choices

Choose wisely…

Has anyone read The Paradox of Choice (Why More is Less) by Barry Schwartz? I started it the other day. His premise that our “culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction” captivated me. Deep down I’ve always felt –in spite of being a capitalist and an ad man- that having too many choices makes life chaotic. Mine anyway. Here was a book espousing the same idea!

The pressure to keep up is real. In high school and college we are given a syllabus: a defined and finite list of books we had to read. For most of us that was all we could handle.

Upon graduation, we create our own reading list –presuming we still read. I certainly do. However, I also love movies. I make it a point to see every best picture nominee in the Academy Awards. Recently, Oscar expanded that list to what, nine? How am I supposed to see all these films (not to mention the genre pictures I adore) and finish that book I just started?

It would help if I got off the damn computer…

Ah, the computer. Like many of us, I’m hopelessly addicted to the Internet. The trade blogs, the film blogs, the book blogs, and all those I-can’t-believe they’ve-got-a-site sites. Nothing says choice like the Information Superhighway. Damn you Al Gore for enriching my life! Damn you, Apple computers, for creating such glorious shiny, silver hardware.

On my devices I sail down the Amazon. There I can get anything I want -fast, cheap, easy. Do you like Ebay or are you a Craigslist guy? Perhaps there’s another etailer you prefer more – one that really knows you and what you like.

Am I missing anything? That’s the big question, isn’t it? Am I missing anything? The answer is yes. And that makes me nervous. Irritable. Discontent. It’s sort of like New Year’s Eve. No matter which party I chose I was missing another far better one.

But we prefer having choices, right? Sometimes I wonder. I’m relieved when a restaurant has only three dishes on its menu. The chef has chosen for me. Picking one of his specials is a no-lose situation. It’s even relaxing and enjoyable, which, come to think of it, is the whole point to going out for dinner.

Schwartz opens his book by recounting a visit to the Gap to buy blue jeans. Instead of merely having to find his size, which is daunting enough, he is faced with myriad styles to choose from: boot cut, relaxed fit, skinny, distressed, button fly or zipper. Black, brown, white or blue. And so on.

He wanted jeans. Not choices. What should have been a simple task became complicated, even fraught with peril. Yes, freedom of choice is the American Dream. But is it turning into a nightmare?

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Like anyone, creative people get angry. The competition for ideas and constant criticism of them gets to us. As can a power mad account executive or yet another contrarian for a client. We see it all the time in TV shows but anger at work is seldom a topic discussed in a serious way. We may experience anger as online vitriol or behind closed doors. Occasionally it takes the form of a blow-up during a meeting. I’ve been on both sides of all of the above scenarios.

Anger, as we know, is almost always directed at a person or group of people. We may lose our temper and go off on that person. Or we stew in resentment, grumbling and sulking, remaining silent as a stone. If we are mature, we ask for a meeting with the subject of our anger to clear the air.

Alas, many of us are not reasonable when we’re angry. After all, anger is a volatile emotion and it often interferes with sound thinking. It does to me. I have trouble thinking straight. It’s almost like a bad trip. A strange, primitive rush overtakes me and I become flush. I may say and do regrettable things. I am outside myself looking down upon a beast. Mr. Hyde. The Hulk. God help those in the path of my wrath. Fortunately, for most of us this kind of anger is quite rare. Resentment is far more common. Passive aggressive behavior can spread like weeds in an ad agency –or any company. The petulant child is less overt (obviously) than tantrum maker but just as hurtful in the long run.

We always hear about the negative effects anger has for those on the receiving end of it. But it is also hurts the deliverers. Being in anger might be useful in therapy or righting certain wrongs but by and large it is a negative emotion and a defect/disease for those who are in it.

The angry outburst is ugly. But I feel the aftershocks are even uglier. An emotional hangover is debilitating and often leads to more bad behavior (lying, backstabbing, gossip, etc.), which, in turn, hurts our nestlings and us worse than the initial tantrum. Unless one is a Teflon tyrant these disorders degrade us professionally. But they kill us on a personal level, too.

We will be shunned but deeper down we rot from anger. Enough rot and we become garbage. Even a little rot is intolerable. To be reasonably healthy, as much rot as possible must be excised. All of it to be happy. That is why I would rather have the flu than carry around an emotional hangover. Dr. Bruce Banner aka The Hulk famously said “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” What the comic book does not tell us is how much you are despised a day later.

Have a nice day. It’s better for all of us.

Last week, ESPN reporter Britt McHenry was caught being very rude to someone working the counter at a car towing facility, where presumably she had gone to retrieve her vehicle and pay the fine. Her diatribe was not pretty. And neither was she in that moment.

This widely seen video prompted another reporter, Rex Huppke (Chicago Tribune) to write that ESPN should immediately fire the reporter. his story is here:  http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/huppke/chi-britt-mchenry-espn-20150417-story.html

I don’t think so. Britt committed no crime and was not at work, let alone on the air, at the time. Last I checked going off on a rant was not against the law. It’s not nice. But then neither is releasing a video depicting it. In my opinion both acts are forms of shaming, wouldn’t you agree?

Therefore, again my opinion, they cancel each other out. This story should be over. But Mr. Huppke vehemently argues that there is “too much meanness in the world” to tolerate such behavior.

Are you without sin, Mr. Huppke, to cast such a heavy stone? Have you never gone off at the DMV or flipped someone the bird for cutting you off on the highway? In your years on this planet you’ve never had a tantrum at someone’s expense? Called someone a dipshit? I sure as hell have. But unlike Britt McHenry you and I were not caught. Yet.

I’m no Christian but I do believe that Christ’s judgment over those who were stoning a woman for bad behavior to be one of the best lessons from the scripture.

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He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Yes, the world is a mean place. It has been since the time of Christ. However, punishing what you deem meanness is also meanness and a very bad road to go down. If saying something stupid were a crime we would all be fired or worse. How often have we seen finger pointing lead to gun pointing? I look at radical Islam and see teachers being harmed for educating young women. I see Putin jailing countless people in Russia for disagreeing with his dogmatic rule. This sort of tyranny often starts with allowing certain people to punish certain other people for merely opening their mouths. Power and the fear of power is deeper rot than rudeness.

From his pulpit Rex Huppke wants to take down a woman for berating another woman. But you are not God, Mr. Huppke. And I dare say you are not without sin. You cross a line when you call for this lady’s exile.

If this argument is too lofty for a newspaperman in Chicago, here’s one you and every journalist can and must relate to: the right to free speech.

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A raw “moment.”

The Academy Awards are hard not to watch. One just feels compelled to share “Hollywood’s Biggest Night.” And I was no exception, although, I must say, I was not so much riveted by the show as buzzed by it. Having the TV on, the family with me, a half-assed dinner being consumed. Telling the kids to shut up so we can hear who won. Them not listening. Them saying, “like, who are all these old people?” Um, sweetie, that’s Robert Duvall. Sean Penn. Michael Keaton. Emma stone they recognized. And because I share a house with four ladies eyes were on the clothes and hair.

It’s a palpable buzz.

One thing I noticed in the coverage and after-coverage was the pointing out of “moments.” When Neal Patrick Harris sent up Birdman by taking the stage in his undies. When John Legend emotionally sang and totally delivered the evening’s best song, Glory. The perspiring, young writer of The Imitation Game beseeching all of us to ‘embrace our weirdness.’ All those Latinos up on stage for Birdman. 

The definition of “having a moment” has got to be winning an Academy Award. I remember winning a few big advertising awards… how giddy I felt stumbling up to the stage. Of course I was drunk –I always was drunk- but I still remember those moments. I can’t recall a thing I said and that’s just as well.

I believe in moments. Life is a puzzling journey. We mark the trail with moments: Graduation. New Job. Closing a deal. Or is it a drama? Fair metaphor as well. In this case moments are like plot points: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Babies are born. People die. There are countless plot points to every life. Pretty cool way to look at it.

No wonder so many brands try to own them. It’s the perfect hash tag for the Academy Awards, if not life itself: #Moments

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But it does mean you’re human…

If you’re not willing to read all of Russ Douthat’s brilliant article from the New York Times, here’s the first paragraph:

Of course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and C.E.O.s defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

And then Kim Jong-Un took offense at a low-brow comedy (The Interview) and took down the movie studio that produced it. Humiliated them anyway. Which was deeply sad, funny and troubling all at the same time. Those emails were priceless. Undermining a company not so much.

However you look at it, 2014 was the year of being offended. In big ways (Black Lives Matter) and in myriad small ways (U2 forcing an album upon us), America got offended. Over and over again. Whether you listed right (Fox News) or left (CNN), everyone was upset at someone. More so than usual. Way more.

Among the many ironies is that popular culture (in particular our movies and television shows) can be viewed as the egregious button pushers. The not-even-seen The Interview is but the latest “film” to push decency into the cellar and keep right on digging. From Rogen’s turn in Neighbors to the unbelievably crude machinations of Workaholics, sacred cows have been tipped. Herds of them. Frankly, the years leading up to The Interview were what led to The Interview. Borat. Bridesmaids. East Bound and Down, The Hangover. Amy Schumer. Girls. Louis CK. Bad Grandpa. And those are just some of the good ones. My point. There was nothing left to satirize besides North Korea! Last year we were agog at Miley Cyrus. “Twerking” was runner up to “Selfie” as word of the year. How quaint that seems now.

Is being offensive and/or being offended (take your pick) part of human nature? It must be. Because we can’t stop.

Concurrent to all this silliness, and where it got heated and continues to roil, is in this country’s dismal relations between races. All races. Between immigration issues with Mexico, the killing of unarmed black men in Ferguson and New York, beheadings by ISIS, genocide in Syria, espionage by North Korea and now even Cuba (again) the global melting pot is boiling over. Getting offended has become violent and grotesque and anything but funny. Malicious cops. And malicious cop killers. We have become so offended by one another we’ve taken to the streets: spectating, protesting, looting and maiming. The mob rules. The genie is out of the bottle… and Tweeting. The inmates are running the asylum… and posting on Instagram.

This is why The Walking Dead is so popular. We are them.

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