Showing posts with label college. Show all posts
Showing posts with label college. Show all posts

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.

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.

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.

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.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Garden State at 10: Junioritis and home


On the first day of one of my sophomore year classes, our professor had us do a getting-to-know-each-other activity in which we all wrote down a dozen fun facts about ourselves on a piece of paper. Once we were all done, we'd introduce ourselves to each other, and, for every fact that somebody had written down that applied to you as well, you were supposed to put your initials next to the item.

I remember my fun fact that got the most initials: "I still love the movie Garden State," with the underline. More than half of the people with whom I spoke initialed it, and many of them actually repeated it back: "I still love it too," verbalizing the underline themselves. I'm not sure when the backlash against Garden State happened, but whenever it did, it happened hard enough that I felt compelled to couch my love for the movie with a defensive, self-aware still.

This past July was the ten-year anniversary of the movie (and this past week was the ten-year anniversary of me watching it), and many folks on the Internet have taken the opportunity to write thinkpieces on the movie -- either to smack it around further, or to offer some defense of it with an implied "It's not as bad as you remember!"

I don't have any unique, gamechanging defense of Garden State; rather, I'll just say that the hate for the movie is kind of absurd. It's not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination ("New Slang" did not change my or anyone else's life1, for instance), but there just isn't anything in the movie that should inspire anything worse than mild to moderate annoyance if it isn't your thing, let alone the accusations of cinematic malpractice frequently leveled at it.


Garden State, it's worth pointing out, got a very strong 86 percent at Rotten Tomatoes and a decent 67 points at Metacritic. Critics can be wrong, of course, but those numbers do suggest that the hostility towards Garden State isn't because it was a Terrible Movie That Everybody Agrees Was Terrible2.

In any case, the movie still means a lot to me, and I consider it among my favorite movies of all time. My DVD of the movie -- given to me, incidentally, by my AP comparative government teacher who bought it on my enthusiastic recommendation and subsequently hated it4 -- has been played more often than any other DVD I own, in part because Garden State has been one of my go-to AV comfort foods for a decade now. Here's why I think that is.

Junioritis

I saw Garden State at the start of my junior year of high school5, which is pretty much the best time for this sort of movie to have maximum impact. Consider this: Junior year is the oldest you'll be at high school without feeling like you're too old for high school.

In senior year, of course, high school feels irrelevant. You usually have the lightest course load -- a few AP classes here and there, or maybe a PE requirement you've been putting off, or study halls that transofrm into impromptu trips to the beach and/or Chili's. Or you've dual-enrolled at a local college and the physical high school itself is irrelevant. By October, you've probably applied to most of your favored colleges, and by January, most everybody knows where they're going after high school. It becomes very clear that your academic career will not end if you half-ass a SparkNotes-inspired Jane Eyre essay.

More importantly, the non-academic parts of your high school life start to feel irrelevant, too. Things that once seemed so important -- your friends' weekly movie night, emotional fallout from a failed relationship, trying to ask out someone you've been crushing on for months -- suddenly feel meaningless. As friends announce their plans to move to different cities, a sense of "We're probably never going to see each other again" hangs in the air; "We'll keep in touch on MySpace6" seems less an empty but well-intentioned promise and more an affirmation of just how far apart you guys will be.

Junior year is the opposite situation. College is still far enough away that high school still feels very real, but not so far away that you don't feel pangs of urgency -- oh shit, high school is halfway over! This is my last chance to leave this place with a bunch of amazing friendships, cool stories, and memories that'll last forever! It's this urgency that makes junior year so potentially transformational. It's the only year where high school feels both urgent and important because there's just enough time left that accomplishing goals seems both feasible and worthwhile but not enough time that you can afford to put it off.

And junior year is hopeful. There's hope that you really will be best friends forever with someone, instead of grimly thinking that all your high school friends are doomed to become "acquaintances with whom you occasionally get coffee and perfunctorily rehash old stories." There's hope that the parties or beach days or late-night coffee chats or road trips will still seem cool and significant and "what life is all about" two or three years from now. There's hope that a crush can be the one you love forever -- and not just your final pre-collegiate sex buddy a week before you each move into your dorms.

So if senioritis, broadly defined, is the apathy induced by the feeling that a particular stage of life (like high school) is no longer relevant because it will soon be over and nothing meaningful or important can be done in the time left, I think junioritis is the spurt of urgent activity caused by a realization that a particular stage of life is almost over coupled with the hope that there is still enough time left to do something meaningful and important.

Which brings me back to Garden State. The movie's main argument -- that allowing yourself to feel and experience life even if it hurts is better than numbing yourself to everything -- isn't exactly groundbreaking stuff, but for a junior who was very aware that high school was halfway over, it was a call to action: to build and deepen friendships and relationships, to trust my friends and share parts of my soul I had previously kept to myself, and to try to have completely original moments in human history.


In other words, typical high school angsty stuff. But I don't mean to sound dismissive; I'm grateful that Garden State was there to kick my ass into taking more emotional risks, and to assure me that whenever those risks resulted in some heartache, what I felt was better than not feeling anything at all.

Home and the "Garden State moment"

The other big takeaway from Garden State was one that only clicked once I came back home from college during my freshman year Thanksgiving break. In the movie, Zach Braff talks about "home":


You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn't really your home anymore? All of a sudden, even though you have some place where you put your shit, that idea of home is gone. ... You'll see one day when you move out. It just sort of happens one day, and it's gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It's like you feel homesick for a place that doesn't even exist.

I wrote about this in my college newspaper as a part of a series of columns offering advice to freshmen. In the column, I defined the "Garden State moment" as "the moment where you feel that something with which you grew up that seemed so significant, comforting or protective just isn't all that relevant to your current life anymore," and offered as an example the moment when you come back home from college, visit an old friend, and discover that one or both of you have moved on.

What I didn't realize is that your twenties are a minefield of Garden State moments. Your twenties, after all, are these years that are filled with transition: new jobs, new cities, new people, new priorities. Your twenties are tough on every kind of relationship -- it's hard enough when you're making a conscious, concerted effort to maintain friendships; it's damn near impossible to rely solely on increasingly faded shared memories to keep them alive.

For all of Garden State's flaws, it does a remarkable job of capturing the feeling of lacking grounding and emotional homelessness. To be sure, there are more serious problems (e.g., actual homelessness), but for those wandering through their twenties, it can be soothing to the soul. I like this line from the now-defunct Premiere magazine's review: "Not since The Graduate has a movie nailed the beautiful terror of standing on the brink of adulthood with such satisfying precision."

I think Garden State is, in essence, a movie about not having your shit together, and the dislike -- if not necessarily the revulsion -- directed towards the movie is understandable if you have little patience for that. It's a movie that's awkward and heartfelt and messy and earnest, which can be tedious, but as far as losing your sense of home and finding a new one goes, "awkward and heartfelt and messy and earnest" is some kind of perfect.





1Except James Mercer's, I guess.

2Personally, I think it's some combination of: (1) how cool it is to hate Zach Braff now; (2) the navel-gazing films of often-poor quality that Garden State influenced; (3) a desire to put distance between one and a younger, presumably more embarrassing version of oneself that happened to like Garden State to prove unconsciously that one has matured; and (4) the desire for pop-culturally aware folks to show that they dislike the right things by being particularly vociferous about things that they normally wouldn't feel that strongly about, the way that people pretend to get all flustered and angry about Comic Sans3 even though nobody can articulate a real reason why they're that bothered by it. That, or they just really didn't like the movie. Whatevs, that's cool, too.

3Truthfully, I don't even like Comic Sans, but there's a smugness that permeates the Comic Sans hate, and smugness predicated on groupthink is kind of obnoxious. And the oft-stated reason for hating the font -- it's used in inappropriate settings -- doesn't really seem to justify the outsized scorn for it. WARNING: QUARANTINE ZONE - DEADLY AIRBORNE DISEASE! It looks weird, true, but do you really care? In conclusion, that's why all my emails and faxes at my previous job were in Comic Sans, and that's possibly why it is now my "previous" job.

4Well before the backlash, to his credit.

5I saw Garden State with who was, in theory, one of my close friends in high school. In practice, our friendship was kind of a disaster -- filled with angst and hurt feelings and so many awkward lunches in which none of our mutual friends were aware of how much we sometimes hated each other. But! She did become my go-to person with whom I could see off-the-beaten-path movies, a job that few of my other friends wanted, so I'm thankful for that. I remember taking her to see Brokeback Mountain, telling her it was a cowboy movie but omitting the fact that it was a movie about gay cowboys, and it was a moment of unbridled joy watching her shock at the first sex scene. I also took her to see Serenity; we went to a Sunday mid-afternoon show because I figured it'd be less crowded, but no -- we open the theater door, and we're immediately greeted with a packed theater and the scent of nachos and intense body odor. Yelling "For fuck's sake, Browncoats, I'm with a girl here!" was running through my mind. (She, like my AP government teacher, didn't really like Garden State, either.) 

6Yes, MySpace. This is a thing several people actually wrote in my yearbook. I'm old.