Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label storytelling. 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 clichéd 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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

It’s not the meat in your feet, but the pep in each step

I went to the mall today to exchange some shoes, and I had this conversation with a cute salesperson.

“How can I help you?”

“I bought these shoes from the website, but I think they’re one size too big. I was wondering if I could exchange them for smaller ones.”

“Sure, no problem.”

“I’m not going to lie—it’s kind of emasculating having to go one size smaller.”

She giggles and looks at the shoes. “Okay, I’ll go ahead and look for an eight-and-a-half.”

“Umm. Better just get an eight.”

Oh,” she says, with a smartass smile.

“I swear I’m usually a nine.”

“And I swear I believe you.”

Not that it matters, but for the record, I really am usually a nine… ladies.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

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.

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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How a feminist video game critique won me a Game Boy Advance & exposed my areolae

When I was in high school, I entered a contest on Bonus.com and won a fun prize package that included a Game Boy Advance, a copy of Metroid Fusion, a Bonus.com mouse pad, and a Bonus.com T-shirt made of material so thin that the slightest perspiration resulted in my man-nipples being visible for all to see. (I wore the T-shirt all of twice before it earned a spot at the bottom of a forgotten drawer.)

This triumph isn’t as impressive as it sounds (and I say that fully aware of the fact that it doesn’t sound impressive at all)—Bonus.com was a website containing dumb little Macromedia1 Shockwave games aimed at bored kids aged eight to ten, and the contest was a writing competition. Entrants—who, again, were mostly kids in elementary school—submitted a 100-or-so-word review of their favorite video game, and each week for ten weeks, the Bonus.com judges picked the best one to reward with the prize-package.

So, yes, I totally kicked the ass of some eight-year-old who thought he could win a video game, and I’m obviously a terrible person, because: Hah hah, no brand new Game Boy for you, loser! Try again when you’ve mastered subject-verb agreement!

In my defense, most of the other reviews sucked. I mean, I know there’s only so much you can do in 100 words, especially when you haven’t reached puberty, but, c’mon. Look at this winning review:

Metroid Fusion.... how I love thee.... your graphics are so crisp, your loading speed incredible, and your controls second to none. But neigh! Thy be flawed! Thy map is annoying, and thy enemies basic and non-diverse! And, lo-and-behold, thy experience to quick and easy.... but wait! There is redemption! Boss battles are huge and amazing, and thy save system is spectacular! Thy can also be slow and boring at times..... but the 60% percent of game time whereupon action is constant, thy is fast and furious, without a hint of the Devil's slowdown. Metroid Fusion... how I love thee....... 9/10

Okay, let’s ignore the inexplicable use of archaic English to review a futuristic science fiction game. In fact, let’s ignore the fact that he’s inconsistent about it (“your graphics”?) and he seems to think that “thy” was an all-purpose old-timey pronoun (“Thy be flawed”).

This kid reviewed Metroid Fusion for a contest whose prize is Metroid Fusion. That means he presumably already owns this game and just wanted another copy of it for no reason at all. What a selfish bastard! He’s almost as big a bastard as some high school kid crashing an elementary school kid contest!

So, here was my contribution, posted under the username BigDog345:

Super Metroid for the SNES is one of the greatest games ever created. It focuses on Samus Aran, a bounty hunter who must travel to a variety of different worlds, battling aliens with an array of different weaponry. Blasting aliens becomes an addiction, as the vividly colored locales and easy to learn controls made the game come alive. 
But the most impressive part of this game is that Samus is a girl. Video games are generally sexist; most games feature the guy saving the helpless girl. Metroid served as an inspiration to female gamers that girls can do more than just be rescued.

Oh yeah—BigDog345 going for the feminist representations in media angle! And not with an ounce of subtlety, either.

In any case, Bonus.com decided that there wasn’t anything amiss about a kid writing a gender-egalitarian critique of a game released in 1994, and shortly after having A Parent or Guardian fax a prize claim form to Bonus.com headquarters (under “Age,” I checked off “12 or older”), my areolae were unwittingly on display to all who chose not to avert their gaze.

* * *

I will admit that using feminism to win a contest is more than a little cynical, kind of like how Dove pretends to care about girls’ self-esteem while trying to convince girls that buying Dove products will make them prettier. But I also really meant it—when I was growing up, the video games I played rarely featured women as anything but objects to be retrieved or prizes to be won. On the rare occasion that they weren’t, they were generally scantily-clad with sizable polygonal whatnots.

Even Samus Aran, the aforementioned female bounty hunter protagonist of the Metroid video game series, isn’t exactly the perfect standard bearer of forward-thinking female representation in video games. In Super Metroid, after all, the player’s “reward” for beating the game proficiently enough is seeing Samus in a bikini.



And that’s got to be a bummer for any girls looking for video game heroines—Samus is Nintendo’s first truly badass female character, and her body is just reduced to a prize-cum2-masturbatory aid for gamers who can get off on pixelated, 16-bit breasts.

* * *

One of the stranger things that #Gamergate revealed is how much pushback the idea of depicting women in a more meaningful way gets among self-described gamers. It’s actually kind of bewildering, because I can’t figure out what the opposition to that idea really is, besides a knee-jerk opposition to oh-no-terrible Social Justice Warriors or a genuine belief that women in video games should only be sexualized, victimized prizes to be won or ogled.

That’s bad for all the usual reasons. It reinforces an image of women that’s already pervasive in all manner of other media. It objectifies women and presents them as mere plot devices or eye candy in the service of men. And if it’s men who are, over and over again, the rescuers and women who are the rescued, it creates a messed up definition of what roles each gender are “supposed” to be, especially among younger gamers.

But it’s also bad for a reason that’s a lot simpler: It really sucks if you’re a girl who’s into video games to be implicitly told that video games aren’t for you. And make no mistake—if, in video game after video game, the characters who are like you are constantly the ones whose clothes are getting stripped off or constantly the ones who are helpless without someone to take care of them, that’s a pretty clear message that you’re not really welcome. Or, perhaps, you’re welcome as long as you’re willing to dress up like a sexy Raccoon Mario3 so that dudes can bank you for their alone-time fun later.

"Hey girl, if you're supposed to be Tanooki Mario, then why am I the one who's as hard as stone?"
is an example of a thing that should never, ever be said by anyone.

It’s tempting to just roll your eyes at “gaming controversies” as the firstest of First World Problems and think, haters gonna hate and nerds gonna nerd. But video games are a pretty effective gateway into interest in STEM fields—fields that aren’t just male-dominated but frequently female-hostile in both the academic and professional arenas. If you can’t get behind helping a little girl realize her dream of becoming a kickass engineer (which you totally should), then take the more selfish route: too much talent and great ideas are lost when women en masse (half the population!) are discouraged from getting into STEM disciplines, and we ought to do what we can to reverse that.

Because if it turns out that the woman who could’ve invented the FTL drive or holodeck or time machine or whatever decided to go into marketing instead, and the fact that Princess Peach once again couldn’t outsmart a big, dumb turtle in any way played a role in that, then that’d be pretty shitty.

In any case, it’s kind of sad that “women should be positively represented in video games” was a novel and controversial enough of an idea to win a contest in 2003. In 2014, it’s fucking pathetic.


1Back when it was Macromedia, because I’m old. I also used Winamp and RealPlayer, so get off my lawn.

2I’d say “no pun intended,” but who am I kidding?

3I’m not going to front—she’s obviously sexy, albeit in a ridiculous way, and I’m a little worried that that picture just awakened something in me. But it’s more than a little disturbing that seemingly the only women embraced by so-called serious gamers tend to be those that give them the weirdest boners.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Two stories about high school Valentine’s Day fundraisers

One Valentine’s Day, our student government decided to sell cans of orange soda as a fundraiser. Students would buy a can of orange soda for their loved ones, and we’d deliver the cans to the lucky recipients with a note saying, “Someone has a CRUSH on you!”


Unfortunately, midway through the fundraiser, we discovered that some of the orange soda we bought were not cans of Crush, but rather Sunkist. (On one hand, orange soda cans look a lot alike, so it’s understandable; on the other hand, when a fundraiser is predicated entirely on a pun, it probably makes sense to double-check the brand.)

This led to a hasty re-writing of notes saying, “You’ve been SunKISSED!”—which, as a student government whose sole accomplishment was the purchase of completely unnecessary picnic tables, was probably our most brilliant moment ever.

Also, I seem to recall discussions that selling orange soda in a majority-minority school as a fundraiser could be construed as somewhat racist. This led to someone adamantly insisting that the stereotype was grape soda, not orange, and therefore the fundraiser could go forward; someone else pointed out that the confusion likely stemmed from Kenan & Kel. Truly, we were the leaders of tomorrow.



* * *

For another Valentine’s Day, the drama club sold roses to raise money for a trip to New York. In the days leading up to February 14, students would pre-order a rose and sign their name and their recipient’s name in a log book. On Valentine’s Day, somebody from the drama club wrote all the names in little “To/From” cards, and somebody else delivered the roses during lunch.

The first sign of trouble was in the case of a girl named Katie Smith1. Katie had a crush on a boy but was too nervous to tell him. So, when she filled out her entry in the log book, she said she wanted her rose to be anonymous; the drama club kid taking the orders told her to put her name down as “Anonymous,” which she did. The drama club kid then wrote “(Katie Smith)” next to it, presumably for record-keeping purposes.

Unfortunately, the log book keeper didn’t communicate this to the card writer, who then proceeded to write “From: Anonymous (Katie Smith)” on the card. At lunch, Katie was horrified as she watched the boy get the rose and ask, “Who’s Katie Smith?” Horror quickly turned into humiliated heartbreak when one of his friends pointed at her and he glumly said, “Oh, the fat one?” Oooof, that kid was a dick.

But that wasn’t even the biggest problem with the fundraiser. The pre-order system was designed specifically so that the drama club could place a discount bulk order with a flower vendor with the exact number of roses they needed. It’s a smart idea—unless the kid placing the bulk order miscounts how many roses were needed by a couple hundred.

And so, with an already razor-thin profit margin, several members of the drama club were forced to go to the store on Valentine’s Day to buy comparable-quality roses to satisfy the remaining orders at full retail.

I wasn’t in the drama club, but the reason I know all this is because I reported on the fundraiser—which was among the most successful fundraisers in our school’s history in terms of units sold—for our high school’s online newspaper. And this is the headline I chose for the story, because I was an asshole:



“Drama club V-Day fundraiser raises over $6.” And yes, when it was all said and done, their net profit was indeed $6.47.

That story, incidentally, caused the online newspaper to be temporarily banned, supposedly for painting the school in a negative light. But to be fair, we were already on thin ice for our breaking news coverage of the time some kid defecated into a urinal2.


1Not her real last name. Actually, I don’t even remember her last name, but I don’t think it was Smith.

2This was completely true. We seriously got three teachers on the record to confirm the story. God, my high school was messed up.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

If you're out there, Hannah, call me!

This is a box of Pépito cookies I bought at the airport in Nice before my flight to Oslo.


I don’t know why a brand of French cookies has a small Latino boy wearing a comically oversized sombrero as its mascot, but given this video of some French dude in brownface, I feel safe in assuming the answer contains the word “racism.” On a sidenote, they were delicious.

This is the note I passed to the woman sitting next to me on the flight to Oslo.



She had her earbuds on and was working on her laptop, so I didn’t want to bother her too much. But when she read the note, her smile when she said “Yes, please!” was one of the most genuine and therefore most adorable things ever. We talked for a little bit—she was visiting family in Nice, but she lives in Oslo—and when I asked her if she was a student, glancing at her laptop, she said that she was a journalist and was working a story on deadline. So I wrapped up the conversation.

Early in my trip, I made a decision that I wouldn’t actively try to meet anybody romantically; getting used to traveling alone was enough of a challenge without adding more complications. Plus, I wanted this to be a vacation free from fret, including fretting about being single. (I’d toss in something about wanting to get in touch with myself, but in this context, that sounds a little gross.)

Still, though, in retrospect, the universe was probably nudging me along here: As far as I could tell, we were pretty much the only people in our twenties on the flight, and we happened to be sitting next to each other. And there just happened to be no one sitting in the middle seat in our emergency exit row, despite the flight being pretty full (and, I presume, someone would’ve enjoyed the extra legroom). And she’s a writer, which I think is pretty cool. And apparently she’s the type who reacts with delight instead of bemusement when passed a note despite the fact that neither of us are in middle school. And she had a completely heart-melty smile, which, arrgh.

Is it too late to post a missed connection on Craigslist Oslo?

YOU WERE SITTING IN 14A ON A FLIGHT TO OSLO FROM NICE. I WAS IN 14C. WE SHARED SOME POSSIBLY RACIST COOKIES, AND WE CHATTED FOR A BIT, BUT YOU MENTIONED YOU WERE ON DEADLINE, SO I DIDN’T KNOW IF YOU WERE JUST POLITELY ENDING OUR CONVERSATION AND DIDN’T WANT TO KEEP BOTHERING YOU IF THAT WAS THE CASE, BUT IN RETROSPECT, I GUESS THERE PROBABLY WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN ANY HARM IN QUICKLY ASKING IF YOU WERE FREE FOR A DRINK SOMETIME AS WE DEPLANED. SO, UH, EMAIL ME?

Yeah, that’s completely creepy. I guess I should’ve just done this in the moment. Ah, poop.

Hostel territory

When I was in Europe last month, I stayed almost exclusively in hostels, save for an occasional hotel room near the airport following a late flight. I figured hostels would be more interesting, and it’d give me a chance to talk with people in case solo traveling started to get lonely. Plus, hostels seemed like they’d be rife with shenanigans, and I love shenanigans. Almost as much as I love tomfoolery! And maybe most importantly, I thought staying at a hostel was the sort of thing that I wouldn’t do, and I wanted to challenge myself.

Alas, my hostel experience was mostly free of both shenanigans and tomfoolery, although it was still mostly enjoyable. I got to meet a bunch of different people, and hostels had the added bonus of making the nights in which I stayed at, say, a Best Western feel like the height of luxury (“Excuse me, this toilet paper has two whole plies? I feel like a king!”).

So, some notes on hostels.

* * *

In Copenhagen, I was having some drinks with a couple of my (female) hostel roommates visiting from Oslo at the hostel bar when some guy—an American—walked up and started talking to us. And by “talking to us,” I mean “doing that thing where he approaches a group of people but gradually focuses his attention on one of the women in the group.”
                                             
After a while, he started talking about how Americans are stupid, fat, and rude, presumably thinking that the best way to flirt with Norwegian women is to America-bash for some reason. One of my roommates smiled at me and says, “You know, he’s an American, too.” The guy got flustered and, after a few more feeble attempts to be playful, slunk away. Once he left, we laughed at him, but seriously: I’m not jingoistic in the slightest, but hating on your home country in a misguided attempt to impress pretty girls while abroad—that’s obviously treason, right?

* * *

In London, two of my roommates were a couple of French guys who were both 20 years old. They spoke reasonably good English, but, for whatever reason, they still felt the need to pantomime nearly everything when they spoke to me. They were friendly and invited me to hang out with them one night.

I declined, mostly because I had just eaten 30 chicken wings at a pub and my stomach was incredibly pissed off at me (the difference in price between ten wings and 30 wings was only £2; my hands were tied). But also, their pantomime for “woman” was always this awkward, anatomically-incorrect humping motion, even when they weren’t talking about sex, which led me to believe that, if I accepted their invitation, I was clearly going to get murdered in a brothel.

* * *

When you stay in hostels during the off-season, a lot of your roommates aren’t tourists. About a third of all my roommates with whom I spoke were staying at a hostel because they needed someplace cheap while they searched for a job and a permanent place to stay—which totally made me feel like an asshole with my whole “I’M HERE ON VACATION AND I’M STAYING IN HOSTELS BECAUSE I THOUGHT IT’D BE COOLER” deal.

It dawned on me that I’m essentially the vacation version of the girl about whom Pulp was singing in “Common People.”


* * *

In Amsterdam, one of my roommates was a British guy who was happily high. Our chat was light and insubstantial and clearly chemically-influenced, with my roommate actually dropping the phrase “do your own destiny, mate” at one point. In any case, your typical cheery stoner conversation.

That is, until I mentioned offhandedly that one of my former coworkers was daring me on Facebook to hire a sex worker, and I jokingly said, “I don’t think it’s my jam, but is that what everybody is supposed to do in Amsterdam?”—to which my roommate very seriously responded, “No, I don’t need to use a prostitute, okay?”

Whoa, dude. I wasn’t judging.

* * *

In Stockholm, I checked into my hostel at around midnight. The guy at the front desk asked me if I knew that I booked a four-person shared room and not a private room; I replied that I did. He gave me the key and said that I was welcome to check it out, but if I wanted a private room, he’d see what he could do about giving me a discount on an upgrade. I thanked him for the offer while mentally scoffing—I am a hardened traveler, damn it; I don’t need some fancy private room!

As I opened the door, I see three dudes, all of whom were clearly in their mid-forties. One of the guys was staring at me, his eyes so wide he looked like a poorly-drawn anime character. I said hi; the staring continued. As I turned around to set down my backpack, I noticed that one of my sleeping roommates appeared to be wearing some really strange pajamas. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness a bit more, I saw that they weren’t pajamas—he was completely naked and was just that hairy, and his furry buttcheeks were less than a foot away from my face.

I bolted out of the room and approached the front desk. My mouth said I was possibly interested in paying for the upgrade; my eyes said that I would pay anything to prevent an inadvertent hirsute ass-smooch.

The guy at the front desk threw in a free breakfast with the upgrade.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Karaoke kindness


It's my turn to sing at karaoke, and given my affinity for breakup songs with no-no words, I'm going with Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know."

The song is directed towards a man, though, which is a problem, what with my heterosexuality and inability to change pronouns on the fly and whatnot.

So I preface my performance with this dedication:

I want to dedicate this song to my ex-girlfriend, who I just found out is dating my best friend. 
(crowd oohs à la Saved by the Bell
So, Amy, this is for you and Claire. 
(crowd cheers à la Saved by the Bell: The New Class)

And I butcher this song in a decidedly unkosher manner -- I'm wildly off-key, I'm smushing lyrics together, and midway through the song, I utter the phrase, "Oh, there's more? Sorry, I'm not sober." (Sadly, I was very sober.)

But afterwards? Applause, high-fives, and assurances that I'm "gonna be fine, buddy."1

It remains my firm belief that karaoke brings out the best in humanity: we all have each other's backs; our flaws are seen as lovely and charming; and complete strangers are willing to donate confidence in the form of semi-intoxicated, good-hearted cheering to anybody who needs it. What's not to love?

I say this in all seriousness, and please consider this a legitimate, legally-binding request2: I want karaoke at my funeral, please. You know as well as I do that that's going to be amazing.


1I did feel kind of bad about sponging off the encouragement of others under false pretenses, but here's my perhaps entirely unsatisfying rationalization: Without the backstory, I'm just another incompetent singer the crowd has to tolerate. With the backstory, my performance becomes a gripping, emotional journey; a musical Bildungsroman written aloud with the words of one of Canada's greatest heroes. When we do karaoke, we're already playing a character; there's no crime in taking it a small step further.

2This sounds like a joke, but I can't emphasize enough how serious I am. I mean, I'm assuming my funeral will be at least a little sad maybe, but how great would it be if somebody picked up the mic and started singing this.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Nearly lucid dreaming

The other night, I had a dream in which I nearly realized I was dreaming.

I say "nearly," because as my dream self was telling another character in my dream that I suspected that I was asleep, he tried to prove that this couldn't possibly be a dream by:
  • Reciting several scientific facts and pointing out that I wasn't knowledgeable about science at all; and
  • Telling me a hilarious joke and saying that I wasn't funny enough to come up with that on my own
In other words, my subconscious lied to me, and then said that I'm dumb and unfunny to try to get me to believe the lie. And it worked.

My subconscious is a dick.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Two short Scrabble stories

The 2014 National Scrabble Championship just concluded, so here are a couple of Scrabble stories.

My proudest Scrabble moment:

I'm terrible at Scrabble, but I love the psychological meta-game of playing fake words and trying to get away with it1. It's a tricky little ballet—you've got to convey surprise and mild contempt that your opponent is even considering challenging your word (to sow doubt in your opponent's mind) while simultaneously making it seem like you want your opponent to challenge your word (since an unsuccessful challenge results in your opponent losing their turn, and you want to make your opponent think their challenge won't succeed).

So, I'm playing with some friends, and I play the nonexistent word "sunline," which immediately raises the suspicions of one of my friends. He says he doesn't think it's a word; I disdainfully ask if he's really never heard of a "ray of sunlight" while reaching for the dictionary; another player helpfully (and evilly) offers a sample sentence of "A sunline passed through the window"; and as I start flipping through the pages, he says he's not challenging it.

It's his turn now, and he has a pretty impressive play that, unfortunately, involved him adding an "S" at the end of sunline. I immediately challenged it, saying that neither "sunline" nor the plural "sunlines" are words. Dude was pissed.

My most humbling Scrabble moment:

I was playing Scrabble with my grandpa, and I place the word "fax" on the board.

"I don't think that's in the dictionary," my grandpa says.

"No, it is," I say. "You know, like a fax machine?"

But my grandpa is insistent and decides to challenge the word. I give a very skeptical if-you-say-so shrug and start flipping through the dictionary, all the while completely saddened that I was about to have an "Oh, grandpa!" moment. I know my grandpa was an older guy, I think, but there's no way he doesn't know about fax machines.

I continue to search the dictionary, but I can't find the word. After a few moments of this, my grandpa looks at me wryly and suggests that I check the dictionary's copyright date. I do, and it turns out that this dictionary was published in the early 1940s, before the word "fax" was even coined. And since that woefully outdated dictionary was indeed the one we had agreed upon, per the rules of Scrabble,



the challenge succeeds and I lose my turn. 

"Facsimile is in that dictionary, though," my grandpa helpfully points out, as it dawns on me that I just got completely and utterly snookered. As you might expect, that game ended with my ass getting thoroughly kicked.


1This, incidentally, is why I could never play in Scrabble tournaments (besides my general lexicological suckitude). Tournament players just memorize Scrabble dictionaries, rendering the psychological aspect of the game completely useless. I think it's kind of like when someone is going on a first date, so they creep their date's Facebook page so they can just happen to bring up how much they like a band or a TV show or a book their date is really into—I guess it's not really wrong per se, but it's weird and it feels like rules are being broken, no?