ignore. But if you’re already feeling down, no matter how often you remind yourself that it’s madness to compare the real you to the fictionalized them, it can be impossibly difficult not to take it all as more evidence of how inadequate your life is.

And while we can all roll our eyes whenever people post stuff that’s obviously hyperbolic (“This is the worst Christmas in the history of humanity!”) or intentionally vague (“I will never forgive you—you know who you are!”) or complainbragging (“Ugh, my new Maserati is such an ugly color”), there’s something to be said about simple, matter-of-fact statements about a holiday that isn’t going so great: This Christmas is a little rough; I’m kind of lonely this time of year; I wish I could’ve afforded better gifts for my family this year.

After all, shared joy is nice enough, but it can be facile and fleeting. It doesn’t require looking beyond oneself, and it doesn’t necessarily engage any empathic impulses. The connections forged from shared joy are often tenuous, which isn’t surprising—I’m doing great and you’re doing great! is pretty hard to sustain, and those connections can break as soon as someone starts feeling less than great.

Shared misery, on the other hand, is a much more powerful force. It requires two people to get out of their own heads, even for just a moment, and extend a bit of kindness to each other. It’s a much more daunting task because it’s hard enough to get a handle on the contours of your own sadness, let alone figure someone else’s out (to misquote Tolstoy badly, happy people are all alike; every unhappy person is unhappy in their own way). But the result of doing so—or at least trying—is a connection that’s predicated on the strength of understanding and selflessness.

That’s kind of heady stuff for social media, so I’ll just say this: People can post whatever they want to post on social media, and they can do so for whatever reason. When people brag about their holidays, I don’t doubt that many of their loved ones will be happy to hear that they’re happy—but because it’s generally easier to be happy for others when you yourself are happy, those loved ones are probably doing okay. On the other hand, for someone who feels alone and isolated, it’d probably mean a lot more to read that they’re not the only ones feeling that way.

In other words, posting about the things that are great will likely make happy people somewhat happier. But posting about the things that aren’t so great could very well make someone feel less lonely and miserable.

I’m not suggesting that everything you post on social media needs to be an act of altruism designed to make everybody feel better. I am, however, saying that you should feel totally free to break the cycle of projecting perfection, if not for your own sake then for the sake of someone who might really need to see it broken.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

“I would recommend making the choice that makes your life more interesting”

Here’s an exchange from an interview I conducted1 with PostSecret founder Frank Warren in 2009, emphasis mine:

AVE: That actually raises kind of a PostSecret etiquette issue. What should you do when you think a friend submitted a PostSecret that was posted on the Web site; for instance, you recognize their handwriting? Do you respect the anonymity and not say anything, or do you think it's okay to approach the friend? 
FW: I would recommend making the choice that makes your life more interesting. And sometimes I get emails from people who would like to know where the postmark is on the card so that it's more meaningful to them than on the Web, and that's what I recommend to them. I say I can't reveal the location of the card, but please believe it came from the place that makes your life more interesting.

Frank Warren, the remarkably kind and insightful founder of PostSecret.
(Photo: Mark Schierbecker/Wikimedia Commons)
It was cut from the version of the article that was published, which was really disappointing: that sentence above was my favorite part of my conversation with Warren, and it has stayed with me to this day. (I tried Googling to see if Warren has given a similar quote in another interview but came up with nothing, so it’s almost like this quote never existed—which is doubly disappointing.)

In fact, at my last job, I printed the quote out and pinned it on my wall as a reminder to avoid getting sucked into a permanent routine. And it actually worked—seeing that quote, day after day, and being reminded of how often I didn’t make the choice that would’ve made my life more interesting was like a daily self-administered ass-kicking that culminated in me leaving my job.

Obviously, “I would recommend making the choice that makes your life more interesting” isn’t the best advice in every situation. A disastrous heroin-fueled tailspin or a maniacal murder spree would certainly make for a more interesting life, but neither is advisable, both for your sake and the sake of those around you. Singing loud, unwanted karaoke on the bus or catcalling every woman on the way to work might make your day less boring, but it’ll probably annoy the hell out of a lot of people, and other people aren’t just props in your quest to make your day more interesting.

That aside, though, it’s a good reminder of how often we choose—either through our actions or our inactions—the less interesting choice. We stay at jobs that fry our soul. We remain in towns that we find boring and uninspiring. We hang out with the same old people, or new people that are a lot like the old people. We keep our earbuds on instead of saying hi to the person who’s carrying around a copy of a novel we’ve been really into lately.

I’m certainly not saying that we’re in complete control of our lives; there are centuries of powerful political, economic, and cultural forces that limit how much freedom any of us have. But I do believe we have more control than we often realize, and whatever agency—however small—we can assert over our lives should be recognized, valued, and exercised, even if that means confronting the fact that we’re frequently choosing the choice that makes our lives more boring.

And if that’s indeed your choice—if boring is your thing—that’s completely okay. I understand how “pleasant and unremarkable” can be a luxury, especially if you’ve had a life that’s been remarkably unpleasant.

For everyone else, though, when presented with options of equal ethicality, it’s not a bad all-purpose rule of thumb to default to the choice that makes your life more interesting. Interestingness is a pretty decent criterion by which to evaluate options, and it’s often a lot better than the other criteria—like comfort or how other people will judge me—that we use.

* * *

The other quote that I thought was really insightful from the interview actually was published:

AVE: Many fans of PostSecret say that the project has helped them feel less alone. Do you think that we're more isolated and more alone nowadays? 
FW: Yeah, I think that's one of the paradoxes of modern life - that there's never been a greater number of people on the planet, yet at the same time, there's never been a greater sense of loneliness.

There are probably plenty of explanations for this phenomenon (smartphones! social media! no more harvest festivals! neighbors who don’t say hi to each other!), but I suspect it’s something similar to how you feel lonelier at a party with 70 people versus a party with seven people, or how it’s easier to pick between three kinds of cookies than 30 kinds.

I think it’s so weird that there are nearly seven billion people on the planet—seven billion souls with feelings and thoughts and fears and opinions as real and vibrant as my own—and we don’t give it a second thought. If you do give it a second thought, though, it’s the sort of thing that makes humanity seem so big and humans seem so small, and the contradiction makes my brain do a bellyflop.


1This makes it sound like I’m a journalist (I’m not) or that I interview cool people regularly (I don’t). Warren was doing interviews for a PostSecret book that had just been released, and, having recently been given a column in the school newspaper, I was pretty eager to use my fancy new media credentials2 to talk to interesting people. Plus, I’d long been a fan of PostSecret—and, more importantly, a girl on whom I had a crush was also a fan, and I was under the impression it’d be a cute, romantic gesture to ask Warren to wish her a happy birthday to surprise her when she listened to the MP3 of the interview3.

The interview went pretty well—Warren was exceedingly kind and thoughtful, and he did indeed wish my friend a happy birthday—and I was left with a ton of material that, sadly, went mostly unpublished. I probably should have seen that coming; I was an opinion columnist (who was supposed to write about politics, I guess?), and the format didn’t really lend itself to an extended Q&A. I wound up writing a column about art and advertising that was only tangentially about PostSecret.

I then started annoying the entertainment editor with emails that basically said, “Hey, I know I don’t work for your section, and I know we haven’t met, but here’s a ten-page transcript of an interview I did, so, umm—inches, please!” The entertainment editor wound up running a highly-truncated, seven-question version of the interview a month later, published literally just to take up space.

2Such as they were; I mean, whenever I requested interviews, I had to identify myself as a columnist with The Independent Florida Alligator, which sounds pretty damn fake. In retrospect, I probably could’ve just said “the student newspaper at the University of Florida,” but then I would’ve been deprived of media relations people invariably asking me, “the Independent Florida what?”—or, in one case, “Is that a real thing?”

3I was wrong. It’s not.

Abercrombie & ditched: Mike Jeffries is out as CEO; I dance on his professional grave

Mike Jeffries resigned as CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch on Dec. 9.

This is certainly good news, as Jeffries is notorious for being an asshole of impressive magnitude. Under his leadership, Abercrombie & Fitch was sued in 2003 for employment discrimination for racist and sexist hiring practices; apparently, Jeffries loved him some white dudes, and this was reflected in who was hired for his stores and who got the best jobs once they were hired. (This is a polite way of saying that women, black people, Hispanics, and Asians had a tough time getting hired, and those that did often worked out-of-sight in the backroom.) The lawsuit ended in a settlement that included the company paying $40 million to discriminated workers and a revision of its hiring and promotion practices.

Jeffries also earned a lot of ire over some well-publicized remarks about who Abercrombie & Fitch’s target market is. From a 2006 interview with Salon:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

I mean, in a way, the candor is laudable, but yikes.

In any case, Abercrombie & Fitch’s falling profits and brand image had put Jeffries’s future with the company in jeopardy in recent years, so while his resignation happened quickly, it wasn’t exactly unexpected. To be fair, many mall clothing retailers are suffering, thanks in part to the recession and teens with lighter wallets and changing tastes.

But Abercrombie & Fitch—by far the priciest of what some1 call the Teen Mall Clothing Triple A, along with American Eagle and Aéropostale—was probably the most doomed in the wake of the recession. Abercrombie & Fitch appealed to kids who weren’t rich but wanted to appear rich; when the recession hit, the faux rich kids couldn’t afford their clothes anymore and the real rich kids weren’t buying their clothes from them in the first place. And once that became evident, fewer and fewer people felt compelled to don the moose.

So let’s take a moment to dance on the professional grave of Jeffries, a creepy dude with creepy fake blonde hair who appealed to the basest parts of American vanity and consumerism and still found a way to fuck it up. I hope he enjoys his retirement while he can, because once he passes, he will surely find himself damned to an afterlife where I presume a bunch of larger folks wearing Faded Glory-brand jean shorts and camo cargos will pelt him with copies of the September issue of Farm & Tractor Fashion for all eternity2.

* * *

In any case, Jeffries’s resignation reminded me of a small little project I did with a friend several years ago. We sneaked into an Abercrombie & Fitch and a Hollister at the mall and surreptitiously placed little activist flyers into their clothing. I thought we were being sneaky, until a customer asked us a question about a price, and we had to explain we don’t actually work there (“Oh, I’m sorry, I just saw you guys handling the clothes and I just assumed—my bad”).

Granted, the flyers don’t reflect my best writing or my best thinking, and rereading them, they make me cringe a bit. But I still look at them fondly, because I liked this version of myself that cared strongly about things and devised weird and quirky plans to express my opinions. Let’s take a look at a sampling of my efforts:


This one took an anti-consumerism and anti-advertising angle and, in particular, the inanity of paying a company money for the right to advertise on your body. It’s interesting that I picked $59 as the upper-limit for ridiculous prices to pay for a logo graphic T-shirt.


Here was a flyer that took a feminist tack, albeit with some sloppy, inelegant writing (if you’re going to sound cavalier about eating disorders, then your writing better be coruscating). I believe I was floating the theory that teen clothing retailers intentionally making clothing sizes inconsistent to mess with girls’ body image and sense of self-esteem, which is ultimately beneficial for Abercrombie & Fitch and other image-based retailers—a theory that, as far as I know, has no evidence behind it, but kind of plausible, right? Also, I’m not sure where I saw “Independent Grrl” booty shorts, but I think it’d be hilarious to own a pair.


So basically, at some point, I thought, “You know how to get the message out in a way that resonates with my generation? Get some John fuckin’ Keats up in this shit!” This is proof that, had I majored in English, I would’ve been the most obnoxious person ever. But still, the last line is the beginning of a burn that could’ve been decent with a bit more workshopping.


1By “some,” I mean “I.” But it is a handy way of looking at the teen mall clothing retailer landscape, right? Aéropostale is the budget choice; American Eagle is moderately priced and of moderate quality; and Abercrombie & Fitch is the highest tier. (I don’t mean this as a dig, by the way. One of my favorite T-shirts is from Aéropostale—a gift from a family friend—despite my having graduated middle school. But it's a really comfortable shirt and I love it so there.)

2That’s probably a little too mean.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Oh, Crest

Crest offers "58% more free" to make its 2.9-ounce travel-size toothpaste 4.6 ounces.


Hey, Crest, I know you had good intentions here, but I don't think you understand why we have to buy the travel size in the first place.

Staples is impressively dickish when it comes to packing slips!

Staples is pretty impressive when it comes to packing slip dickishness. Check out this question from an ordering FAQ in Staples's help section.

Can I send an order to someone as a gift and make sure the price doesn't show up on the packing slip? 
At this time, we are not able to accommodate requests to change the packing slips that are sent with orders. The packing slip will list the items, quantity and price paid. 
If you'd prefer to send an order without a packing slip, you can have your order delivered to yourself. Then you can bring it to one of our stores and take advantage of our full line of reasonably priced packing and shipping services to have it delivered to the recipient.

It's not just that Staples is inexplicably unable to accommodate a relatively simple request like, "Hey, please don't put a packing slip in the box."

It's not just that Staples can't even be bothered to throw in an "Unfortunately" or an "We're sorry for the inconvenience" when they explain that they don't have a "Check this box if this order is a gift" feature that plenty of other retailers figured out how to implement in, like, 1998.

It's that they do those things, and then proceed to suggest a "solution" that involves giving Staples more money. They took a glaring deficiency in their online ordering system as an opportunity to upsell. It's like going to the grocery store, asking for a plastic bag, and being told "At this time, we are not able to accommodate plastic bag requests -- but feel free to buy one of our eco-friendly green totes for $14.95."

That's not just dickish. That's breathtakingly, audaciously dickish, and I can't help but be a little impressed.

* * *

Okay, fine. Let's say, for whatever reason, Staples's ordering system really is incapable of indicating when to exclude packing slips. And the best solution Staples can come up with really is having the customer ship their gift to themselves, drive down to Staples, and then forward the package at additional cost to their recipient.

Why not offer an olive branch, like, "We know this is inconvenient, so if you do decide to do this, bring in your packing slip, and we'll give you a 25 percent discount off the shipping costs as our way of saying sorry"?

I mean, seriously, Staples. You do know that Amazon.com is a click away, right?

* * *

Full disclosure: I actually don't really care about packing slips. In fact, I don't get what the big deal is about people knowing the price of your gifts -- oh, what, you don't want your Adventure Time giant wall decal now that you know it was only $25.99?

And also, Staples is offering "onsite assembly" for your Adventure Time giant wall decal for $80? I take it back; now that's impressive.


Cri de coeur

Every single person falls into one of two categories: people who have had their hearts broken and people who are going to have their hearts broken. And that’s a compelling reason to be kind to each other—or, at least, a reason not to make things worse.

Left to its own devices, the world is a pretty fucked up place. The onus is on all of us to be the corrective force that makes it a less shitty place for each other.

Everybody's heart is as alive, real, and pained as that of your own

Saturday, December 6, 2014

“I hope your day goes okay today” flyers

One quick story about hoping people have a nice day, while we're on the subject: Several years ago, I stood in the middle of Turlington Plaza at UF and handed out little flyers with “I hope your day goes okay today” written on them. Several hundred of them, in fact.



Turlington Plaza is one of the busiest places on campus, with people bustling from one building to another, so it’s a prime spot for businesses to hand out flyers. With everybody getting bombarded with commercial messages as they scurry to class, I liked the idea of using the same technique to silently hand out what is pretty much the least commercial message ever.

Many people would grab a flyer and mutter thanks—and then, after walking several yards, turn around with a big smile and say, much more enthusiastically, “Hey, thanks!”

A few people asked what the flyer was supposed to be advertising. I said it’s not advertising anything; I really just hope your day goes okay. They still looked a little suspicious.

One person handed the flyer back to me; on the back of the flyer, the words “You are beautiful” were written—which was really touching, especially since, at the time, I had kind of a weird mustache thing going on that was decidedly not beautiful.

Another person returned the flyer, saying, ominously, that he didn’t deserve to have a good day today. He left pretty quickly before I could ask what’s up.

But this was my favorite reaction: A big, muscular, fratty-type dude with a pissed-off face took a flyer and shoved it in his pocket without looking at it. I remember thinking that he so wasn’t the target audience for this sort of project. But then, an hour later, he walked by again; as he passed by, I offered him another flyer without realizing it was the same guy.

“No thanks, man—already got one!” he said happily, showing me the front of his binder. He had one of those transparent overlay binders; he had unfolded the flyer, smoothened it out, and slid it into the front of the binder, next to some photos of his friends. That kind of made me aww.

I hope you have a nice day

I have a pet theory that says we should all say “I hope you have a nice day” instead of “Have a nice day.”

“Have a nice day,” as many people have pointed out, has become kind of useless—a stock phrase that’s automatically uttered at the end of a phone conversation or a retail transaction that means nothing to the speaker or the listener. “Have a nice day” is just translated as “this is the end of our interaction.”

That kind of sucks—I think the idea of verbalizing a desire for someone’s day to go well is charming. And like asking “How are you?,” I think there’s value in what others might dismiss as conversational lubricant; by asking (for instance) your barista how she’s doing, it’s basically a shorthand for, “I know that it’s easy to forget that the people around me aren’t just characters in my story but rather human beings with their own lives that are as real as my own, and especially in customer service situations, there’s a tendency to reduce people to, say, ‘human who’s making my coffee’ instead of the complete, vibrant people that they are, so even though it’s probably impractical and undesirable to go into the ins and outs of how your life is going, I want to ask you the question just to acknowledge the fact that you do, in fact, have a life beyond our interaction and I respect that.”

“Have a nice day” is supposed to serve the same purpose—an acknowledgement that you understand that they’re going to have a day beyond their interaction with you—but through sheer repetition and the customer-service-ization of the phrase, it’s no longer really effective.

It has a simple fix, and that fix is “I hope you have a nice day.” It’s an atypical phrasing, so it forces the speaker and the listener to actually notice the words being said. It turns a command that can be kind of pushy and presumptuous (because, hey, maybe I don’t want to have a nice day today—you don’t know what’s going on in my life) into a humble little well wishing. And it’s a much more sincere sentiment; it’s a lovely kindness to hope for something good for someone else.

As a part of my ongoing project of leaving little Post-it notes in library books, I’m testing my theory out. (At the very least, it’s probably nicer than the note I left in Paper Towns saying that I hate John Green’s face. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure he’s a nice guy. But I swear the man has a face of a dude who corrects your grammar at parties, and seriously, screw that guy.)


Attempt #1: "I hope your day goes well today."
I added a heart, just in case the message seemed to cold. But then it kind of looks like I'm being all flirty, so I specified that it was a "platonic heart." Just so no one gets the wrong idea.

Attempt #2: "Hey, I hope you have a good day today."
To make it even friendlier, I drew a cat. But then it doesn't really look like a cat. So then I clarified that it's "supposed to be cat." Which somehow makes it look less like a cat. Eh, whatever.

Attempt #3: "I hope you have an interesting day today! Unless you're in the mood for a boring day. Basically, I hope you have the sort of day that makes you happy."
tl;dr: You do you, buddy.
But no, seriously. I hate John Green's face.