Business

On Publication

Just as lawyers are asked legal advice over dinner and doctors are asked to diagnose conditions over cocktails, so writers are regularly asked to give free consultations on How To Get Published. Much more rarely are writers asked How To Write Well. The second is a lifetime’s vocation; the first should be the natural result of that lifetime’s vocation, but is more often seen as a quick route to affirmation, wealth, confidence, and a host of other impossibilities it rarely produces.

Because I have frequently been asked How To Get Published, I have developed some points of advice through teaching classes, browsing books on publication, conversing with other published writers, taking and leading workshops, and engaging in good old trial-and-error.

 1. Read

First of all, read the great classic masterpieces in your chosen genre. If you are a poet, read through the “canon” of great poetry in English starting with Beowulf and working your way through. You can really start almost anywhere except with the 20th century; if you start there, it will take longer to develop a sense of the rhythms of English. Learn from their eyes, ears, and ideas. Learn what works (and what doesn’t), train your ear, gain a knowledge of quality and tradition. If you are a novelist, read the great classic novels of the 19th centuries (not the popular novels of today; they’ll spoil your syntax and sense of narrative subtlety). If you write biography, memoir, or history, read the stock works in these genres from the past few centuries. Don’t read only what’s being written now, because that is often based on fads that will not last.

 2. Study

Next (and at the same time as #1), study the techniques and methods of your chosen genre. Learn all the literary terms that apply. Learn all the forms. Learn about the skills, patterns, and tools used. Take literature classes, read textbooks, browse anthologies, study literary theory, and look through literary dictionaries. You need to develop your “palette.” You need to have all the colors of paint before you can paint a masterpiece; you need to know all the rules of the game before you can be a winning athlete. So, too, you need to know all the nuts and bolts of writing. Increase your vocabulary; learn the history of words; become familiar with the denotations and connotations of words; master the forms of figurative language. This is true whether you’re writing newspaper articles or epics.

3. Practice

Start by imitating the masters. Set yourself exercises in which you take a little bit of their writing (the rhyme scheme, meter, first sentence of each paragraph, plot structure, a character, etc.) and then try to write something like theirs. Set yourself tasks that force you to try out various forms, techniques, and methods. Practice hard, every day, for at least a few years.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 for several years

Seriously. If you are writing just to get published—well, that’s a kind of mental prostitution. Of course, there are many careers in which frequent publication is required—academia, journalism, etc.—but one must be a student before becoming a master. So be in a hurry to write, but not in a hurry to publish.

5. Establish Writing Partnerships

A good writing partner is as hard to find as a good spouse! If you find one, “grapple them to thee with hoops of steel.” Meet and exchange work, critique each other’s work, act like English teachers marking up papers with red ink. Share ideas. It’s great if you can get published writers for critics, too, as long as their work is masterful and not merely popular.

6. Revise

Once you’ve written works of which you’re proud, put them away for a while. Then take them out and rewrite them. Then send them to your writing partners and rewrite them. Take them to workshops and conferences and let a group of strangers rip them apart. Then rewrite them again.

7. Attend Workshops

Find out what other people are writing in your genre. Attend their workshops, talk to them, listen to their writing, listen to lectures on the craft of writing. However, a caveat here: Beware The Workshop Poem. Workshops tend to have a kind of cookie-cutter effect on participants, causing them to churn out sound-alike poems (or stories, or plays, and so forth). Don’t attend the same workshop more than once. Find leaders who vary wildly. And never use workshops as a replacement for studying the classics.

8.       Attend Conferences

Now we’re starting to move towards the actual answer to the publication question, assuming that you have learned how to write really well. Find out what the newest books are in and about your kind of writing, meet or at least listen to the masters, get inspired, compare your work to others, and start to learn who the publishers are in your field. These are good places to meet agents, as well, which will be of great practical help—so I have heard, although I have never used an agent myself.

9.       Submit to Magazines/Journals

Once you know that your writing is skillful, relevant, and polished, you can start sending it out into the world little by little. Start with submitting short pieces (poems, articles, chapters, short stories) to periodicals. Here you’ll need a good resource like Writer’s Market or Poet’s Market. These books list the periodicals that accept submissions of work, and say what genres each likes, whether they’ll take work from beginners, whether you need to write a query letter first, and so on. People at workshops and conferences can direct you to other resources for your genre. You’ll usually need to spend a few years getting little pieces published and getting your name known before submitting a full-length work for publication. Here you will also need to learn how to write cover letters, format your work for each submission, and generally follow the ettiquette of the World of the Literary Journal.

 10.     Submit to Contests

Contests are a great way to get your work published without having to hire an agent. Just read all the contest guidelines, including deadlines and number of pieces/pages to submit, and voila! Most contests will charge an entrance fee to cover their costs, so try to choose contests that you think you have a chance of winning. Look at the work of past winners, if possible.

 11.     Try a Small Press

Very small, family-run publishing companies are more likely to take work from beginning writers than the big-name presses. This is a good place to send your first full-length MS. However, they often operate through contests, so look there first.

12. Get an Agent

While books of poetry, short story collections, and first novels of a more high-brow sort can often see the light via contests and small presses, you really do need an agent if you want to land a valuable contract or launch a best-seller. I have a poet friend who has an agent to organize everything for him. Twice a year the agent writes and says, “OK, send me X number of new poems” and then the agent does all the work of formatting MSS, choosing the periodicals, writing the cover letters, sending out the work, and keeping track of acceptances and rejections. That leaves you more time for simply writing—if you can afford it. For novels, nonfiction, and most other prose, you just really need an agent. Most publishers simply won’t look at work that doesn’t come from an agent. You can often meet a potential agent at a writer’s conference, or through a writing partner who has been published.

13. Finally, send out a “real” book to a “real” press!

So, years will go by before you send a full-length book to a reputable publishing company. That’s the way it should be. After you’ve spent years writing just for the sake of writing and after you’ve honed and developed your craft, maybe you can send out your masterpiece.

One more piece of advice: don’t self-publish. If you can’t get your book out there any other way, well, stop and consider why it’s getting rejected all the time. Maybe you just haven’t found the right niche; maybe it isn’t as good as you think it is. Stop and compare it to Shakespeare, Hopkins, Dickens. For real. But never, never pay money to get your book published. You may have to pay entrance fees to contests or a percentage of royalties to an agent, but you should never pay for the actual publication of your book. Again, that is a kind of artistic prostitution. If your book really is good and no one appreciates it, write another. The first one will keep.

61 Local: the Profits of Virtue

The buzz of Brooklyn’s BoCoCa neighborhood is a cacophonous mix of old-meets-new. Throw-back butchers, all-the-rage restaurants, inviting art spaces, all- too- proud Brooklyn bars, art installation converted dumpsters, yarn stores that serve alcohol, educational centers, community gardens, and the list goes on. Each establishment possesses its own characteristic quirk. But one spot is a little harder to nail down. That spot is 61 Local, a community center/public house/bar/restaurant/art space/community garden/think tank/beer hall.

All those slashes might seem to indicate a place that’s trying too hard to be everything for everyone. Thankfully, that’s certainly not the case. Their multi-functional mix works. Moreover, it thrives. 61 Local is a privately owned public square, where creativity, community, and collaboration collide.

Photo by flickr user ethikus.

Dave Liatti is the owner and mastermind behind 61 Local, which he opened in 2010. A former Sixpoint Brewery engineer, acclaimed foodie and designer, and one of the entrepreneurial icons behind Brooklyn’s locavore movement, Liatti’s vision for 61 Local is more than just another bar. “61 Local is a meeting place for friends, a watering hole, a house party, a creative space and an inclusive environment that fosters collaboration and the positive exchange of ideas,” Liatti and Kris de la Torre, his manager, told me.

The one defining characteristic you can pin on the place is its theme. Everything at 61 Local – from the beer you drink, to the cheese on your sandwich, to the stool you sit on – is locally sourced. The cavernous interior is repurposed from its roots as a sprawling town house and garage, marked by a large map on the wall to indicate the exact origin of each item you’re consuming. Here, locavorism reigns. But Liatti’s aim goes deeper than just practicing ethical eating and buying habits; his reason for sourcing locally is that it creates stronger relationships. At 61 Local, the aim is to bridge the gap between the care and creativity of the craftsmen and the customer who enjoys their products.

“The relationships we have with our vendors is one of the greatest pleasures of working at 61 Local. In almost every case we have met face to face with the individual or collaborative that’s behind the product,” de la Torre says. “We strive to understand their process, their inspiration and their needs as a small, independent business. Opportunities are arranged every month for our staff – and sometimes customers – to meet with different vendors, volunteer with them and establish a personal connection that many bars do not prioritize the same as a public house would.”

But what does all of that mean for the customer? More ambitious than sourcing locally is maintaining a profitable business that exists to serve its community. 61 Local is a community center. Literally. “The community center component of 61 is really evident as you watch the slew of patrons through the course of a single day. In one afternoon you could easily see artists from Invisible Dog Art Center next door co-mingling with professional and home brewers meeting to swap some brew, creative professionals who work from their new home office at 61, babies and neighborhood moms, three generations of a family celebrating an anniversary, urban farmers delivering flowers for the tables or selling us some greens, neighbors gathering to pick up their CSA share, actors prepping for an audition on our mezzanine, or any number of friends who know that coming into 61 probably means running into a good friend or beer buddy,” says de la Torre. “It’s great to feel this sort of buzz.”

And there’s quite a buzz. Shortly after its opening, the blog “Brooklyn Based” said that Liatti has “turned 61 Local into a creative hub for neighborhood artists and foodies looking for a place to kick back and collaborate.” TimeOut New York said, “With its single-minded focus on hyperlocal purveyors, Dave Liatti’s sprawling beer hall doubles as an unofficial clubhouse for Brooklyn’s DIY artisans.” New York Times’ food critics said of the establishment, “Never has hanging out at a bar seemed so virtuous.”

Photo by flickr user bhuny.

Any New Yorker will tell you that it’s hard to find a true ‘third place’ that achieves community building free from the trappings of profit-mongering. This raises the question: is localism a kind of temperance to avarice?

I once heard a customer come up to the bar at 61 Local and try to order a Coke. In a fascinating exchange, the bartender kindly explained that they don’t carry those kinds of goods. “Most customers are really excited and appreciative to forgo the typical bar selection for something a little closer to home. Who knows? That soda they just got served might have been made by the couple sitting next to them at the bar. There’s something extra enticing about that.”

What’s different about 61 Local is the intention behind their entrepreneurship. “At 61 we really strive to make connections. Taking the time to meet and understand who is behind each of these events has allowed us to bring together some wonderful, ambitious and creative individuals. What makes this successful is that often times new projects are born from the connections first established at 61 and we are more than happy to provide the context for realizing these projects.”

How Liatti’s vision was actualized is as much a product of his surroundings – he’s lived in DUMBO since before it was called DUMBO – as of his own brilliance. “The creative, DIY nature of what is happening in Brooklyn right now has absolutely shaped 61 Local. The public house was born as a resource for just that sort of effort. This is also why we carry such a large number of products ‘Made in Brooklyn’ and much of our programming is geared towards spotlighting local projects. The spirit of 61 is very much a reflection of present day Brooklyn.” And as for how they want 61 Local to grow: “It would be great if the reach of 61 Local continued to expand and we became more widely acknowledged as an advocate for local projects and community building. If more bars could act as a resource for their community that would be a positive step.”

Part of 61 Local’s neighborhood is negatively affected by the environmental dangers of the Gowanus Canal, a south Brooklyn sewage gross-out that recently received superfund status. With the addition of a new NBA arena nearby – the hotly debated Atlantic Yards – sewage overflow is likely to increase, sending the Department of Environmental Protection into a tizzy.  Last year, 61 Local received a DEP green infrastructure grant to build a roof garden that will absorb rainwater, which will help prevent the run-offs that cause sewage overflow and serve as a rooftop garden to grow herbs and vegetables to use in the restaurant.

This is just one example of how 61 Local is experimenting to see how privately owned ‘third spaces’ can be defined by the goal of caring for the community it serves. It might be idealistic to say that locavorism can completely transform communities and the way we think of free markets. Cultural homogeneity is still a wolf at the door of those dining at the local-only table. But perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to wonder if, in locavorism, we’re seeing a mode of capitalism that’s fueled by collaboration as much as competition. Of the customer it asks: can we consume more virtuously? Of the vendor it asks: how can we create deeper value from this good? From both these questions, 61 Local is finding positive and profitable results. Lets see who follows suit.

 

 

 

 

Want to check out what’s happening this summer at 61 Local?

“Summer at 61 Local is going to be HUGE! We are currently developing a free bike tour to Red Hook every first Saturday. Riders will get to meet some of our friends making delicious things down in that ‘hood and end the journey with lunch and a beer at 61. We’re also hosting new lecture series on local ecology and the watershed, spending lots of time at various urban gardens in Brooklyn and will offer plenty of opportunities for customers to tag along. We also have a great line-up of seasonal brews coming out on tap and a growing selection of exceptional wines on tap as more wineries jump on board with the keg program.” – Kris de la Torre

 

The Death of Live Music

One of the definitive moments of my life was my first live concert. I’ll protect the shred of dignity I have left by not disclosing the artist, but rest assured that at that time, they were one of the most popular acts in the country. The show took place at a major venue in Hartford, Connecticut, and I paid less for those tickets than I pay to see some local shows in Brooklyn today. I was twelve years old, but I felt like I had the world at my fingertips.

Immediately hooked on live music, I started saving my allowance to buy tickets to the next great show coming to town, much to the chagrin of my father who was tasked not only with driving me and my friends to the shows, but also with taking us to the Ticketmaster outlets to buy tickets. (You couldn’t buy tickets on the Internet then, and it was generally agreed upon that there was really no point in trying to penetrate busy signal after busy signal on the phone.) In those days — because it really does feel that long ago — ticket sales began on Saturday mornings, giving everyone with Monday through Friday work and school schedules an equal opportunity to land tickets. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn and my father would drive me down to the local donut shop — you know, when towns had local shops — for some early morning trans fat before making our way to the empty parking lot of the nearest ticket outlet in the next town over. There we waited for hours, always the first in line to get the best seats available for whichever band had captured my attention. It was, for a young man, a grand adventure that is now a very fond memory.

Nowadays, I question how many young people will have the opportunity to make such memories. The state of live music has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years, and so has the state of ticket sales, neither for the better. With quality and affordability stacked against them, I wonder — and frankly, worry — about the increasingly limited access to events that not only create lasting memories, but that also reaffirm over and over again the importance of live music in our culture.

The irony, of course, is that there is no lack of musical performances going on in America today. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more musical acts taking various stages across the country than ever before. But quantity has never been a very good substitute for quality, and live music is the furthest thing from an exception. That there are hundreds of musicians lining the stages of bars, concert halls, stadiums, festivals, and the like does not mean that the live music industry is thriving. Instead, I suggest it means that music, like so many other things, has become far more about business than it is about art.

Take one of the most basic venues for live entertainment: the bar. Now the functional purpose of a bar is to provide people with a place where they can socialize, engage one another in community, and otherwise unwind. What people don’t — or at least, never used to — go to a bar to do is to listen to live music. Live music, once upon a time, was part of the package, one way among many in which bar owners sought to placate their patronage. Now, at least in New York City, bar owners don’t want to simply deliver live music to their customers, they want the live music to bring in the customers. And they frequently don’t want to pay their live music to do so — they offer a late time slot on a weeknight, require a pull of at least twenty people (usually friends of the musicians), charge five to ten dollars at the door and a two drink minimum, pocketing more than half of the door charge. Those looking to unwind apart from the music suddenly have to pay a cover to do so, and those looking to support the music have to force themselves to either down two drinks in an hour or simply pay for a drink that will never be consumed.

From the standpoint of the art, there are a few problems with this business tactic. The first is that bars offer slots to artists primarily based on how many people they can bring in, not how good they are. So a tone-deaf, lo-fi, prog-rock, insert-any-other-hyphenated-descriptor-here band of college students with a collective total of 3,000 Facebook friends might be offered a gig over an accomplished solo jazz artist ten years in the business not because walk-in customers happen to enjoy noise rock, but because the individuals playing the noise rock will bring their friends into the establishment, even if only for an hour. Those friends become compulsory customers, and so a bar’s business will likely be much greater than it would have been had they brought in a more talented act with a smaller network. Suddenly the tone-deaf, lo-fi kids are being offered regular gigs despite the fact that the quality of music being performed is questionable.

By bringing in audiences of twenty people or more to tiny or no-name bars, it may appear that a band has a particular talent or appeal, even though the majority of that audience is friends who are simply looking to show support. Regular draws bring regular gigs, presenting the illusion that a band has achieved some measure of musical success when in fact, they have only so far been successful in strengthening a bar’s cashflow. Through self-promotion — still not a measure of musical prowess — this illusion spreads to larger venues, which means finally reaching a wider audience. The larger venues are no different than the bars in that they want to know how many tickets they will sell, not whether the music is of any notable quality. When a venue promoter believes that a band will bring in a large audience of their own, they use it as a springboard to bring other people in. “Look at what everyone else is doing,” they seem to say, “Don’t you want to do this, too?”

I don’t mean to say that buzzworthy bands never catch a break, but oftentimes, the wrong bands are given opportunities because they are better at promoting themselves than they are at playing music, and venue owners and ticket brokers are happy to cash in. It is at this stage where the cultural value of live music really takes a hit. While the quality of music presented remains relatively subjective — everyone has different musical tastes — the imperfect way in which ticket sales are handled has hurt music fans across the board.

As long as I can remember, there have been service fees associated with any ticket purchases made through a vendor as opposed to a box office. And while these surcharges have always been annoying, they were also nominal — maybe four dollars a ticket — so we dealt with it. Now, tickets sold through a vendor like Ticketmaster will cost the music fan somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen dollars on top of the list price — and that doesn’t even include receiving the tickets in the mail. Indeed, the only method of ticket delivery that does not include an additional charge these days is e-mail delivery, which means the consumer is now even responsible for his own printing costs. Why, exactly, have surcharges increased if the service provided has decreased?

More frustrating is the increasing popularity of presale tickets — tickets that can be purchased ahead of the release date by those willing to spend more. That isn’t to say that those who want to pay more shouldn’t be able to if it guarantees them seats to their favorite band, but true fans aren’t the only ones paying inflated pre-sale prices, and frequently, they are in the minority. Professional “scalpers”, or ticket resellers as they’ve come to be known, have access to significantly more funds than the average music lover, and ticket presales open the door wide for them to make the investment because they will only turn around and sell the tickets at marked-up prices anyway. The profits still outweigh the costs, leaving music fans with less access to regularly priced tickets on regular sale dates.

Ticket resale sites like StubHub and TicketsNow provide a platform for people to sell their tickets to any event, at any price set by the seller. Thus if I happen to purchase two tickets to see the Rolling Stones for $100 each, I can turn around and sell them for $1,000 each. It’s bad enough that the average Joe is empowered to make such disgusting profits off a ticket resale, but imagine the field day for the brokers. Because they have more resources to access tickets — as a business, they have more computers, phone lines, and agents seeking to purchase — they are more likely to actually land high-demand tickets. With entire teams of people working under brokers to secure tickets to the hottest shows, the access music fans have to those same tickets exponentially decreases. And I can’t help but feel that there is something fishy about the best seats to the best shows appearing on StubHub and TicketsNow within five minutes — barely enough time for the average person to complete a transaction — of going on sale through Ticketmaster, and for unreasonably inflated prices.

Unfortunate as it may be, I won’t deny that as long as capitalism is here, then business will need to remain a part of music so that musicians can make livings for themselves just as anybody else. But there was a time — and it wasn’t that long ago — when this was achieved with more harmony. Musicians were paid to do their jobs, ticket outlets and venues made money doing theirs, and fans had access to the bands they wanted to see at prices they could reasonably afford. Now at the grass-roots level, musicians aren’t paid fairly (if they are even paid at all) and at the higher levels, many fans are denied access to their favorite bands because of obstacles put up by venue owners and ticket sellers and resellers who are seeking to make a profit, regardless of whether or not they are promoting something of value.

All of this needs to be taken back to formula, so to speak. In a culture saturated with songs and sounds, we have grown to take music for granted, viewing musicians as dollar signs for those who would give them a platform to make a name for themselves. We need to remember that music is, first and foremost, a gift, one that is able to transcend the routine of everyday life, providing us an outlet for our thoughts, emotions, and our souls. It’s not the sort of thing that should have ever had a price tag on it, but since it does, then it is not merely a good idea, but it is our duty to ensure that the musicians who offer us this gift are provided for, without robbing audiences of the myriad other priceless riches that music will always, no matter the state of the economy, afford to culture around the world.


An Entrepreneurial Idea

The arts, I have long believed, are all interconnected, and, in turn, the great web of interdisciplinary arts is inextricably entangled with history, religion, technology, and science.

Another way to put that is to say: Everything relates to everything else.

Another way for me to put it is to tell you a story; and perhaps to inspire you to take an entrepreneurial leap into a previously unexplored business proposition that unites the beauty industry to art, music, coffee, and culture.

Back in February, I was getting a manicure at the local cosmetology academy. I like to keep conversation going with the stylist, and usually start by asking her or (less frequently) him about post-graduation plans. As they all do, this young lady dreams of opening up her own salon.

Now, this particular student manicurist has a bit of a difference in her dream, which is what got my own ever-busy idea-machine cranking. She sports a few tasteful tattoos, a couple more than your grandmother’s piercings. Nothing ostentatious; and that’s kind of her edge: she wants to open a salon that caters to the bodily ornamented as well as the upwardly-mobile corporate femmes anonymized by the requisite platinum blonde hairdo and frenchified fingernails. She doesn’t want to alienate the lady CEOs; just to invite in the artsy, black-laced, torn jeans, purple-headed crowd as well. She has a personal mission to ease acceptance of visible tattoos into the mainstream workplace. And if her own professional-plus-a-touch-of-henna look is any indication, I think she could succeed.

And then I had an Archimedean moment. As happens about, oh, every couple of days, I got a compelling vision of a completed project, standing complex and vibrant in its future existence.

I saw her salon. And it was stylish, let me tell you.

This new salon has two rooms: the kind of long, narrow rooms that occur behind the storefronts of every shop in Manhattan, where we crowd ’em in along the street, then reach way back into the unnamed alleys behind. The two rooms open into one another, sharing the generous sunlight of their double window-fronts. One is the typical hair-cuttery setup: mirrors, chairs, sinks, etc. But the décor side is unique. The mirrors have heavy gold scroll-work for frames. The chairs are fancy faux-Georgian. The walls are dark maroon, with gilt crown molding. The ceiling boasts intricate plaster scroll-work and an impressive Victorian central medallion.

The other room is where this all gets wild. It’s a combination of waiting room, café, art gallery, and music venue. There’s a tiny raised area at the back, set in triangulation to the room, with all the amps and cords and pedals and jacks and sound board just waiting for a band to appear and plug in. And the walls are heavy with art.

Every month, this salon-gallery-hall hosts a “First Friday.” The staff has gathered over the previous few weeks to choose from among the many local artists and musicians who have submitted their work for consideration. The hair stylists and manicurists and the one tattoo artist have joined with the owner and the full-time cultural consultant on staff to discuss, debate over, and vote for their favorite painter or photographer, the best musical acts. Then they brought in the part-timers who help take down last month’s show and hang the new one. The curator of the local art museum volunteers a couple of hours to give her professional opinion. The top band is called. And then the place opens in full swing!

For three or four hours on a Friday evening, then, the cultural elites join the beatniks and punks at what has become the most unlikely hot spot in town: the barbershop. The band plays. It’s a different style of music every First Friday, carefully chosen to complement the visual aesthetic of the new-hung walls. Grungier rock for some black-and-white war photographs. Classical guitar with portraits of deceased politicians. A string quartet with abstract renderings of dancers in flight. An a capella Gospel choir with metal-and-glasswork installations. A dark flock of moaning youth on exotic instruments with haunting close-ups of drug-ravaged celebrities. Travel photography, still lifes, action shots, 2-D sculpture, piano recitals, operatic solos, Broadway renditions, barbershop quartets. Each is tinged with the darker colors of its genre, easing towards the melancholy, the macabre.

The music goes on during the week, too, of course. That’s the whole idea: you look at the art while you wait for your haircut, listen to the music between clacks of the shears, stay and have tea for another song or two, and maybe bring home an original oil painting along with a new look.

And there’s one aesthetic that binds it all together. When I call it “emo” or “goth,” don’t get scared away. Don’t think drugs, knives, and suicide: think Gothic architecture. Think Gothic literature—well, maybe not, since there are plenty of drugs, knives, and suicide there! Stick with the Gothic arches, columns, stained glass, and flying buttresses. To make more sense out of this, come on down another tangent with me.

My local art museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania has a fascinating exhibit at the moment. It’s tiny: just one room. It’s called Gothic to Goth: Embracing the Dark Side. The largest items in the room are Victorian mourning gowns: black, lacy, elaborate dresses worn by young widows. There are paintings, fans, jewelry, gloves. Some are from the middle of the 19th century. Some are brand-new. And I defy you to tell the difference!

It was a pair of gloves that struck me. There, in a glass case, was a pair of gloves I would have sworn were bought last week at Claire’s or Hot Topic. But, nope, there on the tag: they were tatted in the 1840s. As the exhibit’s website explains, in the 1780s, “As literature with macabre gothic overtones gained popularity, emotional expressions of sentimentality, melancholy, and even horror and terror became commonplace” and then “the late nineteenth century became widely known for its prominence of elaborate and ostentatious mourning fashion. Almost a hundred years later, the silhouettes and styles of Victorian mourning wear made a vigorous reappearance with the emergence of the Goth subculture in the late 1970s.” This subculture, it goes on to explain, has now become mainstream—has become, I would argue, beautified again. Beautiful again. Beauty again.

And that’s what binds together the music, art, and fashion in my imaginary salon: the Victorian Gothic. Whether you are a hard-working corporate woman who wears Victoria’s Secret under your business suit, or a tattooed guitar player masquerading as a barista, the Gothic has a kind of beauty to enrich your own. One of the designers from whom the museum borrowed items advertises “Darkly Elegant Designs for Femme Fatales and Decadent Gentlemen.” Another announces “Fine Jewelry Finally Has A Dark Side.” Lace and laces; eyes with long lashes; gloves or garters; button-down blouses; blue notes and sad songs; gilted and guilty; chokers and chocolate; beads and body art; coffee and tea. Come and visit.

Now, let me close off by saying that it turns out I did not invent this idea. Like Chesterton, who independently imagined an entire system of doctrine, then discovered that the Catholic Church had been teaching it for centuries—OK, so not exactly like Chesterton at all, really—I googled “hair salon and art gallery” and found out there are plenty of them. There’s EDO Salon in San Francisco, which “merges fashion, design and art. One part boutique hair salon, one part speakeasy gallery.” There’s Mogi’z in Nashua, New Hampshire, where “hair meets art,” where “hair styling and art found a home together.” There’s EXO Salon in Allen Park, Michigan that “features art work from various local artists as well as pieces of some of the most prominent figures within the art community.” There’s Right Angle in Oakland, California, where “the salon walls become a fabulous stage for displaying the art works of local artists seeking space to show their work.” And

San Francisco's EDO Salon

there’s Zion Hair Salon & Art Gallery in Madison, New Jersey, “combining a hair salon and art gallery.” This one even has a “first Saturday” opening night, “where collectors, friends and family …can come and enjoy an evening out and meet the artist.”

So it’s a new idea, an old idea, a fresh and hot idea. Wouldn’t you love to tie together yet another set of arts—hair, art, music, and coffee? Wouldn’t you love to get a haircut while you’re sitting at a concert? Wouldn’t you like to drink tea and look at paintings while you wait for your wife to get her hair done? Or wouldn’t you like to take this entrepreneurial idea and run with it in your hometown? I hope my young manicurist does it here soon. And I hope you try it out in yours, too. Let me know if you do!

 

Not Your Father’s Shoplifting

I remember well my family’s second desktop computer. It was bigger and faster than the clunky Packard Bell that was our entry into the digital age. This new computer, a Compaq, was more than just a glorified typewriter. This computer could not only access the Internet―it was fast enough to download things.

So download we did. First we downloaded games or software, but that was still too large for the modem on our rural DSL.

Then one day my dad came home and said there was this program you could download that would let you access music from other people if you also shared it with them. It was called file sharing. We jumped right in.

I downloaded country albums and my dad downloaded tons of classic rock. We never had to pay for any music again. What an amazing concept. The Internet was just raining down gifts to us, and all we had to do was let someone download our music and then we could download theirs. It was a brilliant concept.

Brilliant and illegal.

My dad eventually put a stop to our downloading when we found out it was illegal. I agreed, but for the next few years I operated in a big gray area in terms of what was illegal piracy and what was just normal usage of media. In high school, as I and most of my friends found out that piracy was illegal, we just reverted back to making copies of albums for each other on CDs. In college, with a whole network at our disposal and some tech-savvy dorm-mates, there was quickly a shared folder in which all the guys’ dorms were dumping movies, music and game. We never considered this illegal; we were just sharing what we had always shared with each other, except now the annoying things like people scratching DVDs or loosing albums in their cars could be avoided. The illicitness was not the enticing factor―sharing with each other was just plain easier. We had no idea that according to record companies and film studios what we were doing was illegal.

In a world of  legal doctrines built on physical property, the public and record companies were woefully unprepared for the onslaught of digital piracy. For one thing, the public was not aware of the potential criminality of such actions, and the attempts by record companies to put a stop to it―sending cease and desist letters to people―was a public relations nightmare. One of my friends who was a huge user of file sharing sites was shocked to receive a letter from a record company basically telling him to stop using file sharing sites, otherwise he would be subject to  jail time and fines that were going to make college loans look cheap. He stopped, as any reasonable person would, but it never seemed right for him to be treated like that. We had not been taught that our actions were illegal. The whole thing had the feeling of a police officer writing a bogus traffic ticket. It just didn’t feel wrong, yet it was.

Artists and fans have moved far beyond the confines of the law. The whole artist and fan relationship is moving forward in terms of interaction, accessibility and the use of content while the record companies and movie studios are stuck in the dark ages of physical media. Sites like Bandcamp, NoiseTrade, Vimeo and Youtube are pushing the envelope of artist/fan interaction and giving fans what they want: access to media without the hassle of annoying record companies. The sheer brilliance of NoiseTrade and Bandcamp is that it gives consumers of music what they want: music at a reasonable price.

Yet is what consumers want actually right or fair? The common belief amongst large corporations is that young people are spoiled brats who want everything for free. I beg to differ. Generation Y is not a generation of media anarchists who cast a blind eye to rules and regulation in an endless desire to consume everything that is hip and coo. According to a 2010 survey in Australia, “GEN Y is prepared to pay more for legal downloads of TV shows and movies than any other age group, while people between 31 and 50 are more likely to pay top dollar for music.”[1] What is really happening in the world today is that young people are unsatisfied with the lack of imagination and investment by entertainment companies in providing the actual services that people want and the Internet is capable of producing. Artists recognize this, and so do companies like Apple, Netflix, Pandora or Spotify. In a recent interview, Neil Young expressed what most young people are already thinking about piracy and the motivation behind it, easy access:

It doesn’t affect me because I look at the Internet as the new radio. I look at the radio as gone….Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around….That’s the radio. If you really want to hear it, let’s make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95 percent of it.[2]

It’s interesting to note that Neil Young is more concerned about the loss of fidelity of music in mp3 files than he is about piracy. Young is not joining in some kind of youth revolt. He is a realist.

In reality, Internet piracy continues today because accessibility is still a problem, but that does not make it right.  Just because something is not readily available does not mean any person can appoint themselves Robin Hood. It would be naive to call people who are participating in piracy “thieves.”  The deeper reality is that, just like shoplifting, piracy is a problem of desire and consumption masquerading as thievery.

The problem with piracy is not consumer frustration with the current distribution system of media. Time and money will fix that problem. People are voting with their wallets. The problem with piracy is the unrelenting desire for things that is part of our culture. The value of media is swallowed by the ubiquity of digital downloading and storage. Ten years ago, the amount of media you owned was constricted by the confines of your home and how many CDs, books and DVDs you could stuff onto your shelves. There was a limit. Now with hard drives and the cloud, the the finite nature of storing media has been erased. Media used to be something that was collectible, treasured and used. Now it is something that can be consumed and tossed into the recycling bin on our computer desktops. There is no limit to the amount of media that can fill our digital landfills. Piracy is ultimately a symptom of our insatiable desire to consume instead of participate.

 

 


[1] http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/05/06/great-internet-piracy-survey/#ixzz1mkifRsMw

[2] http://www.theverge.com/2012/1/31/2761597/neil-young-music-steve-jobs-piracy-is-the-new-radio

 

photo by: bixentro

What About the Shop Around the Corner?

The hardware store around the corner closed down sometime in the last few weeks, and it’s my fault.

On Sunday, I made a stop for some batteries and saw the sign on the door. But it was dusk, and I didn’t notice the plywood in the windows. I wondered how they could stay in business with such limited hours. Then, I went to the chain pharmacy that shared the same parking lot instead.

I don’t think it was the limited hours that caused the hardware store to close.

Elwood Adams Hardware of Worcester, Massachusetts claims to be the oldest operating hardware store in the United States, having begun business in 1782.

Though it was a franchise, the hardware store was locally owned and kept a few families working and cared for. I don’t know if they offered healthcare benefits or paid vacation time, but it was always a friendly place to be, and on the weekends, they offered free popcorn.

As a homeowner, I regularly found myself making trips to the hardware store. The large home-supply warehouses stocked more items and were located closer to my house. And I occasionally did give in to the urge for cheap mulch or a larger variety of sand paper grades. But though it took longer and cost more, I often drove to the hardware store and bought garbage bags or liquid drain cleaner simply because I wanted to live in a neighborhood that had a local hardware store.

The neighborhood obviously could not sustain the business, though. My favorite coffee shop also packed up, though the owners moved their establishment just down the street. And the pet store that used to be in the same strip mall closed up, too. An armed robbery took place at one of the convenience stores at that corner a few months ago, and last summer, while I was enjoying ice cream at the Baskin- Robbins, I witnessed a petty thievery of the tip jar. The young man working behind the counter chased after the thieves to no avail, but the policeman enjoying his ice cream saved the day.

I don’t want to see the neighborhood end up this way, but my purchases aren’t enough to carry a small business, and if inertia is pulling a neighborhood down, what can one person do?

What should one person do?

According to a 2011 Gallup poll, one in three small business owners are very or moderately worried about going out of business in 2012. With this kind of hesitancy, will small business owners like Mike, the proprietor of my neighborhood hardware store, invest in growing their businesses in a way that deserves my patronage?

When I stopped by the hardware store to look for a Christmas gift back in December, the shelves were sparsely stocked and I ended up shopping at a large retail chain instead. Was this a cause or effect of the eventual demise of the shop?

Nostalgia lends part of the mystique of the local hardware store. I remember two such shops I used to frequent with my dad when I was a young girl. In both cases, the floors were oily, the aisles cluttered, and the aroma somewhat metallic. The bins of nuts and bolts and screws and nails, with their scoops and little plastic bags just like the candy store, opened up to me the possibilities of fixing things and making things. My dad excels in both.

The “buy local” movement also has gathered me up in its swell. The idea of buying things grown and made and distributed by my neighbors feels more sustainable and allows me to maintain my identity as a person rather than just a consumer. When I walked into the hardware store, Mike always recognized me, asked about the last project he helped me with, and practically begged to help me again, even if I was just looking for a simple drain spout.

And I won’t even talk about the importance of small businesses to the health of a neighborhood, giving people options for walking or bicycling to do their errands rather than getting in their car and leaving the neighborhood, taking with them their money.

But the local hardware store also stocked the same items manufactured overseas that I could buy at any of the chain stores, and the markups were even higher. And supposing Mike wanted to buy plungers and garden fertilizer and duplicate keys from a local manufacturer, or even a US manufacturer, he probably couldn’t find one. Or if he could, he himself couldn’t afford to shop local.

I love the idea of locally owned businesses, and as often as I can, I try to shop in stores and eat in restaurants that have the same commitment. My employer is a small, local business, afterall–a fact we emphasize in marketing. The estimates range from 40-80 percent of how many of us in this country work for small employers (those who have fewer than 500 employees).

But I also have to be able to afford the clothes and the food and the household goods I consume, which means you might also find me wandering the aisles of some giant big box store, with a full cart.

I guess I shouldn’t take all the blame for the demise of the local hardware. But I’m praying for Mike and that vacant building. And I’m looking for the next store with the oily floor and metallic smell where I can lay down a little bit of my hard-earned cash from time to time.

Let’s hope they have a popcorn machine.

 

 

Gordon Gekko On My Mind

A scene from the 1987 movie Wall Street has haunted me. I have only watched it once, when I was 21 and new in my own career.

Blue-collar aircraft machinist Bud Fox (Martin Sheen) lies in the hospital, gravely ill. His son, dark-suited Wall Street broker Carl (Charlie Sheen) stands at his bedside clutching his fat

hers hand. Both shake with tears as the prodigal son returns to honor his father’s integrity and wisdom.

That moment stuck with me, but I wasn’t moved so much by the father-son sentimental moment. Rather, it was the hint of a darker conflict that had been resolved between the men that marked me. The nature of that conflict wouldn’t occur to me until much later, when, one day, I realized I was running out of time.

My midlife crisis began at age 39, crested at 41, and was pretty much resolved by the time I hit 43. The estimated damages include four motorcycles, one FJ Cruiser, a decade of my wife’s life (thanks to the motorcycles, mostly), and one career change.

Overall, I think it worked out well.

But mortality has a way of bringing honest scales to any discussion. My life was half over, at least. What did it add up to? It occurred to me that while I was making lots of money and was important, I couldn’t say much about the real worth of my job.

Now I normally don’t seek philosophical answers by watching the Discovery Channel. But I was surprised to realize that Dirty Jobs, one of my family’s favorite shows, was speaking on this very issue.

Mike Rowe, the host, travels the country and stands shoulder to shoulder with people doing the dirtiest, nastiest jobs imaginable. It makes great reality TV, but Mike has a deeper purpose for the show: he wants America to see that there is worth and a certain nobility in dirty, hard work. This worth is not based on social standing or big paychecks, but on the fact that the work needs to be done and it’s dirty and it’s hard and people just do it. It is the labor of those people he

introduces each week that “makes it possible for the rest of us to live the way we do.”

The eighteenth century economist Adam Smith, on the other hand, probably never did a dirty job beyond scraping the horse manure from his English boots (actually, I’m sure he had someone do that for him), but in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the 

Wealth of Nations he explains how wealth and worth are created. For Smith, wealth is defined as the worth of goods and services produced by a population’s labor (what they make or improve by their work). The relative amount of wealth a country produces is most dependent on the level of “skill, dexterity, and judgment” the workers apply in their work. The smarter, more skilled workers generate more wealth. (See the Industrial Revolution.)

Now the key to understanding the importance of Smith’s message to me in my mid-life crisis is the distinction he makes between creating wealth and accumulating wealth. Accumulating wealth is simply the transfer of one person’s wealth to another (a redistribution, if you will). For wealth to be created, something has to be made or improved, and this requires labor (skilled or not). The labor of the farmer produces crops. The plumber makes the toilet work. The truck driver moves something from where it can’t be used to a place where it can. All this labor creates wealth by making something new or by making something better.

Any labor that fails to make or improve something creates no wealth. Stock traders who labor to buy low and sell high successfully transfer wealth, but they create none. Speculators in commodities (such as grain, oil, etc.) and real estate accumulate vast wealth, but they create none.

Now, looking back, I understand why Wall Street was on my mind. The relationship between Bud Fox, Carl Fox, and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is that dark conflict that had became mine.

In a pair of scenes the polar opposites Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko attempt to persua

de the young Carl Fox concerning the nature of wealth. In the first scene, Bud exhorts his son to “stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.”

Meanwhile, the evil Gordon Gekko whispers into Carl’s ear, “The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own.”

The work of Gordon Gekko may be morally acceptable in our society, but it lacks nobility and worth. His kind don’t create wealth, they just redistribute it.

But what about the executive, the guy like me during my crisis, who directs the creative efforts of others toward an objective? Do we create wealth? Are we Gekkos or Buds? Adam Smith would say that to the extent that we enable laborers to use greater “skill, dexterity, and judgment” in their work, we are creators of wealth. But I’m skeptical that this can be measured, at least not in the same way I can measure the worth of the work of a motorcycle mechanic, or that it amounts to much. I wasn’t satisfied with not knowing. I had to make sure.

That’s what I needed to turn the corner into the second half of my life: certainty that my work had worth, that I was a creator of wealth, not merely an accumulator of it. So I stopped telling people how to make software. I stopped being merely an approver of the creative efforts of others and retooled myself. I create every day and judge the worth of my work. And I approach my creative labor with the eye of a craftsman, content with an iPhone application well-built, solid, with a little art thrown in there where, perhaps, only another craftsman might notice.

 

Opening Your Life to Purple-Bottled Dreams

Two years ago I sat on a bare window seat at an inn in Pittsburgh. The air was dry, the day light, as sun reflected off deep, deep snow outside. On this morning, my last at the inn, the owners had gone and I was left with the tawny-haired dog who was keen on shedding. My New-York-black attire was in constant jeopardy as I had earlier roamed the old Victorian with my camera, taking shots of antique irons, a spinning wheel, purple bottles, an out-of-tune piano (How did I know it was out of tune? I had sneaked a little time with it of course.)

Photo by flickr user Evil Erin.

My amateur photo session finished, I was at the window with a book about poetry-writing. The wooden seat beneath me was worn and heavily grained, and this reminded me of a photographer friend who takes a lot of pictures of woodwork. I mused that she would have taken better shots than I did, since I was not a photographer in any significant sense.

What surprised me was not this moment, of knowing I wasn’t photographer, of admitting it almost fondly in my ponderings, and silently admiring my friend. Rather, my surprise came when I opened the poetry-writing book.

“Did you think it would be easy?” the author asked, meaning, did I think that being a poet was a simple thing. The answer? Yes, I had. But suddenly, and forcefully, I understood my error.

“I am not a poet,” I said to the room, and the dog shifted a little on the braided rug near the fireplace.

Truth be told, I was not really making my statement to the room. I was dropping it into a timeline that I now recognize. I was experiencing these audible words as a turning point, or at least the offer of a turning point.

As it goes, I accepted the deal.

How long did it take to come to that point? Decades perhaps? Could I trace my poetic life back along many moments and claim a series of markers? If I wanted to make a memoir of it, I suppose I could.

But that day is when the ship began to turn, in a way I could actually feel, and I needn’t write the memoir (at least not now). On that day I took action, determining to buy more books on poetry and read more books on poets and criticism. When I returned to New York (and after I got the dog hair off my black sweater), I also began writing poetry in earnest. I opened myself to possibilities I could not even yet imagine. The imagining was not the important thing; it was the opening that counted. I had already published a book of poetry with International Arts Movement, but this was different. It was a looking forward, potentially to an entire life of poetry ahead— an odd pursuit, it seemed, considering the odds of how little renown and financial support it might lend; yet, as a professional writer, I had to consider these odds, because a person only has so much time to give, and a person must have a livelihood (though not renown, and that is probably a good thing).

Unexpected outcomes followed. That sounds so business-like! And yet that is exactly what it should sound like, because poetry is now, in significant ways, my business. It is my business in the reading and the writing of it. It is my business in the acquisition of it, for a small press I started just a year after my recognizable turning point. It is my business on Facebook, where I am happily gathering an audience for poetry. And it is my business for a daily-poetry subscription, which takes a great deal of delightful work and which I must charge a small annual fee for ($2.99), to cover my costs.

It remains to be seen if I can actually live off of poetry as a business. Few have done it. Many entities that sponsor poetry are, themselves, sponsored by grants and donations. I feel unusual, focusing on a business model instead of a non-profit model. I wonder if people will think my efforts are counter to the very spirit of poetry.

Still. Once a ship begins to turn, it is exciting to stand on her and look to far-away waters, open to where you might travel—to lands of coconut trees, and jingle-shell beaches, or groves of oranges and new-ripe peaches, or even back to an old inn in Pittsburgh, to pick up some purple-bottled poetry for the uncharted days to come.

Blank Slate


I hate to see that evening Sun bite down
one ruler for another, one America
for the next, the race starts over, fresh
forgetfulness.   Blank slate.

Firms fix to win
unless the grid browns down, turns black;
contender nations bud; the rush is on,
the riders high and winning’s all.

Overawed tots pop and thrive, sugar their thighs.
Hetty Greens titivate on Corporate War.
What fun!  And never-failure banks fleece the sky
while teeny-show-me-yours repeat cock-sure clichés.

And they’re off!  Pristine, the chargers gallop
bigger than grand – loser nags steered underground.

Photo by flickr user mheisel

Bogart on Business

Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina

On May 20, 2011, The Curator published an essay by Josh Cacopardo (“Subversive HR”), in which Cacopardo asked and answered this question: How should Christian businesses differ from secular businesses? I am troubled by Cacopardo’s answer, and I would like to offer a sketch of what I think is a better answer. My answer begins — as do many good answers — with Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart played the role of successful businessman Linus Larrabee in the 1954 film Sabrina. Early in the film, his playboy brother David questions why Linus is still in business:

David: “You’ve got all the money in the world.”


Linus: “Making money isn’t the main point of business. Money is a by-product.”


David: “What’s the main objective?

I believe a good answer to David’s question here will also provide us with a better answer to Cacopardo’s question. That is, knowing something about the purpose of business will help us see how Christian businesses should differ from secular businesses.

But first, what’s wrong with Cacopardo’s answer? He says that Christian business should differ from secular businesses, and so should be “subversive” in a capitalist business culture. Specifically, Christian businesses shouldn’t seek to hire the best candidates for their jobs. Instead, they should use their positions to develop people who wouldn’t ordinarily be hired for such positions. Secondly, unlike secular businesses, Christian businesses shouldn’t be motivated by profits.

But why should Christian businesses follow these guidelines? Cacopardo thinks that the goal of Christian businesses ought to be different from that of secular businesses. He believes that the purpose of a secular business is profit, but that the purpose of a Christian business is manifold: development of employees, advancing God’s kingdom, and, to a diminished degree, profit. Because the purposes of the businesses differ, so should the behavior. Cacopardo says:

In a capitalist industry, being subversive in this matter would mean losing money, which is counterintuitive to the capitalist philosophy in the first place, but in a church, the goal is to serve the people, not the bank or the corporation. By giving those with less experience an opportunity to develop, the church or ministry serves not only the population it seeks to reach in the first place, but also the employees who help to provide that service, however imperfectly.

He puts this point in terms of the church, but he was arguing that this sort of difference of goal should be representative of Christian business in general. He goes on to add that . . .

Christians — whether at a Christian organization or a secular one — shouldn’t limit themselves to the “cream of the crop” in candidates the way typical HR practitioners would suggest . . . such behavior [is] exactly the same as secular behavior . . .

So, Cacopardo thinks that the objective — the purpose — of Christian business differs from that of secular business, and therefore the nature and practice of the two businesses should differ. And this is where I think he is wrong. He is wrong about the purpose, and as a result, he is wrong about the practice. (Cacopardo also discusses churches and non-profit organizations, but my focus will be traditional, for-profit business.)

In order to explain where Cacopardo went wrong — and why I believe that he did — we need to better establish the purpose of business, but where do we go to figure out something like this? In this case, a good place to go is back to the beginning — the origins — of business. Here we can ask the same question of business that Christ did of John’s baptism: is it from God, or from men?

Cacopardo’s answer is that business is from men, from humanity. This is implicit in his argument. Secular business is in need of subversion by Christian business, he says. Part of the idea of subversion is that what is prior is subverted by what is posterior. What comes first is subverted by what comes second. Cacopardo’s story is that humanity created the enterprise of business, with its mammon-driven goal, and that Christians ought to subvert business by applying God-given principles to it.

This gets the story backwards. In the beginning, God created earth and put humankind in it to rule and cultivate it. God created in humanity the desires and capacities to pursue those ends — the desires and capacities to discover, build, and care for the earth and for each other.

Well and good, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with business? In reply, let’s return to Bogart as Linus Larrabee. David has just asked him about business: “What’s the main objective? Linus responds:

A new product has been found, something of use to the world.  A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines go in and you’re in business. It’s coincidental that people who’ve never seen a dime now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their faces washed. What’s wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?

Linus thinks that business plays a pivotal role in discovery, development, and the flourishing of humankind. He sarcastically remarks on the “coincidence” of business growth and increase of standard of living. Genuine examples of this include, among others, the United States and Canada over the past 120 years or so, the Czech Republic in the past 20 years, and more recently, China and India. Linus thinks the point of business is to make things better.

My point is this: in the pursuit of ruling and cultivating the earth, business enterprise is crucial. Similar reasoning applies to art, engineering, horticulture, law, and all other essential components of culture. So I conclude that God, not man, created business, and oriented humanity towards it.

What, then, is the purpose of business? Linus would have us believe that it is to make things better. He gets something importantly right, but I cannot accept this without a caveat. For whatever else a business may pursue, it seems clear that a salient purpose is also to turn a profit. Certainly, employee development and environmental stewardship are important aspects of business, and cultural development and increased standard of living are ideal consequences .

But while an organization can pursue any of these ends and still fail to be a business, all it takes for any organization to qualify as a business is pursuit of profit. Pursuit of profit is business’s distinguishing feature, and it need not be single-minded; much of our history attests that single-minded pursuit of profit can lead to the degradation of employees (and others), environmental and cultural destruction, and human misery. However, in order for any business to develop its employees, steward the environment, foster cultural development, and raise the standard of living, it must exist. To exist, a business must turn a profit. So I would hazard that the purpose of business is twofold: to turn a profit and to make things better.

A remarkable consequence of this argument is that just as there is no such thing as “secular horticulture” and “Christian horticulture,” neither is there such thing as “secular business” and “Christian business.” There is only one kind of business: an enterprise that is supposed to turn a profit and make things better. Of course, the world and its inhabitants are fallen, and that makes it difficult for businesses to measure up to this ideal. But failure comes in degrees, and some will fail less badly than others. And some may both turn a profit and make the world a better place.

At last we are in a position to see more clearly what went wrong with Cacopardo’s argument. He says Christian businesses shouldn’t seek to hire the best candidates for their positions. But failure to hire the best candidates results in a less skilled work force, which leads both to reduced profits, and to diminished effectiveness in achieving goals. Reduced profits cause businesses to fail, or put them at great risk to do so. And what does it profit a business not to profit? Nothing. A business can neither survive nor work to make things better without profit. Additionally, making things better isn’t easy, and a business cannot do this with an unskilled staff. A Christian business should both hire the best, and pursue profit.

Which finally brings us back to our original question: How should Christian businesses differ from secular businesses? I believe the answer is: they shouldn’t. After all, Christian businesses are engaged in fundamentally the same enterprise as secular businesses. Both should pursue profit while developing employees, stewarding the environment, fostering culture, and raising the standard of living for those involved. Sure, many secular business fail to display these virtues — fail to make things better. But so do many Christian businesses. Whether or not the leaders and employees of some business are in Christ, or are a part of the Church, makes no difference to whether they should try to make things better. That businesses should try to make the world better isn’t any more evident to a Christian than to anyone else; hence the fact that many secular businesses do strive to make things better. Christian businesses should strive to make things better as well. But then, all businesses should, for that was God’s intent from the beginning.

Subversive HR

A friend recently sent me a link to an online symposium hosted by Comment Magazine in which a handful of Human Resources professionals weighed in on the HR obstacles encountered in Christian organizations. Because I am a Christian working in Human Resources at a secular organization, I thought I’d give it a read-through. I couldn’t have been more disappointed by what I read.

To detail all of the responses would take up too much time here, but there were a few overarching themes that troubled me: that Christian organizations too frequently hire individuals who are not as qualified as they should be for the “ministry” (read: organization) to reach its full potential; that Christian organizations need to be more proactive in creating processes and programs to deal with suboptimal employee performance; and that Christian organizations require too much sacrifice on the part of their employees in terms of compensation and benefits.

The first criticism I have of these responses is that, Christian or not, they have raised issues that are not actually unique to Christian organizations, but endemic to all. Furthermore, the solutions the responders have offered are the same broad, idealistic suggestions I would expect to find at, say, the secular company I work for. The question Comment posed, if I understand correctly, sought to bring to light what is different about Christian organizations. According to the responses, nothing.

Take, for example, one of the prevalent complaints of Comment’s responders: too many Christian organizations hire individuals who are not qualified for the job, therefore the job isn’t being done at its full potential, and the church or ministry may be suffering. I consider this to be a very bold and potentially unfair assessment, especially when it comes without relevant examples. How have these organizations suffered? Merely in terms of not achieving a goal on a time or budget line? And how is a ministry’s potential measured? By money or numbers or other objective measurements? How does one effectively measure the impact of  the service of the church or ministry?

Again, speculation is difficult here because none of the responders went into detail about where these employees or ministries are lacking, but a Christian organization– and especially a church– ought to be more open to giving people an opportunity. Frequently, if a person doesn’t have all of the right experience for a job it’s not because he or she is incapable, but because no other company will give him or her the opportunity to gain the experience. Shouldn’t the church be more subversive? In a capitalist industry, being subversive in this matter would mean losing money, which is counterintuitive to the capitalist philosophy in the first place, but in a church, the goal is to serve the people, not the bank or the corporation. By giving those with less experience an opportunity to develop, the church or ministry serves not only the population it seeks to reach in the first place, but also the employees who help to provide that service, however imperfectly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Christians should just hire anybody off the street for a job that requires specific know-how. What I am saying is that Christians — whether at a Christian organization or a secular one — shouldn’t limit themselves to the “cream of the crop” in candidates the way typical HR practitioners would suggest. Not only is such behavior exactly the same as secular behavior, but it also limits the sovereignty of God in doing amazing things in the workplace. This may sound like idealism, but I say it is at the very center of the Christian faith.

Further treading the border of idealism, and rightfully so, is the idea that Christian organizations, above all others, should steer clear of the “processes” designed to evaluate and enhance employee performance. First of all, those processes tend to criticize more than they encourage employees. If an employee is not meeting performance standards, the default for most organizations is to fall back on a process for getting the employee back on track, but this assumes that all employee performance issues stem from the same thing, which is almost never the case. Further, such processes are too objective for what is frequently a subjective problem. More often than not, an employee fails to meet an expectation either because his or her thought process needs to be adjusted, or because he or she really doesn’t have the necessary skill set, in which case a performance review isn’t going to be very helpful even with an incentive plan to follow. A stiff criticism, finger-wag, or reprimand won’t be enough if employers don’t provide the tools for change, whether that has to do with thought processes or hard skills. A man can’t saw through a tree if all he has is a hammer.

Even more disappointing than the responses about performance reviews and hiring practices was the response about compensation and benefits. It’s no secret that non-profits are not exactly known for their packages, nor should they be. After all, they are non-profits, which means they aren’t supposed to be in business to make money — something that becomes problematic when we consider that they are still operating inside a capitalist structure. Something Americans fail to consider is that, if none of our businesses were turning profits, we’d all be as underpaid as the non-profit workers, suggesting instead that they are not actually underpaid, but that the rest of us are overpaid. As long as non-profits must still operate inside a capitalist structure, there will be a compensation chasm.

Highlighting the philosophy, however, doesn’t change the reality, which is that non-profit workers are more likely to struggle making ends meet than the rest of us. But predsumably, non-profit employees don’t take their positions for the pay; they work for non-profits because they believe in them and their causes. Those who work for Christian organizations should be people who believe in a cause — the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.  Christ didn’t pay his disciples — in fact, he required that they leave everything behind, and has told us that if we are to follow him, we must do the same. I don’t mean to saturate this commentary with idealism or fundamentalist Christian propaganda; I don’t imagine that Jesus intends for us to do without the things we need to live. I will suggest, though, that part of the reason that he requires us to leave riches behind is because he, himself, will provide all that we need while we are doing his work. Working for low wages anywhere, and especially in a ministry or church, can be a testament to the reliance Christians are told to have on Christ. If an employee passes up or leaves an opportunity at a church because of compensation, then that person probably isn’t the right fit for the post in the first place. A church is a place of worship and sacrifice, not capital gains. Does this mean that secular counterparts to Christian organizations will look more attractive to some? Of course. But that doesn’t mean the Christian organizations are the ones that need to make adjustments. Following the example of the world to win the service of others should be an intuitively dangerous road for any Christian.

Comment follows their first question with a second: How can HR be done with integrity? The answer is that HR must undergo reform. But this cannot happen unless Christian organizations themselves are willing to embrace reform. If the people who are involved in running Christian organizations are themselves not thinking like Christians, then a distinction between Christian and secular organizations becomes a moot point. Thinking like a Christian, though, does not simply mean being more gentle when terminating an employee or more tolerant of underperformance. It means intentionally engaging in the lives of employees in order to facilitate change. In my experience, the secular world discourages this if not through company policy then through — forgive the expression — the cover-your-ass legislation we’ve become so fond of in America. Everyone is afraid of lawsuits and consequently, we are hesitant to get too involved in the lives of our employees and coworkers. This is not a Christian response to HR, but a secular one. This needs to change in both worlds if HR can ever have integrity in any organization, and Christians should view themselves as charged with spearheading this change, regardless whether it means that a church or ministry will not be running at full potential all of the time.

In short, Christian organizations need to be more subversive when it comes to HR or they run the risk of being no different than the secular corporations that have been so successful at removing the “human” aspect from Human Resources practices.

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The Monastic Cubicle

I placed his desk close up to a small side window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light… Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined. – Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener

Critics plumb the depths of Melville’s Bartleby the Scriver looking for the cause of Bartleby’s psychosis. Was Bartleby protesting capitalism, vowing to shrivel and die rather than participate in the market economy? Does he represent the working class? Is he setting up a new social order not to be corrupted? Is he a quitter? Is he crazy? Is he just a literary invention with no reason other than to spurn critics in a guessing game of interpretation that has Melville laughing in his grave? I’ll let the interpretation fall to more rigorous scholars for now. What has haunted me, since I read this for a second time, after graduating and getting a “real job,” is the physical nature of Bartleby’s surroundings. What has haunted me, and what I want to explore, is what Melville seems to instinctively know and plant with malicious intent, yet has no name for yet: the cubicle.

Two years into an office job, sitting in a circle and talking with other graduate students about Bartleby, it hit me that Bartleby’s surroundings were a proto-cubicle. The narrator placed him in this clever contraption that permitted both “privacy and society,” in other words, observation. Bartleby felt both secluded and exposed. He was naked before everyone, yet no one could see him. My mind immediately flashed to the panopticon, that dreary prison concept that sets up a prison in a cylinder with one guard in the middle who can survey all. My mind then flashed to me.

For two years I had been a cubicle dweller. It was a love-hate relationship. Sometimes I could relax, listen to music, and hum away on my computer, working diligently. But however long that lasted, interruption commenced, and suddenly people peered over the walls, walked right into the cubicle, looked over my shoulder. With walls but no doors, the cubicle isolates from sight but not from voice and not from quick observation or interruption. Its qualities of privacy are a facade.

So too are its qualities of society. When I sit down inside those five and-a-half foot walls, the whole world disappears. Community becomes something that needs to be committed to, both with coworkers and the world outside. There will be times when I get up to get coffee, and I realize that it’s been snowing or raining for three hours. Sometimes you don’t talk to anyone meaningfully all day, just sitting in the cube working away. Sometimes you talk to people through the cubicle walls, like Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen in Papillon. It’s actual work to have conversations with people, to participate in face to face society in such a physically open, yet restrictive place. I know people who will call or email from two cubes down, not wanting to make the effort to get up and venture out of their cubicle.

When you grow up you’ll be put in a container called a cubicle. The bleak oppressiveness will warp your spine and destroy your capacity to feel joy. -From Dilbert, March 24, 2004

The cubicle is both cell and kingdom– a place of entrapment and a place to claim as yours alone. Bartleby fits this perfectly, if you’ll allow one bit of interpretation from me: he is trapped in his cube, and refuses to work in reaction to his entrapment, but his stubborn, unyielding mantra “I prefer not to” is a declaration of control from a person who lives in a kingdom of one. Both of these responses, to give up or become a dictator on your six by six plot of dim lit industrial carpet, are not healthy or adequate responses.

We are pushed into thinking of the cubicle as a prison, a place of middle class oppression that slowly destroys our souls. This line of thinking, while it seems correct, is symptomatic of a modern view of work as drudgery or slavery. In essence, it is a poor view of vocation.

Vocation is the establishment of the work of our hands. It is very serious business, and a very serious way of looking at the work we do, whether we paint portraits, take pictures of ninth graders for yearbooks, fill garbage trucks, teach dance, drive a truck or sit in a cubicle. If we feel oppressed, it is often not because of our work but because of how we interpret our work as being inadequate or useless. Martin Luther expressed the doctrine of vocation as our work being “masks of God.” That is very serious business indeed! Work is not trivial when it has a higher calling, to not be drudgery but to be a way of passing love and compassion to others. Our work, probably more than anything else in the day, is our greatest and most powerful way to be neighborly. And who wants to love their neighbor like Bartleby did? Instead, if we choose to put on the doctrine of vocation and push back our dark thoughts concerning our work, we will find a purposefulness, hopefulness and desire to use our work as a way of blessing people and loving them as we love ourselves.

But what about that cubicle? How do we handle it? I don’t know when it hit me, but as I was dwelling one day on the thought that my cubicle might very well be a prison, the thought came to me: why do monks call their rooms cells? Are they in prison as well?

In Cloister Talks, John Sweeney writes:

One of John Cassian’s great affections was for his cella or cell―his little room in the community. As an abbot, he taught his monks to love this tiny enclosed space, like a bird loves its nest or a worm its hole. He learned from his time in the Egyptian desert the saying, “The cell will teach you all you need to know.”

I think the key to unlocking the potential of the cubicle, the non-monastic cell, if you will, is the word community. How often at work do we forget we are in community? Even when we are slammed against the wall of a deadline, deep in thought on a matter of policy or lost in a swarm of emails, we must remember that over that wall is a neighbor, our neighbor.  Being neighborly can be tough, as Frost alludes to in the line “good fences make good neighbors.” But part of being a good neighbor, as the monastics teach us, is going on the other side of the fence and sharing in community, loving them as you love yourself. Monks had to deal with this as well, as Sweeney recounts that living in a cloister “there is no escaping the bad qualities of the brother whose cell is next to yours.” The monks may have gripes, but they call each other brother for a reason. Their connection is deep, they are masks of God to one another and treat each other as family. The resolution to the problem of Bartleby then just may well be looking at our work as a vocation much like the monastics do– that in the toil of a studio, office or cubicle is an opportunity to cultivate meaningful community through an understanding of our work as vocation and our presence as a mask of God.

Off-Broadway: Long Tails, Affordable Tickets

A great quandary in the arts world is: how do you make programming affordable for all? If we truly believe in the importance and necessity of art, then it goes without saying that art should be sold with an egalitarian price tag. The last few holiday seasons have been characterized by lighter wallets, so it is encouraging to find that some arts institutions – namely those that were previously typified by audiences donned in fur coats and monocles – are beginning to offer creative alternatives in an attempt to diversify audiences.

The theatre world in New York is beginning to reap the effects of a long-tail culture. That is, different theatre companies and collectives are reaching niche markets of people who are interested in very specific styles of art. Off-Broadway is capitalizing on this new demand trend, while Broadway is still lagging behind, trying to fit their content into a one-size-fits-all product.

Off-Broadway has a more flexible structure, offering something for everyone. If you want to see something new and edgy you can go to Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. If you want to see something experimental and collaborative-based, you can go to SoHo Rep. If you want to see a re-envisioned classic, you can go to Classic Stage Company. Ars Nova is great for comedy and camp. MCC is an‘emotional powerhouse’ kind of place. And so on and so forth.

But it goes even smaller. Like the iTunes “listeners also bought” feature, the downtown theatre scene is made up of splinter groups known for pushing the boundaries of narrative and storytelling. The Amoralists, The Debate Society, Elevator Repair Service, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, among others are all grassroots collectives producing some of the best new theatre out there.

And Off-Broadway companies are starting to recognize the grassroots/collective appeal. Like indie record companies who found out how to create consumer allegiance through a like-minded aesthetic, Off-Broadway theatres are finally teaming up and sponsoring the work of these collectives to establish new audiences. The Public Theater recently co-produced something from Elevator Repair Service, and SoHo Rep did so with Nature Theater of Oklahoma. This pattern – of grassroots artist collectives teaming with non-profit Off-Broadway companies – is where theatre is headed, whether Broadway is on board or not.

This works best in New York, where space is at a premium. It only makes sense that a myriad of smaller theatres that provide an array of options will thrive, whereas massive theatres might dwindle. Sure, it’s not a lucrative business (has the theatre ever been?), but this trend is increasing as our culture morphs into niche-appeal. In order to support the trend, ticket prices to these smaller theatres have become more democratic and more competitive.

But word isn’t spreading quickly enough. New Yorkers and tourists alike still look first to Broadway when they consider seeing a show. And because of this, the casual theatre-goer still perceives the stage to be too expensive.

So, in an attempt to support the excellent community-reliant art form that is the theatre, here are a number of ways to take advantage of affordable theatre tickets from some of the culture-setting Off-Broadway houses in America’s theatre capital.

For Young Professionals…

HipTix with Roundabout Theatre Company

If you’re between the ages of 18-35, HipTix is an affordable ticket service through Roundabout Theatre Company, whose shows range from huge Broadway musicals to intimate black box plays. Membership is free. All tickets are $20 or less (I’ve purchased $10 and $15 HipTix via their handy email blasts). Plus, HipTix members can purchase advance tickets and receive invites to exclusive post-show parties. (Monocle and fur coat not required.) You can choose to upgrade your membership to HipTix Gold with a $75 tax-deductible contribution, which ensures two orchestra level seats to every HipTix show.

Vineyard Theatre

If you are a theatre artist or under the age of 30, a $30 tax-deductible Vineyard Theatre membership will get you $15 tickets to every single show. This, out of all deals in New York, is one of the best. The Vineyard Theatre is at the top of their game, and is arguably producing the best new American theatre out there. Recent productions of The Scottsboro Boys and Middletown prove that the theatre is still alive and well, so long as we’ll go to it. Vineyard Theatre has a sterling reputation that is being elevated each year, so see their shows in their intimate Union Square theatre before they head to Broadway and cost you a fortune.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater – Under 30 Plan

A $20 membership for those under the age of 30 will get you one $15 ticket to each Rattlestick show. In addition, members receive priority booking, invitations to Under 30 Members’ nights with meet and greet with playwright, director, cast, crew and staff, and free admission to all public readings as part of their developmental Evening Reading Series throughout the season, including The Good Plays Festival, TheaterJam and other special events. Rattlestick is known for excellent, edgy, new theatre, where you can see plays from the best up and coming writers.

Playwrights Horizons Student and Under 30 Memberships

For students, a $10 membership gets you $10 tickets to all shows. If you bring a friend who is also a student, they can get a $15 ticket. For those who are under 30 but aren’t students, a $20 membership gets you $20 tickets. All tickets can be purchased in advance (no standing in annoying rush and lottery lines). Playwrights Horizons is another great theatre that serves as America’s home for fostering new plays and musicals.

For Smaller Theatres…

Most theatres under 100 seats won’t charge more than $20 for a ticket. If that’s out of your price range, the always-fascinating SoHo Rep has 99-cent seats for all Sunday shows– yes, 99 cents— and PS 122 has “Passports” available for purchase where $55 gets you into 5 shows.

For Everyone Else…

TDF (Theatre Development Fund) Membership

This is for those who prefer to have a wide-array of options. Shows available on TDF range from the most buzz-worthy musicals on Broadway to Off-off Broadway, with a smattering of dance, concerts, and variety shows in between. Full-time students, full-time teachers, union members, retirees, civil service employees, staff members of not-for-profit organizations, performing arts professionals, members of the armed forces or clergy are all eligible for membership, which right now costs $30. Broadway tickets usually cost $25-$35, Off-off Broadway shows cost $9. TDF also houses the famous TKTS booths that are situated around the city. If you don’t have a membership, brave the crowds and find discounted tickets in person. Or, get their brand new TKTS iPhone app to see what’s selling. See their website for more info.

Atlantic Theater Company – 15for15

Started by David Mamet and William H. Macy, the Atlantic is a mainstay of the American theatre scene. Plays from Martin McDonagh, Ethan Cohen, Sam Shepard, and Harold Pinter can all regularly be seen at Atlantic. And $15 tickets are available for the first 15 performances of all their shows.

General and Student Rush…

Most, if not all, theatres offer discounted rush tickets on the day of the show. If you are willing to stand in line, in the cold, and risk not getting a ticket, they are a fine way to see great theatre. Most are priced around $20 with a very limited availability. Each theatre’s rush policy differs. For general info on all shows go to the TalkinBroadway.com Rush Board.

Some of the best rush policies are found at 2nd Stage Theatre ($15), Atlantic Theatre, Vineyard Theatre ($20), MCC ($20), MTC ($20), and The Public ($20), which actually has a warm lobby and cafe you can wait in.

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An Off the Wall Lesson in Artistry from Matson Jones

Germany, Berlin, Robert Rauschenberg, Riding B...
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Some say we’re entering the “Creative Age.” But what is an artist to do when he can barely afford life’s necessities, much less pay for the materials to carry on in his work?

It is easy to hope that a fabled patron might come along to foot the bills – and at times they do. When reality strikes back, though, we realize that not every artist is going to be able to make a living wage making his or her art. Even in the best of economies, this will probably never be the case. But, that does not mean that the artist should give up or even retire for a “safe” career.  When painting pictures will not pay the bills, perhaps the best way to respond is by painting outside the lines.

I read a book that inspired me to rethink the way that artists should go about making money. Chronicling the life and work of Robert Rauschenberg, this book wove an interesting tale of Rauschenberg’s “Off the Wall” path to success. Rauschenberg’s paintings are now at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and other prestigious museums, but years ago he was painting over old canvases because he could not afford to purchase new ones. In a tough spot after being fired from a job as a janitor, Rauschenberg needed a new source of income. And after a bit of creative thinking, he found it in an unlikely place: window dressing.

Having done a brief stint doing windows for Gene Moore, Rauschenberg began doing displays for a variety of venues, including such highbrow operations as Tiffany’s and Bonwit’s department store. Rauschenberg even managed to reel his friend Jasper Johns into what became a regular operation, and a quite lucrative one at that. Before long, thanks in part to Rauschenberg’s innovative approach to making art and Johns’ meticulousness for detail, the duo was pulling in work from a variety of avenues. The artists’ approach was simple: they took on only enough jobs to sustain their finances, and managed to save up most of their time for pursuing their personal artwork. Eventually, the two branded their partnership as Matson Jones, using this name to keep their commercial projects separate from their painting.

The duo’s work as window dressers is an interesting case study about the outpourings of an artist’s vocation. It is particularly interesting when considering how someone with a penchant for painting – or for that matter any art form – might work out his or her craft.

Matson Jones provided a way for Rauschenberg and Johns to continue making their art, even if they were not getting paid enough to live on – and in Rauschenberg’s case, it encouraged the use of new and different materials. Rauschenberg began using concepts gleaned from his window dressing work in his artwork, incorporating new materials such as aluminum and gold leaf. As a result, a commercial occupation often regarded in disdain by some artists ended up expanding Rauschenberg’s artistic palette. Go figure.

It is no mistake that these two later-famed painters were successful with their window displays. Their commercial success was most certainly tied to their experience envisioning and creating artwork, not just some ability to conjure up moneymaking schemes. Window work is, in many ways, a natural fit for painters who are accustomed to turning ideas into images and producing bodies of work that build upon a theme.

With this odd partnership sketched out, there are certainly some lessons that can be gleaned. But, rather than trying to provide the answers, I would like to pose a few questions. How might Rauschenberg and Johns’ model for making money while continuing to make art apply to and inform artists today? For instance, what non-traditional ways might an artist consider for honing his or her craft? And further, how might an artist transform his or her view of “work” to incorporate new outpourings that might result in an income?

While the answers to these questions are not black and white, they remind us that neither is the vocation of an artist. Talent does not always equate with financial viability nor does the sheer quality of one’s artwork. This is what is clear: when the way forward seems impassable, a painter should not give up painting, a writer should not give up writing, and a musician should not give up music making. Instead, as the Matson Jones model suggests, sometimes a bit of creativity is necessary to make things work. With enough outside-the-box thinking, the result may just be (perhaps even to the artist’s surprise) a mutually beneficial collaboration.

Human Trafficking, Craigslist, and Kijiji

We are motoring away from Kwadjokrom in a red dugout boat and I have stopped crying. In the heat of the sun I smell like the road, the fine dust gritty between my teeth as I clench and unclench my jaw, trying to work out my shame at my outburst on the road from Kijiji.

Kijiji is a market just beyond the Western bank of Ghana’s Lake Volta, on whose waters thousands of slave children labor. At three or four years old, just weaned from their mothers’ breasts, they come to a lonely life of work and hunger. The fishermen who buy them are often child slaves themselves, grown up on the lake, set free at seventeen or eighteen years old to fend for themselves. At Kijiji, the masters’ wives sell the fish from the children’s nets, and this afternoon we walked in the sun among those market baskets, their mouths full to overflowing.

I am in Ghana on behalf of a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that partners with Ghanaian anti-trafficking leaders to rescue these children. One of my Ghanaian colleagues is sitting at the helm of the red dugout boat, calling to the boatman who guides our craft through the clutter of Kwadjokrom’s shore-docked fishing boats. The boats are shaped like thin moons, each end tipped up, and their wooden flanks are painted with David and Goliath, the Good Shepherd, and the Rainbow and the Dove. We are on our way from Kijiji to a fishing island, where a fisherman has promised to give up a little boy he keeps.

Yet as we push out, my thoughts are of Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, black map dots that rise in my mind with the rhythm of a dull heartbeat. I have no reason to think of those cities while I am here in Ghana, except that they mark for me the trafficking route of a friend, and I have seen Kijiji.

It does not make sense. It did not make sense half an hour ago on the road from Kijiji, when the old man sitting behind me in our rickety trotro asked, through an acquaintance’s translation, why was I so angry?

I did not realize that I was shrieking in the trotro’s cramped cab, holding forth in a language that only three of my traveling companions could fully comprehend.

“Using Craigslist is like buying a coach class ticket on the upper deck of a slave ship,” I think I yelled. The old man was perplexed. “They sell thousands of kids in sex trafficking and prostitution and they could care less!” He did not get that either. “Everyone who buys a used couch knows what’s happening in the ‘adult services’ section and doesn’t care!”

At this point, one of my English-speaking companions yelled back, in near-equal force, that I should zip it. He was right. I turned in my seat to face the front of the bus and the rutted, dusty road leading up to the lake. I was crying now, less from the reprimand and more from the map of the cities I had remembered. I brought my handkerchief up to wipe my forehead and nose and then I held it to my mouth.

It was nearly five years ago that I met the woman whose life is in that map of Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. I was newly married and newly arrived in the third of four cities my husband and I would call home that year. I was teaching literature at a university, but I wanted to keep a hand in the anti-trafficking community, so I signed on for the first meet-up of Polaris Project’s Seattle chapter. When I arrived at the meet-up, she was there, too.

I know what it means to be lonely. I know the delicate aspect it brings to a person’s face and the white cast it brings to the eyes and skin. I know less well how to bear up under my own loneliness, whenever and why-ever it arrives. When I see the kind of fortitude that I lack alive in someone else, I mark it. I know I will need that memory.

 

When she was fourteen, her father left. Her mother followed. Improbably, she was left alone in blue-collar suburban Seattle, where she was found by an older boyfriend-cum-savior-cum-pimp. She was beaten, raped, and sold on the streets and on the Internet. She was cut, branded, and thrown out of moving cars. The West Coast circuit – Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles – was her pimp’s bread-and-butter. When she became pregnant by him with a second child, she took her two-year-old daughter and fled.

It is hard to befriend a woman who grew up in the rigged world of a “stable” – a slang term for the women that a pimp owns, exploits, and uses to exploit each other. A woman who has known this life wants to love and to be loved, but she does not believe that love can be given freely.

When my husband and I moved to Washington, D.C., my friend and I kept in touch for a while. Once when I called her apartment, I got a drunken woman who told me that my friend and her daughters had been kicked out. I begged for another number and the woman gave me the line for a motel room, where my friend answered once and a man, whose voice I did not trust, answered a second and final time.

These days, Facebook cuts short the romanticism of myriad lost loves and lost friendships, sometimes for the better. I looked for my friend on Facebook last year, sometime in the wake of the Boston Craigslist murders, when the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Polaris Project, and several U.S. Attorney Generals rallied – and ultimately lost their battle – to stop human trafficking via the Craigslist erotic services (now “adult services”) section.

In the midst of the brouhaha, I found my friend. Her Facebook profile was meager and her wall was a strange slate of auto-generated messages, but this seemed in some way fitting for all the abuse she had experienced in the world of mid-nineties Internet.

Knowing what she had overcome, I understood what my friends and colleagues were after in their campaign to clean up Craigslist. I was not sure that attempting to reform an online kingpin, especially one who had no natural impetus to do so, was the best way to do it.

I stumbled on to Kijiji – www.kijiji.com of eBay, rather than Kijiji of the Kwadjokrom overbank, the red dust road, and the market where women sell fish caught by slave children – sometime during those months. I talked to a few colleagues about what it might look like to stage a kijiji.com “other-cott” and steer like-minded friends toward an online classifieds site that chooses, of its own accord, to entirely prohibit the “adult services” ads that make Craigslist a haven for human traffickers.

But the other-cott did not go anywhere. Or, to rephrase, I did not take it anywhere. I do not know why.

What I do know is that today on the road from Kijiji, someone mentioned Craigslist. I was thinking of my friend, I remembered how many thousands of boys, girls, women, and men like her had been sex trafficked on Craigslist, and without counting the cost, I began shrieking incoherently and obnoxiously about slave ships and sins of omission.

I would like to laugh about the incident, but it occurred while I was on the clock – and besides the inquisitive old man, our trotro ferried half of our Ghanaian partner staff, a former White House economic development expert, and one of Touch A Life Foundation’s most faithful and generous supporters.

It was a bad moment.

I have apologized sincerely to the person at whom I shrieked the loudest. I will apologize tomorrow morning to the other shriek-ee, who was in fearfully close-range. If I can find the old man, I promise that I will apologize to him, too.

I figure that since I have nothing left to lose, I might as well go all out.

I want you – my colleagues, friends, family, random people I went to high school with – to know that Craigslist’s convenience is not worth its price.

If you want to stop human trafficking, stop using Craigslist and use kijiji.com. Tell your friends to do it, too. The more, the merrier, and the better the second-hand shopping selection.

And if you think of it, please pray for my friend and pray for me, that in every way that our lives intersect, I would love her well.

For more information, check out:

Kijiji: www.kijiji.com

Kijiji Rules of Use

Polaris Project’s Letter to Craigslist CEO

Polaris Project’s Quick stats & Client Service Reflections re: Craigslist

Craiglist complies with some of its critics’ requests, but human trafficking persists.

Get involved:

Join the Facebook group.

Sign the Change.org Petition

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at the author’s blog, and is reprinted by permission.

In Disney World, but not of Disney World

I just flew back from Walt Disney World – and boy, are my ethics tired.

I suspect many of you, gentle readers, have not been to Disney World since your own childhood, or not at all.  Some of you intend to protect your current and/or future children as much as possible from the Disneytainment conglomerate, because something about it—or everything about it—is far too lowbrow, too decadent, too sexist, too liberal, or too conservative:  perhaps, in a word, too American, in whatever sense you believe Americanism is either beneath your children or dangerous to them.  You may also, or instead, be morally opposed to or logistically incapable of mustering the time and money required to make the pilgrimage – especially if it’s to a Mecca you don’t believe in.

My children are seven, four, and two. I, too, am concerned that Disney, like many other bedrock components of our culture, may in fact be too lowbrow, too sexist, etc., for our own good. But I am also keen for my children to grow up comfortable in their culture, aware of its joys and tragedies, fluent in its faults and in its fantasies. For example, my wife and I are enthusiastic public-school parents, despite the fact that some of our friends and neighbors decry the educational system’s academic rigor as poorly calibrated and others say the same about its moral compass.

That is not to say that Disneyism is as vital to my childrearing goals as our involvement in the public schools.  But its flaws, however grandiose and dangerous, do not necessarily preclude me from allowing my children into the mouse’s den.

One of the first things we must admit about Disney, like many entities I embrace far more enthusiastically (such as public schools or the FIFA World Cup), is that it is truly one of a kind.  There’s no Target to Disney’s WalMart.  There’s not even an Apple to Disney’s Windows, or an IHL to Disney’s NHL.  The M-word certainly applies, but I submit that Disney is not merely a single seller, it’s sui generis.

This Disnopoly has 70+ years of branding momentum behind it, to be sure; few other brands reach that far back.  But at the risk of seeming to be a Disney apologist, I think we must also admit that its identity goes beyond mere product marketing.  The Disney multiverse encompasses numerous archetypal classics, like Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast—narratives, characters, and mythologies that bring to life questions and answers I actually want my children to explore.

And I’m not even counting Pixar.

To that point, let me clarify what I mean by the $34.5 billion­–dollar word “Disney”:  not their recent colonizations of pre-existing classics, such as Aslan or Kermit; not high-school musicals or whatever a Ferb is. I’m thinking of Mickey and Goofy, of “It’s a Small World” and “I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”, of the Briar Patch and the Liberty Tree, of Snow White and Cruella De Vil. Most of them weren’t dreamed up by Walt and company, of course. But the broader culture has known and embraced them primarily in their Disneyfied incarnations for a generation or more. (“Classic Pooh,” which appears—during one’s first visit to a Babies ‘R’ Us, for example—to be a rare instance of original imagery resurging and thriving alongside Walt’s version, is also a Disney property.)  By “Disney,” then, I mean old-school Disney—the stuff theme parks are made of.

On my visit this fall, I was reminded again and again that the magic of the Magic Kingdom is, in effect, the magic of its stories.  After all, the theme parks—and the company’s bread-and-butter branding—depend far more heavily on discrete arcs, such as Sleeping Beauty or Pooh and Some Bees, than on the interchangeable episodes of Hannah Whatsername or the Witches of Wherever.  Most of these stories and characters preceded Disney’s Nine Old Men by decades or centuries.

What Disney has done to make these stories the building blocks of its brand is perpetually remind us of its golden age of best-in-class artistry and technology, when it was the only feature-quality animation purveyor around.  Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Mary Poppins are probably preferable works of art in their original, prose format.  But let us not resent their movie versions, in and of themselves, any more than we do The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, or Beau Geste (to mention just a few of the many book-based gems produced by Hollywood in a single year).

This is not to ignore the fact that the Disney factory also churns out quite a bit of prepackaged product masquerading as art.  Its cross-marketing is relentless, its advertising sometimes frighteningly ingenious.  I am still startled and disturbed by its rampant expansion into the tween audience, apparently cemented in the 20ish years since I left that demographic by an army of airbrushed live-action mannequins stepping through plots of laugh-track predictability on cable TV.  And even old-school Disney is recursively self-marketing:  there is perhaps no marketing strategy more bald-faced and (one assumes) effective than the positioning of carefully calibrated gift shops at the exit of each major Disney World attraction.

And that brings me back to my recent trip:  when we find ourselves three steps inside the turnstiles of the Most Manufactured Place on Earth; when we cradle an overtired, overstimulated preschooler who has had her heart set on a ride that’s closed for the final day of the trip; when we disembark from the Pooh ride into shelf after shelf of overpriced Pooh product, how should we react—as parents, as ticketholders, as citizens of the culture at large?

Some adults embrace a certain if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em respect for the consistent excellence that makes the Disney theme-park experience possible; on a customer-satisfaction level, they’re comfortable being impressed by the scale and polish that 70,000 “cast members” manage to maintain 365 days per year, rather than engaging with the value(s) of the content itself.  This is, in its own way, an all-American reading of the situation.  As post-Protestant capitalists, we in the U.S. may not technically embrace the idea that the ends justify the means, but we certainly appear to believe in success as a reflection of Somebody’s divine approval—might doesn’t necessarily make right, but we tend to treat it as a lagging indicator.

Other adults throw up their hands in semi-apathetic protest, pretending to be mere corks tossed about on the tsunamis of their cultural obligations to provide their children with The Most-est of everything.  This is also a tempting posture for Americans, because it involves three of our favorite cultural pastimes: (over)indulging our children, jumping on bandwagons, and keeping up with the Joneses.  But a week in Orlando, despite the drop in real prices for airline tickets since my visit in the pre-Reagan era, is no small investment, and parents who pretend to go reluctantly or passively are openly abdicating their power of the purse—in full view of their children, no less.

Perhaps most foreign to me, personally, is the approach of the hard-core devotees.  Aided by geography, singlemindedness, a startling disposable-income level, or all three, they manage to make numerous, routine visits and don’t care who knows it.  On one hand, I believe Floridians get a resident discount—one of many reminders of the colossal regulatory and tax-based underpinnings of the Mouse’s infestation of an otherwise empty swamp.  (It almost suggests a private-sector variant of the Federal incentive for residents of the exact opposite corner of our continent, a Wonderland of a very different sort.)  On the other, I suspect we have all met one or more adults who seem to believe that Orlando is Neverland—a place where everyone is always a child.  This seems a dangerous way to invest one’s aspirations, not least because it seems akin to worshipping at the altar of Las Vegas, which employs even more cast members to fabricate the equal and opposite fantasy.

What about me, you ask?  Am I immune to all of these temptations?  No, not as much as I’d like.  On this trip, my wife and I aimed to be ‘in Disney World but not of Disney World,’ but it’s a seductive, exhausting place. (From a practical perspective, if you venture to Mickeyville with children in tow, I do recommend including any available grandparents and making the trip a family affair.  Not only do you forge more memories for all involved and spread out the stroller-pushing duties, you also ground your children during the visit with a reminder of the rest of their universe.  It’s a lot harder for parents or children to slip into an ‘anything goes’ mentality in the immediate presence of older, wiser loved ones.)  As with anything else, balancing is harder than either boycotting or binging, but balancing is what being an adult is all about.

Being a child, on the other hand, is all about growing out of unrealistic extremes.  In fairy tales, good and evil are writ large, innocence and peril exaggerated.  Stepmothers are not merely difficult to get used to, they’re wicked to the core.  Princes, on the other hand, are universally charming and incredibly capable in battle.  Parents tell children fairy tales of all shapes and sizes—not just the ones Disney has appropriated; as children mature, they recognize more and more what can happen in the real world and what can exist only in Fantasyland.  They take home the moral of the story, and the imagery and the tragedy and the hope, and they carry them along like souvenirs.  Eventually, they learn that there is no such thing as a magic kingdom where the regular rules don’t apply (and if there were, you might want to be careful not to spend too much time there).  They also learn that scullery maids still exist, and so do balls, and that sometimes the least among them shall be great, if the shoe fits.

Fairy tales may not include overpriced, uniformed photographers, but we take our memories of these stories with us when we return to the real world.  And if we choose to take home a Pooh-themed souvenir to help our children remember the extravagance and wonder that a trip to Disney World embodies, it’s nice to know where you can find one for sale.

The Disintegration of the Music Industry and the Road to Distributism

 

It is the late 1990s. Moms roll down suburban streets in their imposing SUVs to pick children up from soccer practice. Their husbands constantly check their stocks while the market rises like a fever. Their teenage children infest shopping malls, swarming around displays of the latest cell phones and video games. Amidst conspicuous consumption, irrational exuberance, and unbridled materialism, the rise of the Internet and the dawn of the MP3 begin to change the shape of the music industry.

During this technological and economic boom, little known D.C.-based post-hardcore band Frodus recorded the subversive And We Washed Our Weapons in the Sea. Frodus shrieked out denunciations against corporate America over a volatile mixture of punk, indie, and math rock. Frodus’s crisp, fragmented lyrics were eyeball kicks against economic excesses. And We Washed Our Weapons in the Sea remains prescient in the face of the corporate corruption that lead to the current recession.

After breaking up in August of 2002, Frodus released a written charge to their fan base entitled “A Call to Arms.” This discourse, posted on the Internet, concerned the commoditization of music in contemporary society. According to them, music was no longer about sharing ideas, creating community, and expanding the minds of listeners. Frodus manifests their stance towards piracy by listing the Pirate Bay, a popular source of pirated media, as one of their record labels on their Facebook page.

In the “Call to Arms,” Frodus argued that by promoting the single, the music industry had devalued the artist and produced its own demise. The fragmentation of the music industry through file sharing will result in the proliferation of an artistic community, instead of an industry run by a wealthy few. A mixture of capitalist tactics with technological advances is destroying the capitalist model in the music industry. Although not using the exact term, Frodus’s arguments support the view that distributism will replace capitalism in the music industry.

An interviewer of Frodus, David Thair, sums up the “Call to Arms,” claiming the capitalist music industry “is being eaten by its children.” The capitalist model created the single to sell more records, but now one can download the single without buying the entire record. The catchy single, a tactic to sell more records, has turned against the industry with the advent of the internet. The music industry’s greed has contributed to its own decline.

In distributism, the ownership of the means of production is spread as widely as possible throughout the population. Distributism is an alternative to centralized power, whether the source of power is the state (socialism) or wealthy private individuals (capitalism). Capitalism allows only a few to own productive property. Distributists seek to ensure that most people will become owners of productive property. Technological advances, the Internet, and file sharing are destroying large record companies, while simultaneously empowering individuals to produce and market music independently.

In the past, a few large corporations controlled the music industry and dictated who is awarded a record deal. Record companies controlled the means of production. But today, file sharing spreads ideas and shares wealth. It provides a larger body of artists with the ability to produce their art: distributism in action. Wikipedia’s page on the music industry states that “many newer artists no longer see any kind of ‘record deal’ as an integral part of their business plan at all.

Not only does file sharing create accessibility to music, but inexpensive recording hardware and software has made it possible to create high quality music in a bedroom and distribute it over the Internet to a worldwide audience. Today, it is entirely possible to cut an album and give it worldwide distribution independently.

Technological advances are rendering large record companies and their record deals superfluous. They cannot sustain themselves, and will break into smaller entities. G.K. Chesterton, an early proponent of distributism, said, “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” Breaking apart the large record companies into several smaller units means more capitalists. Unchecked capitalism in the music industry has lead to homogenized radio airplay and a few large record company monopolies. Strong distributist strains in a capitalist society can be an effective counter for power accumulating in too few hands.

Shelby Cinca of Frodus complains America is still “an example of capitalism gone wild – without ethics and obsessed with money.” Ironically, the technology developed by capitalism is putting a damper on “capitalism gone wild,” at least in the media world. The Internet is fulfilling the aspiration of distributism by replacing a money-obsessed industry with more personal passion and expression.

Record executives beware: when Frodus snarls, “rock and roll is war” in “Red Bull of Juarez,” they sound like they mean it.

Fashion Designer Academic
Interview with Made By Rachel

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When I met Rachel Chaffee, we were both in college. I would be her successor as editor of the school’s newspaper. She graduated that year, and we didn’t meet again until graduate school in a creative nonfiction class. We spent a semester carpooling to class and having semiserious chats about feminism, academia, and our classmates. But when Facebook’s suggestive connecting of old friends put us back in touch, I learned that Rachel had started a Ph.D. program in Education: Teaching, Curriculum, and Change at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, and had set up her own sewing business, Made By Rachel. Struck by Rachel’s ambition, I was delighted when she agreed to share a bit about her passion for creating, her new collection, and how she balances her academic and creative lives.

How did Made By Rachel get started?

I had been sewing for myself for years and I started getting requests for custom-made handbags. At first, I only did custom work through word of mouth, but once I had a small pile of vintage fabrics going, I decided to sew my first collection and sell it online and in stores. While I was sewing vintage handbags, I also did a small collection of totes and needle and notions cases for knitters, which I sold across the U.S. and in Canada for a year. I still get requests from knitters, but I’ve moved on from sewing handbags. As much as I love a great bag, I was getting bored, so I started sewing clothing collections starting in the summer of 2007.

What inspires you, and where do you get ideas for your creations?

I’ve always been inspired by things that have had other “lives” before I found them. For example, I’m a little nuts about vintage buttons. One of my favorite things is finding tins of old buttons in antique shops. Every Christmas, my mom and my brother put individually wrapped old buttons in my stocking; it’s my favorite part of Christmas morning.

I’m the sort of person who likes to occasionally go through all of her buttons and vintage fabrics, lay them out, and see if they speak to me. I’m also the kind of person who looks at a lot of design blogs multiple times a week and spends too much time on Etsy. (Etsy is dangerous for people who like buttons.)

For the last two years, a lot of my ideas for collections have come from looking at mixed media work. When I was a teenager, I used to make a lot of collages out of tiny pieces of paper, and I can see that emerging in how I think creatively fifteen years later. Last summer’s dress collection had a tiny bit of mixed stuff going on, but the leather accessory collection I’m working on now has more elements of that side of things-I’m trying to combine leather, thread, yarn, snaps, and so on. A lot of guys who find out that I’m making leather cuffs have given me a lot of input on what they would love to see but can’t find anywhere, so their thoughts motivate me to try something different.

What is a typical day like when you’re working on a collection?

I recently made a conscious decision to work on my next collection in a totally different way. I used to design a collection and then work nonstop, morning to night, for days until it was done. I realized this spring that being a full-time Ph.D. student leaves you exhausted at the end of the academic year, so I’m trying to take things down a notch and go at this summer’s collection a bit differently. My goal for June is to give myself some decompression time and try to be less intense. A typical day looks like this: I spend my morning either running (I’m training for my first half marathon!) or reading and writing for my comprehensive exams (coming up this fall). If I’m lucky, I grab lunch with my husband and then spend the afternoon sewing with all the windows open. The key will be to try to balance working on the leather collection and working on our house renovations. We bought a circa 1862 house last year and we’ve ripped out the entire upstairs. As soon as the upstairs is done, we’re gutting the downstairs. It’s a bit tight right now, but soon I’ll be able to work in my studio upstairs rather than at the dining room table.

Part of the goal of The Curator is to uncover signs of “the world that ought to be” as we find it in our midst. What part do you think your creations have in building that world?

I’m really committed to designing with as much recycled material as possible. I’m also doing my best to support the handmade community that has grown immensely in the last few years by buying handmade. The friends I’ve found in that community have been instrumental in keeping me focused on the importance of keeping things simple by buying handmade rather than cheap, mass produced materials. This is easier said than done. When talented women like Anna Marie Horner are designing amazing fabrics, it’s hard not to buy yards of every design. However, I also want to support the women (and men) who, through their creative work, have inspired me to appreciate the process of making something.

We who are Americans, I think, are very detached from the people who make what we consume, whether that’s a skirt I wear or fabric I buy to sew myself a skirt. I think we ought to be more conscious of the decisions we make when we consume. For me, this process has included consciously trying to find a balance: it’s not that I don’t love a new piece of fabric, but it serves a different purpose for me. When I buy materials that are recycled, I think of them as having a different sort of history-one more traveled. It’s been interesting to try to find recycled leather for my current project, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I have discovered in random places.

Where are your collections available for purchase?

Since I started my Ph.D., I’ve decided to only work on collections in the summer when I’m not in the middle of coursework and keep the availability limited to Thread, a local boutique in my neighborhood in Rochester, New York. I support Thread for multiple reasons: They were the first (and still the only) store of their type in my neighborhood (and in my city), and the owners (Sandy and Mike) are invested in supporting independent and local designers. I might expand online or in other stores once I’ve finished my degree, but I’m only halfway through, so Thread is it for now.

What other creative endeavors have you been part of?

I used to design knitting patterns with my friend Lucinda at Modalura, but that was a short-lived endeavor. I still knit, but I don’t have time to continue designing patterns. I also volunteer on the advisory board for my local farmer’s market, the South Wedge Farmer’s Market, and volunteer on its marketing committee. My friend and fellow artist Shanna Murray does all the creative design and I work with a few other people to support the design and marketing work for the market. It’s an exciting process to be in a supporting position for the local food movement where I live. It’s enabled me to meet so many creative people and farmers in Western New York.

How do you balance your personal, academic, and creative lives?

I thought I was a really good person when it came to balancing things, but I recently discovered that the last two years of buying and renovating a house, being a full-time graduate student, working in academics, being married, volunteering in my community, and trying to push out collections has been way too much for me! Fortunately, I’m married to a wonderful guy who is a designer and my most important source of encouragement – creatively, academically, and otherwise. It’s been hard to slow down my creative life so that I can get through my Ph.D. program, but limiting my collections to the summer months has helped me carve out space all year so that I can do both.

What does the future hold for Made By Rachel?

I can honestly say that I don’t know! Once the current summer collection is done, I’m going to take some time to sew for myself because I miss making things for me. I also want to make things for our first house, so I’ll probably continue to do some custom work through the fall. I’m not sure about next year’s collection, but that’s the way I like it. This is the first time I’ve worked with leather and haven’t sewn clothes. It has been interesting and fun to challenge myself to learn something new: new tools, new materials, new hardware. I’m open to doing something completely different next summer. I didn’t decide on doing the leather collection until March of this year, so who knows what I’ll be making a year from now. I think it’s more fun that way.

Lasting Art Through Craft
An Interview with Paloma’s Nest

While browsing Etsy for gifts for my grandparents, I ran across a pair of customizable, handmade, shallow bowls nestled into a wooden crate – a perfect gift in which to place rings, keys, and other small items. I ordered the bowls from Paloma’s Nest and found that the proprietor and artisan, Caroline Colom Vasquez, had a unique sensibility. She agreed to discuss her small business with The Curator.

Tell us a little bit about how Paloma’s Nest got started. Where did you get the name of the company from?
The origins of “Paloma’s Nest – the business” and “Paloma’s Nest – the products” are separate, but have beautifully melded together to create something that has exceeded my wildest expectations.

I have been designing my line of ceramic and wood designs for close to ten years now, since I graduated with my design degree and a strong determination to stay creating in the studio. While working various jobs in retail management and product design, I continued to develop my own aesthetic and products, and slowly sold my work to small boutiques nationwide. I grew frustrated at the lack of opportunities available for independent designers, and when I became pregnant with my daughter in 2006, I put my ambitions of a design career on the back burner.

Then one day, shortly after my daughter Paloma was born, I was online looking at baby things, and all of these fabulous websites and blogs (at the time, I didn’t even know what a “blog” was!) kept linking to these little shops on Etsy.com. I was immediately drawn to the Etsy philosophy that together we could create an independent micro-economy for handmade goods, supporting artists to make a living from their work. I thought of all of the lonesome pieces I had sitting abandoned in my studio, signed up with the name Paloma’s Nest (on a whim!), and listed a few items for sale. Within days, the items sold, additional orders started rolling in, the bloggers started writing, and it hasn’t stopped since! I now run my business almost exclusively through my Etsy shop, and the collection has been placed in retail locations throughout the globe.

The name “Paloma’s Nest” now seems so perfect and fitting that I cannot believe I ever called my line anything else. Paloma (meaning “dove” in Spanish) has so many symbolic meanings, including peace, justice, purity, and freedom. My work, crafted from white clay, porcelain, natural wood, and cloth fits so perfectly with the name that you would think that I planned it that way.

Your tag line is “Crafting, one Peace at a time.” One of the stated goals of The Curator is to uncover signs of the “world that ought to be” as they are found in our midst. What part does your work have in creating the world that ought to be?

The tag line is obviously a play on words as to what the definition of a “craft piece” may be. I sometimes struggle with the popular or assumed definition of “craft” and where it fits in with the world of art and design. What is the difference? Is there a difference?

With today’s handmade revolution changing the way we purchase and acquire material things, where do we draw the line between a “craft” item, or a handmade functional design, or a piece of sculpture? Why do we constantly feel the need to label it?

I like to think that my work brings a bit of peace and calm to the viewer through the timeless color palette, materials, and forms. But that idea extends beyond the soothing visual sense or what may be implied by the text stamped on the piece: I create pieces that are designed to become heirlooms, to be cherished for many generations, made from the highest quality materials in my 100% wind-powered studio with the least impact on the environment as possible. When I give a gift to someone for a special occasion, such as a wedding or other celebration, it just feels much more meaningful and responsible to give a gift with “staying power” rather than to giving something that may be considered “disposable.”

Tell us about your typical day, and the way you approach creating your work.
Every piece I make really is crafted one at a time, and every letter is hand stamped, one letter at a time. This requires a lot of patience and can become almost meditative because of the calm concentration it requires. When time permits, I love to sneak off to the studio and allow myself the space to create new product designs.

But the romance and fantasy of my “artist life” ends there! As with most small business owners, my days are long and full – eight days a week. Starting with emails at 7:00 a.m., a good chunk of my time is spent on the administrative and customer service side of things. I make service a priority at all times (which means I am glued to my smartphone all day long), as I strongly believe happy customers are the best investment any business can make.

I then begin processing orders around noon – on alternate days that may mean packing items that are ready to ship or spending the rest of the day in the studio crafting custom pieces. In between, I am “Mami,” picking up the little one at Montessori school and taking care of normal toddler things. The mailman comes around 6:00 p.m. to pick up the day’s work, and often we fill up the back of his little truck with all of my outgoing packages. After dinner with the family, the bath and bedtime routine for Paloma, it’s back to the computer for more emails and busy work. Bedtime is around midnight, on a good day.

It makes me tired just thinking about it.

Where do you get ideas for your work?
My inspiration comes from many places, including vintage and antique objects such as quilts and furniture. I am often inspired simply by how an item is made or constructed, even if I am not as interested in how it looks. I love researching the symbolism in Early Latino, Mexican, and European art, as well as discovering texts from Greek philosophers such as Plato, or the later Ralph Waldo Emerson. I use those inspirations as a starting place for expanding my ideas, and later, for expanding my line of products. Often the natural characteristics of the materials I work with tell me what I need to know and what I need to do to take the design to a finished product.

How has your work affected your customers?
I am so honored to be able to share my work with such a wide audience, and thrilled that my pieces are often ordered for such life-changing events. My custom pieces have been used for everything from wedding proposals to commemoration pieces for loved ones who have passed away.

One of my most popular designs, the Ring Bearer Bowl, has sparked a new tradition in the modern wedding ceremony – the little dish, used in place of a ring bearer pillow, is hand stamped with custom texts, such as names and dates, or lines from the wedding vows, and is designed to be passed on through the family; after the wedding it can be hung on a wall or a holiday tree as decoration. I love to imagine where these pieces will be twenty, thirty, or even fifty years from now.

Sweets with a Dash of Spice

I stumbled upon Whimsy & Spice’s website last year as I was searching for co-worker Christmas presents. Immediately I was hooked: cardamom marshmallows? rose and black pepper cookies? lavender and honey shortbread? Who were these people and why did they get the spicy-and-sweet combination so well?

A little digging (and a purchase of maple, cardamom, and caramel marshmallows) later, I realized that not only were they a great business with unique products, but they were a husband-and-wife enterprise and were practically my neighbors. When I stopped by the Brooklyn Flea, Mark handed me an exquisite cup of a white hot chocolate that involved cardamom, coconut milk, and lemongrass, among other things. Through their blog I got to know a little more about their lives and their philosophy. So I was delighted when Jenna, who handles the design and marketing end of the business, agreed to share a little about their company with us.

Tell us a little bit about how Whimsy & Spice got started. Where did you get the name?
My husband Mark and I started Whimsy & Spice a year ago when he left the restaurant business after working as a pastry chef in New York City restaurants for over eight years – he spent 12 years in the industry overall. We had always dreamed about opening our own business together “some day”, but didn’t take the plunge until Mark got unexpectedly laid off from a new job early last year. As scary as it was, we sensed that this was the right time since we felt like we had nothing to lose. Mark knew that he wanted to transition away from restaurant work at some point, and so while he was looking for a full-time job, we pushed ahead with our plans at a furious pace so we can launch the business in time for the opening of the Brooklyn Flea in April. I guess you can say that things quickly got busy – enough so that Mark officially abandoned his job search a month later.

The name of the company popped into my head randomly one night. We knew that we wanted to include “Brooklyn” in the name somewhere, so I always imagined that we would name the company something a little more “urban”. As the name grew on us (we didn’t fall in love right away), it helped shape the direction and concept of the company. Mark has always loved cooking with spices, in both sweet and savory dishes, so things fell into place and the name suddenly clicked. I also like to think of the name as being a moniker for our two daughters. Our older one is definitely spicy and the younger one is quite whimsical.

What’s a typical day like in your business?
Since Mark and I both work from home, each day varies. In addition to designing and handling the marketing and customer end of the business, I also work as a freelance art director and designer. Each morning we check in with each other to work out the day’s schedules. We have a part-time nanny two days a week who’s been with us for five years, but on the days we don’t have childcare, Mark and I will coordinate on school drop off/pick up and trade off on childcare. We’ll start our day around 7:30am.

The first thing I do after I say good morning to the family is turn on the computer (sad, but true). I check email, see if any orders came in during the night, and publish posts to various blogs. Mark will often go to the kitchen where he does his baking to get orders fulfilled. He’ll also make a run to the post office at some point during the day to drop off orders that need to go out.

When I’m on a freelance project, my day is pretty intensive and I’ll work 9-12 hours a day, often juggling a few projects at a time. I try to take a break during the day, either to pick up our older daughter from preschool or to make a trip to the playground with the girls. I make up those work hours by working at night when the kids are in bed, usually till 2:00 am. In the evenings, Mark will usually be packing up orders to drop off at the post office the next day.

It’s a really full day and it’s quite rare to have a free day. Weekdays and weekends blur together since we work for ourselves, but we do try and catch a breather and have family fun time at some point during the weekend.

Whimsy & Spice is truly a family business. What effect has that had on your family, your marriage, and your children?
The business is definitely a perfect collaboration of both of our skill sets. We feel very lucky to be able to bring both our strengths in food and design into the company and the business has benefited from this collaboration.
One of the reasons why Mark wanted to leave the restaurant industry in the first place is because chef life isn’t exactly family friendly. He used to work every single weekend and every holiday, waking up at 4:30am to get to the restaurant. When the kids were babies, it didn’t make such a huge difference, and it actually worked to our advantage because I was able to work during the week on his days off.

But I worried that as they got older and started school, that they’d never see him because of opposite schedules. Being free from restaurant hours has been the single most positive change in our lives. We can actually celebrate holidays as a family and spend a weekend together just like any other normal family!

It also allowed me to ramp up my freelance work without worries and stress over childcare. This has been a tremendous relief. It’s not without any challenges, of course, and we still deal with childcare issues when both of our businesses get busy, particularly at the same time, but we feel pretty fortunate to have built this very flexible lifestyle so that we can be there for our kids.

How has your work has affected your customers?
We’ve gotten many emails and comments through our blog from people thanking us for being so honest and open. I started the blog as a way to document the business when we were thinking about launching something of our own. There are people who have thanked us for giving them the inspiration to do the same. I think that’s pretty freaking cool.

Where do you hatch ideas for new products?
Since the sweets business is seasonal, we tend to think up new products around the holidays and seasons. Our concept is “sweets with a dash of spice,” so we try and incorporate a little something unexpected in each cookie, like a bit of white pepper in the white chocolate filling of our pumpkin ginger sandwiches, or orange and cardamom in our chocolate shortbread cookie. Mark has a pretty good feel for what flavors might complement each other, but developing a new cookie is mostly just trial and error and experimentation. Sometimes we succeed with a cookie that totally excites us, and other times we fail and abandon the idea altogether.

Part of the goal of The Curator is to uncover signs of “the world that ought to be” as we find it in our midst. What part do you think delicious confections have in building that world?
There seems to be a growing interest in artisanal foods and handmade products these days. I don’t know if we’re riding that wave, but we’re a small company with only two employees (us!) and we do everything ourselves: cookies are hand-rolled and hand cut, brownies are individually wrapped, and we package all of our products by hand. When a customer orders a package of cookies, there is a lot of work and love that goes into that little package.

Desserts and pastries are definitely a little luxury, especially these days, when people tend to stick to buying essentials and little else, but it’s a relatively affordable little luxury. Everyone should treat themselves to a little indulgence once in awhile, even if it’s a two-dollar brownie. We’ve gotten so many nice emails from happy customers and gift recipients who say that we’ve brightened their day. This makes it all worthwhile. This is why we do this.

Have a hankering for a little indulgence? Check out Whimsy & Spice’s store; read about their work, daily life, and adorable daughters on their blog; and if you’re in New York, visit them at the Brooklyn Flea.

A true third place

From Seattle’s The Stranger: More Than a Bookstore.

But here’s the thing: Even as people downstairs were fearing for the future of Seattle’s bookstore industry, Ravenna Third Place Books was thriving upstairs. Customers browsed the stacks contentedly; a group that gathers monthly to discuss science-related topics was sitting in a semicircle; and the store’s newest addition, a branch of the popular Capitol Hill Greek restaurant Vios Cafe that’s within the bookstore, was slammed-not an empty table in the place. It had been a while since I’d walked into a bookstore and heard the steady murmur of people in the background; I’d forgotten how pleasant that sound is.

Tech Top Ten

2008 was a busy year in technology – from new products appearing on the scene to old ones winning out over the competition (or not) to company rearrangement to (possibly) the end of the world. Here are ten of the most significant technology stories that hit the news in 2008.


The Apple iPhone 3G

iPhone 3G, App Store.
While the first-generation iPhone grabbed a greater-than-expected market share, it was the 3G version that truly catapulted the iPhone brand into prominence. A $199 price point made the device a palatable option for those accustomed to a free, subsidized LG or Samsung. The brand new app store created a revolutionary business model for developers, albeit a tightly-monitored one. A new era has arrived in the tech world: the iPhone has surpassed the Moto Razr in worldwide sales, challenging other manufacturers to respond with premium devices at affordable price points.

The iCompetition: The HTC Touch Pro, the Sony XPERIA X1, and the Blackberry Bold.
And respond they did. This year’s crop of premium Windows Mobile devices, though innately hampered by their OS, trounced the iPhone’s feature set. The Bold, mixing classing Blackberry functionality in a sexy package, added its name to the list of potential rivals. It is unlikely that one of these devices will unseat the iPhone, but it’s a step in the right direction, and an indication that HTC and RIM will not sit idly by and let Apple raid their customer bases.


Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
and Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang

Microhoo/Yahoosoft.
On again, off again – this year’s most mercurial celebrity couple was Steve Ballmer and Jerry Yang. Yang declined a proposed takeover at $31/share, and again at $33, only to watch the stock plummet to single-digit lows. Only time will tell whether the as-yet-unannounced new Yahoo! CEO will try to resurrect merger talks, or whether the FTC would even allow any.

The T-Mobile G1.
Despite the inevitable shortfalls of a first-generation device (one bug reset the phone whenever the user typed “reboot”), the world’s first phone running Google’s open-source Android platform recorded solid sales and garnered a following in the gadget world. While the device operates more like a prototype than a finished product, it is only a matter of time before an inspired manufacturer taps into Android’s rich potential.

Blu-ray wins; nobody buys any Blu-rays.
February 19th saw Toshiba’s concession in the next-gen format war, essentially ending HD-DVD‘s bid to become the new standard. But despite the resulting coronation of Blu-ray, consumers failed to flock to the platform. Thus far, DVD has been just fine for most people, thank you – and with the proliferation of free, nearly-HD content from iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, it may be a long time before demand meets expectations.

The Netbook Revolution.
Once seen as delicate toys, these mini-laptops enjoyed a serious boom in 2008. Increased migration from desktop to browser based apps created a niche for an ultraportable, underpowered, underpriced alternative to traditional laptop systems. Expect to see more and more such diminutive devices in 2009.


The Nintendo Wii

The Wii‘s Domination.
At the end of 2007, Nintendo’s quirky console seemed like a short-lived fad. Surely gamers would turn back to high definition and lifelike blood splatter, right? Instead, a rapidly-expanding pool of soccer moms and grandparents become Wii devotees overnight. Nintendo has not only grabbed a huge piece of the pie, but made it bigger as well. The question in 2009 is whether they can actually sell software for their little white cash cow.

Bill Gates Retires.
While the head geek himself will certainly still figure in Microsoft’s business operations, his retirement was confirmation of the passing of the old guard in the tech industry. Fortunately, his newfound free time will not be wasted away on the golf course: In addition to running his billion dollar charity, Gates has quietly founded a mysterious “think tank” named bgC3. Watch this space.

Obama’s CTO.
A sign of the times: After securing a historic election victory with the help of a online fundraising arsenal, the president-elect is set to appoint the nation’s first-ever Chief Technology Officer. The brand-new “Tech Czar” will oversee issues from net neutrality to nationwide broadband, helping ensure that the U.S. remains at the forefront of innovation for years to come.


The Large Hadron Collider

Large Hadron Collider.
While critics lambasted the particle accelerator’s approximately $10 billion price tag and potential to collapse our solar system like a bag of chips in a campfire, the project was widely considered a success by scientists – that is, until it broke. Now we’ll have to wait until summer 2009 to collide microscopic proton beams at 99.999999% the speed of light.

Building Hope Through Sustainable Design:
An Interview with Clean Green Studios


A boy blows bubbles in front of a mountain of trash,
and his home made of castoffs, in La Chureca, Nicaragua.
Photo © Eric D. Smith

Margaret Smith is the founder and CEO of Clean Green Studios, a for-profit company that couldn’t have appeared at a better time. They combine great design with sustainable construction, and all with an eye toward creating sustainable dwellings for people in developing nations. Below, we talk with Margaret about how Clean Green Studios got started.

For more on Hope Studios and Hope Shelters, visit the Clean Green Studios website, or visit them on Virb, Twitter, or Margaret’s LinkedIn page.

Tell me a little bit about the “seed” of the idea for Clean Green Studios.
I’ve been a writer most of my life, and though that’s fun, it’s a solitary occupation. I’ve always been happiest when working with beautiful people in poverty in Latin America, combining my passions of design and social justice.

For years I wondered how to make those twin passions of design and social justice work into a career. In 2007, my son Eric came back to the States from a trip to Central America, with the most amazing photos and videos of a garbage dump community of 1600 people called La Chureca, Nicaragua. The images touched me, especially as I thought of the kids who live in nothing but cardboard, bent tin and other nailed-together trash.

As I thought about what I could do to help the people, I started sketching out a design for a small, sustainable house that could be built by volunteers. With the house would come several attached modules, such as a rain catchment and water filtration system for fresh water. I called it Hope Shelter. That was the seed of the company, and in March 2008 we became a limited liability corporation, designing green products with the world in mind.

What’s a Hope Studio? Who designed them?
Think of a Hope Studio as a backyard retreat that reminds you of your favorite treehouse. It’s a 120-square-foot studio for creativity: art, woodworking, writing, music and entertaining friends. It has French doors, two large windows, a storage loft and built-in bookcase.

A Hope Studio is a small, sustainable backyard studio that I designed with Sebastian Collet, who studied sustainable architecture at the University of Oregon. Right now on the website you’ll see the company’s first green product, a set of blueprints for Hope Studios, with architectural renderings showing exterior and interior. (See photo below.)

Most of the materials have sustainable features (such as galvanized steel, with about 25% recycled content) and are available at large building supply companies. We ship you the blueprints with a supply list. You and your contractor shop for materials at your building supply store. This keeps it local, which of course is another mark of sustainability.

When someone buys blueprints for a Hope Studio, we will send (when available) blueprints for a Hope Shelter to a non-profit that builds homes in a developing nation.

What’s a Hope Shelter? Who designed them?
Hope Shelters are built on basically the same footprint as Hope Studios, with different features. In contrast to Hope Studios, a Hope Shelter is a permanent dwelling for people in developing nations. Whereas in America, green features like stick-on LED lights are something of a fun item, green building and green energy just make great sense in developing nations, since so many families there need sustainability in every part of their lives: food, water, shelter and energy.

As with Hope Studios, we’re just selling the blueprints and supply list for Hope Shelters, not the materials. People shop for materials at their own local building supply store. Right now we are putting the finishing touches on blueprints for Hope Shelters.

These blueprints will be available for sale to groups of volunteers who want to build sustainable homes in Latin America. The groups can take the supply list to pick up materials at a building supply store before heading off to the site with a contractor. We see this as a green alternative to stick-built homes that we Americans normally build for families in Tijuana and other areas in poverty. With Hope Shelters, there’s less wood in the construction, less construction waste, and more features for the family to sustain a livelihood, once the team has left the families in their new homes.

Why would a person want to build a Hope Studio?
I see it as a chance for Americans to have a necessary place away from home, to create and rest. It may be in their backyard, or it may be on a piece of property that’s been waiting for a quiet retreat.

Our first buyer bought a Hope Studio as a quick green getaway to build on her riverfront property in Washington State. Her adult siblings and her mother live near the property. After she drives 3 hours from her house to spend time with them, she retreats to her Hope Studio to read, watch the birds and get some time to herself.


When you buy blueprints for this studio, Clean
Green Studios sends blueprints for a home in a developing nation.
© Clean Green Studios

Who will be living in the Hope Shelters?
I often picture a small family in Tijuana – maybe a couple with a child. The child can sleep in the loft, while the couple sleeps in a hammock below, or the other way around. The hammock can be stored during the day, making more living space. A small stove and sink can be built on the deck, and a compost toilet takes care of things in the outhouse in back.

In 1998 on an old dumpsite in Tijuana, while surrounded by kids watching my every move, I made a mosaic with broken glass and pottery in the drying cement of a daycare center we’d just built, called Casa de Esperanza, House of Hope. They all gathered around, pointing and asking, “Quien es? Who’s that?” Not what’s that, but *who*? I asked each kid’s name and pointed to a shard in the mosaic, saying, “Este es Maria. Este es Juan. This is Maria. This is Juan.” The mosaic became a happy sun surrounded by flecks of light in the multicolored sky. When I look back and try to find a defining moment for Clean Green Studios, that’s it, ten years before I started the company.

Who runs Clean Green Studios?
It’s actually just me right now. Sebastian has his own green building design company, and I’ve hired him to co-design Hope Studio and Hope Shelter. I’m happy to have advisory board members I can call on when necessary, but they have their own busy companies to attend to. Clean Green Studios has some great social networking going on with Twitter, Virb and LinkedIn, and I’ve found encouraging people there, from Russia to Scotland to New York and Portland. In Portland, the company belongs to Clean Tech Alliance and Oregon Entrepreneurs Network.
As CEO, creative director and all-around organizer of Clean Green Studios, I’m looking for some great people to partner with. In particular, I need a great chief operating officer right now, as well as a development director. We are seriously ramping up!

What’s your vision for the future of Clean Green Studios?
We create green products that make the world spin more smoothly. That’s our mission; it’s not just something pretty to say. This whole thing started just because I wanted to make something beautiful and useful for impoverished people in other parts of the world, and it’s amazing to see it coming to pass.

The Dress Project

Most of us assume that girls like new clothes, shopping trips, and spending a lot of money on those two things. While it isn’t always the case, it is safe to say that more girls than guys take pleasure in shopping for clothes. Whether or not this is absolute truth is not the main subject of this article. Instead, it is about the lifestyle decisions of a few friends who, realizing their own habits were beginning to clog up their creative arteries, determined to experiment a little with their consumption choices. It may be accurately described as tampering with the system on a very small, very harmless level.

Having recently cleaned out my closet for the year, I was very proud of my efforts to reduce the amount of unnecessary “stuff” in my closet. But to my dismay, in response to a blog post, a friend of mine mentioned a comment made by her Opa, which went along the lines of, “You just need one dress for the week and one dress for Sunday.” This, and littlebrowndress.com, inspired her to propose taking the happy, free month of October and turning it into a thirty day fast from our clothes.

The idea was that we would wear a single dress for the whole month, every day, from morning until night. At first the idea frightened me. I had no noble complaints; my primary concern was my status. “See no evil,” my childish mind decided, and I put her suggestion on the shelf, until the end of September arrived. Disconcertingly, Avery announced that our dress project was fast approaching. Now, there is an element of competition and peer pressure in even the most loyal friendships. Friends have more influence than the media and parents combined, in many cases. My ego immediately rallied me to her cause, as there was no way I was going to be satisfied as the ordinary one while she traipsed around exuding extraordinariness.

While she began on October 1, I still needed a versatile dress – one I did not have in my closet, apparently, and needed to purchase. I may have defeated the anti-consumerism theme of the project, but at the same time, none of us were entirely against shopping. Economically, North America would be in dire straits if everybody stopped buying things, as would the rest of the world. There is nothing inherently wrong with commerce. Neither did we believe the world of fashion was wholly associated with the devil, or any hateful nonsense supporting drab dress. In fact, commerce and fashion are both good things. We want to live simple, not impoverished, lives.

Once I found a dress that would “work” (nothing perfect), I discovered in the first day that there was a thrill to this project! I would imagine a thousand outfits around this dress, surely, and they would be nicer than any outfits I had ever put together. I pranced around, unconcerned by the prosaic concerns I was convinced I had left behind as I ascended to this higher realm.

But the next morning did not treat my dress kindly. As I woke up to a black dress covered in cat hair, the merciless truth dawned on me: black is an ill-fated color. When one keeps hairy creatures as household pets, one is bound to find hair everywhere. Each morning, until the end of the month, I would curse the day I chose a black dress, and dutifully “de-hair” my dress. I was learning to deal with the limitations of a chosen “relationship” on a very small, very practical level.

On the bright side, the dress gave me something to work with. Rules, patterns, blueprints – all motivate creativity. When there are guidelines, it is easier to create something. My dress provided a type of canvas. It reminded me that I do not need half of the things I desire, and if I focus on something for a while, I can get to know its character as a “thing” in creation. There is a wealth of hidden possibilities in every part of life that most of us are too lazy to uncover. Rather than pursue mere novelty, I had the opportunity to bring out the possibilities inherent in the dress, molding them into something slightly different every day.

Perhaps, on a larger scale, we would waste less of the world’s resources if we were captured in wonder by the curve of a carefully crafted cup; the joyful noise of a neighborhood waking up in the morning; the blessed figure of a human being beside us at the kitchen table. We would no longer be animated by a surface curiosity, a desire to entertain ourselves when we get restless. Aliveness to reality in the active knowing of the God-given character of a thing can satisfy us. It is how we can relate to it on a human level, lovingly.

One month is not very long. What miniscule impact we may have had on the world was not our point. What the project did achieve was the unearthing of possibilities for what can be made of the shape of our days. The best part of the entire affair was discovering that everyday routine is also a form of worship. In the church, “liturgy” is defined as the order of worship. If every day is a unit of time in a lifetime, and my purpose in every day of my life is to worship God, then the Dress Project was my order of worship. It was part of the liturgy of my daily life.

In the end, the experience was not that dramatic. In fact, most people only noticed that I had been wearing the same dress to school every day once I mentioned the fact. By documenting our progress in Facebook albums, our project gained the praise and flattery that probably diminished any heroism in our “fast,” but also encouraged us to keep it up. It was that accountability, along with the pleasure of sharing what we made every day, which made it less of a burden and more of a fun experiment.

On November 1, I exhibited an art piece I put together, hanging pictures in an empty closet of my friend Avery in her dress. It was a nice way to conclude what I had learned during my brief lesson in stewardship, presenting our project to the critical eyes of our community. We were not purely motivated and our experiment was not expertly executed. It was just a shaky step towards a more human way of living.





Truth in Advertising

So, I like gum.I don’t love it.But I like it.Chewing it too much can tighten jaw muscles and increase over all neck and head tension. I don’t chomp the stuff very often.

And I like cognac too.I prefer bourbon or scotch, but I’ll sip some cognac if the occasion warrants.

What I haven’t liked in a very long time is advertising.I don’t appreciate being treated like a piece of meat for corporate America to ogle, as though my level of humanity is less than or equal to the bottom line of my money market. Which, given last quarter’s precipitous declines, might slide me into homo heidelbergensis territory.

Most days I’m not required to deal with these three preferences at all, let alone all three at once. But twice last week – TWICE – I was confronted by gum, cognac, and advertising on the subway.

There is no more captive audience than the one found sitting/standing/leaning on the New York City subway.There is no way to avoid be advertised at, no way to avoid ad schemes that overtly attempt to convince me that my life has little meaning unless I obtain <insert item here>. Then, and only then, will I be the ideal version of me, and until that moment I will be a sad shadow of a person; in fact, sadder, since I now know what I am missing by continuing to live my pathetically insignificant and dreary life without the presence of <insert item here>.

This exchange between rider and advert is unique since riders are trapped in a noisy, tin box until they alight at their destination.Imagine driving on the highway, but instead of a stationary billboard, the ads were on fantastical Rube Goldberg machines that propel themselves alongside you for twenty or thirty minutes, two or three times a day.

Those hours of deprecation take a toll on a person after while, and you start to wonder, “Am I loser? I don’t have <insert item here>. Maybe I need that <insert item here>.”

I can count on one finger the current ad campaigns that are suggesting, in earnest, that we could be living a better life.Not because of the product, but because of our actions, which the product can and often does accompany. In contrast, I’ve lost count of the ads that sell me something with less than vague sexual imagery of all the orgies I’d be in if I were hip to their product.

Enter Dentyne andRémy Martin cognac.

Make Face Time, reads Dentyne’s newest ad campaign.Each poster portrays one of the most fundamentally important aspects of existence: human interaction – the deep and meaningful interaction between friends, family, and true lovers that make us feel more human.

The campaign revolves around our growing alienation from each other resulting from the increase of online “friends” and decrease of real ones. It reminds us that we’ve swapped the kiss for a Facebook “poke.” It tells us to “close browser” and “open arms.”

A visit to www.makefacetime.com greets with a message informing the visitor that in three minutes the browser tab will shut down and force you to go explore the “worldwide something else.” Here’s a major American corporation not only encouraging you to leave their site after a few minutes, but actually forcing you to do so.Marketing trick, maybe, but I love it. Reminds me of the rock group Switchfoot whose song told us “if we are adding to the noise, turn off this song.”There’s an awareness that some things in people’s lives are more important than a product, whether pop music or gum.

I respect an ad campaign that knows this, and in this case, I can’t get enough of it. As the train pulls into a station I’ll find myself scanning the interior of each car as they shuttle past hoping I’ll step onto the car with ads like this one, photographed on the D train.


the original instant message.
power down. pucker up.
make face time.

 

It’s an odd thing to be sitting on the subway, often a terribly dehumanizing place, and feel rehumanized – feel like I was meant to live for something more. How strange it is to see an advertisement and feel . . . happy. Actually happy.

Sadly, there are not enough campaigns out there treating people as humans. On that same train I turned around caught a sight all too familiar to straphangers: two half-dressed supermodels erotically tugging at a pearl necklace and the tagline “things are getting interesting.” Which could not be further from the truth. This cheap, dime-a-dozen campaign is anything but interesting. And, once again we find innuendo crammed into our faces to push, of all things, alcohol; not just any liquor, fine French cognac by Rémy Martin.

I’ll admit that I’m skeptical I’ll be part of this sexy, chain-necklaced nightlife by purchasing a bottle of expensive booze. I’ve been buying Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey for years and I still haven’t been to the Kentucky Derby, or sat on the porch of a southern, colonial mansion, cigar in hand, watching the sun set over green plantations.

(And in fact, it looks far less like things are getting interesting, and far more like things are getting extremely dangerous. It appears that blondie is laughing with either excitement or hysteria at what looks like her impeding Nubian slavery. I’m not sure what’s actually going on in this scene, but I’m definitely sure I don’t want to end up where they are going, and also pretty sure that they won’t be serving cognac in the dungeon. Chloroform perhaps, or some other James Bondian truth serum, yes; fine French liquor, no.)

Yet we find countless ad campaigns selling us the same tired, sex-driven ideas about the kind of life their product would ensure we live. Pathetic.

Dentyne, at least, has offered us something else: a picture of what your life could be like if you invested in real and meaningful relationships – and then suggested that since you’ll now be so close to your loved ones so much more often, have good breath.(I think that’s fair.)

I might be naive to think that there is anything more here than a major corporate entity working every angle to strengthen its brand and sell its product. And yet, the presence of something undeniably true in their ads compels me to stop writing, grab some gum, and smooch my wife.