Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The other night I played softball for the first time in about six weeks.

There was a time in my life when my whole week revolved around the two hours I played softball.

Nowadays, I can only get out to the late games that take place after my young kids’ bedtime. And of course, I’m fine with that.

When I got out there, the game felt familiar but also different.

Our manager stuck me in at leadoff despite having missed so much time this season. I walked to start the game and came around to score.

When I trotted out to my familiar position, left centerfield, I got the sense that some of the newer guys on the team were questioning why this old guy who hasn’t been here in six weeks is taking up space in the outfield normally occupied by one of them.

But I reassured them I’d relinquish LCF next week when the schedule called for an early game.

I also recognized the zeal of the younger guys, which I used to have. One was advocating for crazy defensive shifts. Another was complaining that he was batting too low in the order. One guy was jawing with the opposing pitcher over nonsense.

I used to do all of those things; now I do (mostly) none of them.

It was good to get out there and contribute to a win. Being away made me appreciate it a little more. I’m not sure I “need” softball the way I used to, but I’m glad to know it’s still there when I do.

Bangers

“These bangers are ruining pickleball!”

You might hear that sentiment in certain pickleball circles.

While pickleball is largely a finesse game – which is why it’s great for players of nearly any age, strength, or mobility – a new segment of players has emerged: Bangers.

These are ex-tennis players who’ve brought their hard-hitting style of play onto the much smaller pickleball court.

And not everyone welcomes this new style of play.

(Ironically, many tennis players scoff at pickleball, especially when they can’t find a local court because the pickleballers have already claimed them all.)

The recalcitrance toward bangers is understandable but ultimately unproductive. There is no “right” way to play any game (as long as no rules are being broken), so it’s up to traditionalists (non-bangers) to either figure out how to beat the bangers – or bang back.

In Major League Baseball, we’ve seen the predominance of The Shift, where the defense shifts over to one side of the field because the batter almost always hits it that way. The batters hate it because there’s less space to hit, but it’s not illegal.

MLB has decided after five years or so of this – during which batting averages have plummeted – players apparently aren’t capable of “hitting it where they ain’t,” so they’re outlawing The Shift next year for the good of the game.

But since you can’t outlaw how hard someone can hit a pickleball, the traditionalists will have to find another way.

If you think about The Shift another way, the defense may have thought it “unfair” that batters could hit it to the same part of the field every time and the field was simply too big to cover. So they made an adjustment.

Can pickleballers do the same?

This dude is totally a banger. (Credit: Venti Views on Upsplash)

Reason to Root

I’ve been a bad Yankee fan this year.

This season I’ve watched, maybe, 2 innings a week. I have two young kids, and of all the things I could (should) spend my time doing, watching a baseball game for 3+ hours is pretty low on the list.

When I have watched, the game is increasingly unrecognizable from the one I grew up with. (Get off my lawn alert!) The game’s “three true outcomes,” walks, strikeouts, and home runs, aren’t all that interesting to me.

All season long, I’ve kept an eye on the box scores, hoping I’d start to feel something for a team that was once the center of my 16-year-old universe.

And then, on Saturday afternoon, it happened.

Over the last three years I’ve casually introduced baseball and the Yankees to my son. On Saturday, a meaningful 4 pm game against the Red Sox, we planned to wear our Yankee shirts and watch the game together (with my wife and infant daughter) after naptime.

The game was mostly ho-hum, and we skipped a few innings to eat dinner outside, before coming back inside to watch the last few innings before bedtime.

My son is obsessed with The Green Monster, the massive green-painted wall in left field of Fenway Park. So when Giancarlo Stanton crushed a 452-foot grand slam to give the Yankees the lead – a home run he literally hit out of the stadium – my son and I went nuts, high-fiving each other and my wife as we watched replay after replay.

Now I have my reason to root for the Yankees to make and go deep into the playoffs, maybe even win the World Series: to recreate that moment of excitement and connecting I shared with my family. What better reason could there be?

In the span of a week, my community has let me down. Twice.

Riding my bike over the highway overpass with my son, I noticed county workers removing two colorful “signs” made from ribbon in the fencing of the overpass. Each said, “BLM” with a heart next to them.

A few days later, we received a “reminder” email from our community board about the neighborhood sign policy, including a request to remove our lawn sign which states, “Black Lives Matter, Love is Love, Science is Real,” and other phrases meant to show our support for, I suppose, “progressive” ideas.

In both cases, the reason given was “the rules.”

The county, they explained to me via email, can’t discriminate between a “Trump 2020” sign and a “BLM (with a heart)” sign, so both would have to be removed to preserve “content neutrality.”

The community pointed to its “no signs” policy, meant to avoid discord between neighbors.

While I understand the letter of these rules, it feels like they’re being applied against their own spirit. When those rules were written, were they intended to prevent someone from stating that a particular group of Americans’ lives mattered?

I replied to the county that I understood the policy, but disagreed with the idea that a political sign and a BLM were the same and/or indistinguishable. I would argue the same to my community board; a BLM sign (or one that supports love or science) should not be taken as a political statement.

A recent poll found that 67% of Americans supported Black Lives Matter. When do 67% of Americans agree on anything these days? I would bet that figure is similar (if not higher) in my county, and my community.

When most people within a community agree with something, isn’t it up to the leaders and institutions within that community to make sure those beliefs are reflected in its policies? Isn’t that literally what voting is?

A few weeks before the BLM signs were taken down, someone had put up a number of signs on that same overpass. One suggested Trump was “appointed by God.” Others delved into conspiracy theories around Prince and Marilyn Monroe’s deaths. Did I want these signs taken down immediately? Of course I did.

If you’d like to make the argument that a sign that states a certain group of Americans matters is indistinguishable from those signs, I’d love to see it in the comments.

Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify because the players are always changing, the team could move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You are standing and yelling and cheering for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt. They hate him now! BOO. Different shirt! BOO. -Jerry Seinfeld

Every so often I sit back and audit my sports fandom. Living in Manhattan a few years back at the height of Linsanity, I found it easy to root for the hometown Knicks. But after several abysmal seasons, I dropped them. Same for the Giants, who had a great run including two Super Bowls, but have proven just how difficult it is to stay competitive for an extended period of time. Last season, I barely watched a quarter of their games (i.e. 15 minutes, not 4 games).

The only team for which I have true sports loyalty is the Yankees. But even they don’t get my unconditional love. Back in 2012 I contemplated whether I’d still follow the Yankees as closely when my all-time favorite player, Derek Jeter, retired.

In typical Seinfeldian “it’s funny because it’s true” fashion, I’m still rooting for the pinstriped clothes even if there are different people wearing them now versus when my fandom began in the 1990s.

Though I moved from New York to Virginia in 2015, I keep up with NY local sports talk radio online via ESPN’s The Michael Kay Show. (Kay is also the Yankees’ primary TV announcer.) Every day, older callers–many of whom start their calls with, “I’ve been a Yankee fan since” and then specifying a year in the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s–lament the game they fell in love with as children, only to barely recognize it in its modern form. Striking out, for example, was traditionally thought of as the worst possible result of an at-bat; now, teams literally don’t care at all if every out a batter makes is by strikeout, as long as their other success metrics align with The Analytics.

I capitalize The Analytics because it’s become a catch-all for justyfing why a seemingly bizarre decision is made by a manager over the course of a game. There are no longer any “gut decisions”; teams have led us to believe that there are no decisions at all, because that would imply bias, of which the numbers used in The Analytics have none.

(Admittedly, as an occasional Blackjack player, The Analytics are precisely how I try to beat the house. Going with your gut in a game designed to bleed you unless you play the razor thin odds is just silly. But, it’s not quite as fun.)

These days even I find myself being all get off my lawn when I hear that the Yankees signed another relief pitcher who throws 100 miles per hour. (These personnel decisions are, of course, driven by The Analytics.) Watching a player strike out (one on my team or the opposition) is very boring to me. I miss guys like Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, who were impossible to defend because they would just “hit ’em where they ain’t.” I miss guys like Greg Maddux, who barely threw 90 mph but could make any batter feel off balance and uncomfortable, or Mariano Rivera, who got to the Hall of Fame with one pitch, his devasting cutter.

A few months ago I saw a video called “The Rotary Phone Challenge,” in which two teenagers were tasked with successfully dialing a number from a rotary phone in under four minutes. Is this how my son will view so many things I grew up with, including baseball? If nothing else, I guess I’ll have an amusing viral video to show for it.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn; but since I haven’t published anything on 250SFV in over a year, I’d figured I’d put it here, too–just in case anyone was wondering if I’m alive. (I am.) If the article sounds sales-y, you can literally blame it on my day job (I’m in sales).

Shortly after I turned 18, I received a package in the mail from Gillette.

Inside was a Mach 3 razor, Gillette’s newest model, equipped with a three-blade technology I’d heard about in their commercials.

I tossed aside the electric razor I’d been borrowing from my stepdad and, with my new state-of-the-art Mach 3 in hand, I began a regular shaving routine. And even as I experimented with a 5 o’clock shadow, unnecessarily long (and bushy) sideburns, and, in college, some awkward growth on my chin that led my family to start calling me Shaggy (from Scooby-Doo), I continued to re-up on Gillette replacement blades.

Over and over again. And I still use Gillette razors today.

By sending me one free razor when I turned 18, Gillette acquired me as a customer and established a pattern of behavior—regularly shaving, and rebuying their blades—that has lasted through my 36th birthday (earlier this year). I’ve been a Gillette customer for half my life.

If you’re tasked with customer acquisition for a company like Harry’s, a men’s shaving and grooming brand that launched in 2013 to challenge Big Razor, your job is to convince me to break an 18-year relationship with Gillette in favor of your brand, with which I’m barely familiar.

That’s not impossible, but it’s certainly not easy. And whether you’re Panera trying to lure casual diners away from McDonald’s, Under Armour trying to make a dent in Nike’s sales, or Lyft trying to keep pace with Uber, the earlier you can establish a relationship between your brand and a potential consumer, the easier it’ll be to acquire them as a customer.

As a sales guy for Ypulse, a youth research company that focuses on Generation Z (born 2001-2018) and Millennials (born 1982-2000), I’ve thought a lot about what made Gillette’s strategy to target me at age 18 so effective. They didn’t invent free trials or product samples. But what they figured out was just the right time to send me that razor: when I was young.

Presumably Gillette bought a database that included my name, address, and birthday, and waited until I entered the “Adults 18+” demographic to put their product into my hand (and on my face). Moreover, Gillette effectively cued me to start shaving more regularly because, after all, I now owned the best new razor on the market, with not one, not two, but three blades!

As a teenager I was open to messaging from razor brands because I hadn’t yet established a purchase pattern for that particular product category. (I was, ostensibly, just as open to messaging from shaving cream and aftershave brands.) I imagine the average 16- to 18-year-old in 2018 has not yet written his favorite razor brand in stone—but he’s probably seeing lots of targeted ads from Gillette, Harry’s, Dollar Shave Club, and any number of other brands. Whichever of those brands wins his business today will have a tremendous advantage—if they continue to provide a quality product at a competitive cost—leaving the others to play catch-up, like Harry’s is doing now with me.

In January 2018, Ypulse launched Ybrands, a brand tracker that surveys 6,000 young people (ages 13-36) a month, collecting data about their relationships with, and perceptions of, 150 brands across multiple product categories. In other words, Ybrands was built to tell our brand clients what young people think about them when it comes to their brands’ Personality, Relevance, Influence, and Momentum.

Ybrands is in-field continuously—conducting 200 interviews every single day—so yes, if a certain social media company or retailer or quick service restaurant catches hell in the press for a customer-facing miscue, our data will reflect the before-and-after of it. But more importantly, we can tell our clients where their brands stand with young people at this very moment, and which levers they need to move up or down to appeal to Generation Z and Millennials moving forward.

At 36 I’m not “old,” per say—Ypulse keeps me around as their resident O.A.M., old-ass Millennial—but I’m far less receptive to marketing messages than I used to be. While now might be the right time to tell me about your financial brand that will help me save for retirement, or your auto brand that will keep my child safe, it’ll be really tough to change my mind about which brands of running shoes (Saucony) or face wash (Kiehl’s) or jeans (Levi’s) I buy from now until I’m 100. Again: not impossible, but not easy, either.

What is your brand doing to establish a relationship with young consumers? Are young people familiar with your brand, and if so, do they think it’s true to itself, or that helps them express who they are? Ybrands can help you start to address these questions today, so you’re not playing catch-up tomorrow.

“Hey, no pictures!” the artist barked at the teenage girl, who was maybe 15. “I have signs all over!”

The not-so-prominent sign (singular, not plural, by the way), read “No photos please” with an image of a camera and one of those red circles with a line through it over the camera.

I stumbled into this scene while popping in and out of artist booths at the King Street Art Festival in Alexandria, Virginia. The booth in question featured a collection of ceramic statues, mostly 6-inch tall men, each painted in a single bright color, scaling the walls of the booth with the aid of a metal wire. (I’d have included a picture so you could see what I’m talking about but, in the words of Ace of Base…nevermind.) I’d seen similar statues in the past and they’d always spoken to something in my unsophisticated artistic sensibility, so I wandered in to get a sense of pricing, and see what else the artist had in his collection.

The collection included a bucket affixed to the wall, with a swarm of butterflies arranged to look like they were flying out of the bucket; a wavy line of five or six tiny bicycles, made to look like they were trekking up and down a hilly course; and a few other shapes, such as cats and dogs, that I thought might have looked cool hanging on (or from) the wall in my home office. Hey, it gets lonely in there!

The artist was in the booth answering questions from prospective buyers when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the teenage girl take out her phone to grab a snapshot of one of the climbing men. She was probably going to post the picture to her various social media profiles to document her experience that day at the art show. I imagine this was not the first booth where she thought to take a picture.

When the artist yelled at her, she meekly apologized and scurried out of the booth, embarrassed. The artist, without missing a beat, continue to talk to more important customers. (I was not included in that group, BTW.)

I thought about the incident over lunch. My initial reaction was that I didn’t fault the artist’s instinct to protect his intellectual property. While colorful statues of the human form (climbing or otherwise) is hardly the most novel artistic work ever conceived (as I said I’d seen similar statues in the past), it’s his work, and he wants to make sure no one else sees it online and copies what he’s doing, thus cannibalizing his potential customer base.

However, here’s where I think he’s in the wrong: 1-Don’t yell at a child that’s not yours unless they’re breaking your statues. A polite warning (“Please don’t take pictures inside this booth. Thank you.”) would have gotten your message across. 2-The young girl was probably going to post the photo on social media because she liked it and thought others might like it, too. Besides her buying the statue, that’s probably the best possible outcome for him. Instead of trying to stop people from taking photos of his art, he might have considered switching out his “no photos” sign for a sign that included any social media accounts or handles associated with his name, art collection, company, or studio. As it was, he didn’t have any cards or contact information, even a website. I believe I heard him say he only sells his work at art shows.

Now, is it more likely that one of the girl’s social media contacts would see the her post and say, “What a great idea for a statue–I’m going to copy his idea and make a huge profit!” or, “What a great idea for a statue–I’d like to buy one!” I’m betting it’s the latter.

Perhaps it’s because I work for Ypulse, a market research company specializing in Millennials and Generation Z, that I often find myself trying to view the world through younger eyes than my own. (At age 35, I’m a “cusper” Millennial, but I tend to identify more with Generation X.)

Many of the other artists had “no photos” signs hanging from their booths, and I don’t necessarily blame them. If someone took a screenshot of this blog post and posted it on social media without attributing it to me–or copied the text and posted it on their own blog–I wouldn’t be too happy about it. But if I made it as easy as possible for people to share my content, while still crediting me, isn’t that my intended result, to have as many eyeballs as possible reading what I write?

I can hardly point to this incident as a bellwether for a larger trend around how young people in 2017 consume art. Nor do I have any insight into whether photos taken at art festivals actually do have a negative impact on lesser-known artists trying to sell their art. For example, is a person less likely to buy a piece of art for their home if they can simply “own” the image by posting it to Instagram? I doubt it, but I suppose it’s possible.

What I do know is that the teenage girl did not intend to bring negative consequence to the artist, but he treated her as if she was single-handedly trying to crumble his 6-inch tall empire. And even though I liked his art, and was strongly considering buying a piece of it just a few minutes earlier, witnessing that interaction was enough to make me walk away without opening my wallet.

Oh and by the way, if I had bought one of the statues, I probably would have posted it to social media. So, what did the artist actually accomplish in the end?

One more thing
The local art league used a smart fundraising tactic at the festival, which I thought was worth an honorable mention. Partnering with a local ice cream shop, they were selling handmade ceramic bowls for $15, which included a free scoop of ice cream on a hot day. Someone at the art league might have a bright future in marketing!

Spoiler Alert: Lots and lots of spoilers! If you haven’t listened to the S-Town podcast, and don’t want major details of the story ruined for you, please avoid reading this post. You’ve been warned. Seriously though this will totally ruin it for you so don’t read it.

Over the weekend my wife and I devoured all seven simultaneously-released episodes of S-Town, the new podcast from Serial and This American Life which launched on March 28.

The following hastily-written-and-probably-too-long blog post encapsulates my initial reaction after listening to all seven episodes straight through over three days. It’s not an episode recap; I haven’t spoken to anyone else about S-Town except for my wife; and I haven’t looked up anything about what critics or fans have said about it so far. As a result, I may get some of the details wrong, but these are some of the questions I thought about over and over again after finishing S-Town.

Why did Serial and This American Life launch the series the way they did?
I had no idea S-Town was even coming out. I may have read some rumblings about a season 3 of Serial at some point, but when my wife told me she just found out the third season had just been released, I didn’t believe her. It turns out she was right–sort of.

S-Town was apparently produced by Serial and This American Life, but was not being billed as Serial s3. Instead, S-Town is its own free-standing, seven-episode podcast. Here’s the description of S-Town from its official website:

John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.

I subscribe to about 20 podcasts, many of them produced by NPR, so it was hard to believe a new podcast like S-Town, with public radio pedigree, would have flown under my radar.

Was this intentional?
Part of what made Serial’s first season so successful–besides that awesome Mail Chimp sponsorship–was that it came out of nowhere. Most listeners didn’t know anything about the story of Adnan Syed, they likely hadn’t heard of Sarah Koenig, and some probably hadn’t ever listened to a podcast before. Then Serial punched us in the face with some of the best storytelling you’ll find in any medium, and we were blown away.

On the heels of a great season 1, season 2 had high expectations. Some fans, including myself, even donated money to NPR/Serial to help Koenig make season 2. Without getting into detail about why season 2 was disappointing, suffice it to say it was a letdown for most fans expecting as compelling and labyrinthine a story as we got in season 1.

For those reasons, perhaps, Serial and TAL decided to keep a low profile, and release S-Town as own entity, with little fanfare and only a loose connection to Serial–allowing fans like me to go in with tempered expectations. To borrow a five-dollar word from S-Town’s subject, John Brooks McLemore, I’m guessing producers saw what happened with s2 and took a proleptic* approach to S-Town’s release to guard against such high expectations and let S-Town be judged on its own merit.

*Prolepsis: a rhetorical tool in which one anticipates possible objections in order to answer them in advance. John B uses this word in the first episode; Brian admits he had to look it up.

And why all seven episodes at once?
I go back to the failure of s2 of Serial again on this one. The reporting of the story as they learned it was what made Serial s1 so great, but s2 felt like it was poorly planned, with the cadence of new episodes changing from one week to two, as they were simultaneously updating us (and then not updating us) on the story from s1. I believe they released all seven episodes of S-Town to “prove” that the story had been fully reported on and was now a completed season we could consume all at once or spaced out however we want. This isn’t a new tactic; Netflix does this all the time with its original content. I wouldn’t be surprised if they realized Serial s3 the same way.

What was the actual timeline for the events that take place in S-Town?
From what I recall, John B first contacted Brian in 2014, they had a phone call a few months later, and eventually Brian went to visit John B in Alabama. I believe the first visit was at some point in 2015.

S1 of Serial ran from October to December 2014. Did John B contact NPR, or Serial, during that season or after? Did the reporters and/or producers involved think they might use John B’s alleged claim about an unreported murder as a season of Serial? If not, it seems strange that Brian would even bother to investigate John B’s story–though when I heard John B and Brian’s first phone call, I assumed he was providing accurate information.

And how deep into the story did Brian decide that John B’s story was podcast-worthy? And how did he decide to continue reporting after John B’s claims had been proven false? Why did he decide to continue reporting after John B died? Did he wait until he had everything he needed before deciding how to organize the information and tell the story across seven “chapters”?

I guess the question I’m really asking is…

Did Brian just get really lucky that John B–in life and in death–was as interesting as he was? Or does Brian–and the people who sign his checks–deserve credit for sticking with the story?
Like any other successful endeavor in life, it seems like this was a combination of luck and skill. Brian’s reporting of this story is tremendous, but the story of John B. McLemore was delivered on a silver platter. But give him credit for seeing that silver platter under a ratty Benjamin Moore t-shirt.

Did John B really call Faye as he was committing suicide? 
Maybe Serial s1 trained me to question everything, but without a call log or audio of John B calling Faye, I’m not 100% convinced he did. Faye doesn’t really give us a reason to doubt her, except that she didn’t get in touch with the first seven people on John B’s contact list–which he hand-delivered to her for this very reason–to let them know John B had died. Was this forgetfulness or laziness on her part? Was John’s lawyer, Boozer Downs, involved somehow in some sort of cover-up?

Or is the more logical explanation simply that Faye unintentionally let the task of calling John B’s contacts fall through the cracks? Given how much John B entrusted Faye to carry out his posthumous requests, I just can’t get past this error, but the idea that it was part of a greater conspiracy to steal from him seems far-fetched.

Did Tyler steal the gold? Was there any gold? What did he tell Brian off the record in the final episode?
I kept going back and forth about whether there was any buried treasure, but if anyone knew about it besides Faye (who said it John B had gold bars wrapped in a towel in the freezer) I figured it would be Tyler. Did he take it when he went to the house to gather John B’s valuables so the Florida cousins couldn’t get to them?

When Brian asks Tyler if he ever found the buried treasure, and Tyler asks him to turn off the recorder before answering, it’s implied that he found something. I’d almost rather not know this conversation took place if I can’t know what was said!

Was Tyler a con-man? Was he feigning affection for John B, knowing he could take advantage of the situation? Did Tyler egg John B on to kill himself while he was drunk, as Rita (the Florida cousin) suggested?
I don’t think Tyler was there when John B killed himself, and I think he may even be telling the truth when he said he refused to go over to John B’s the night he killed himself, even after John B told Tyler he was going to commit suicide.

I do wonder if Tyler was fed up with John B after we learned about John B’s “church” ritual of asking Tyler to mutilate his body with tattoos, piercings, and later whippings. If I’m Tyler, I might have taken a little something for my trouble after John B had passed away, knowing I’d more than enough to earn it.

So are we just assuming John B’s depression was brought on by mercury poisoning from his unsafe practice of fire-gilding over 30+ years?
It certainly seems that way, but I can’t help but wonder if Brian asked five other doctors, he might find a few who would say John B was just depressed, and they couldn’t conclude with certainty that it was related to the mercury. Of course it doesn’t really matter except to add yet another layer of complexity to an already complex character.

How should we take the information delivered in Brian’s coda?
After we hear an excerpt from John B’s suicide note, we assume the series is over. But then Brian layers one remaining piece of information that may or may not color our view of John B, Shit Town, and really the whole story we just heard.

When Brian tells us that John B’s great-grandfather built his fortune on the backs of the neighbors he stole from, he’s implying, in my view, that John B’s expansive patch of land, his home, his garden maze, and every material possession he has–including, perhaps, some hidden gold–was ill-gotten.

Does Brian want us to think John B is a hypocrite, that for all his rants about his town’s state of dysfunction, it was people like his own great-grandfather that made it this way? Or does this answer the question of why John B, for as much as he hates Shit Town, has never left? Or why he’s driven to right all the perceived wrongs of his fellow man, including those in his town, as a way of canceling out the evil deeds of his family?

I agree with the decision to save this information for later in the story, so that it doesn’t bias us against John B and we’re free to form our own opinion of him regardless of what his family did three generations before. But I might have liked some more detail around his family history. I wonder if Brian found this information too late to add it somewhere else in the story, so he stuck it at the end.

What was S-Town? And was it good
Genres are tricky sometimes. People starting calling Serial a “true crime” podcast, and it was, but the real-time nature of it, the way the story evolve as Sarah Koenig told it, made it something special.

Was S-Town simply a biography of an unusual man started when he was alive and finished after he died? Was it an obituary? Or was it simply an experiment in storytelling, in audio journalism?

I kind of don’t care what it was. And I don’t care that we don’t really have a resolution about John’s hidden treasure, or Tyler, or Faye, or the cousins, or even John’s mother, Mary Grace, who was supposedly flourishing once she was out of John B’s care.

Having been trained by Serial to follow a story so closely for months, only to be deprived of the closure I knew all along I wouldn’t get, I didn’t expect closure with S-Town, either. But I went along for the ride anyway, and I was glad I did.

What did you think?

Vote with your clicks, with your sponsorship, with your bookstore dollars. Vote with your conversations, with your letters to the editor, by changing the channel. –Seth Godin

For the last few years I’ve been a huge fan of the Under Armour brand. There was something about their marketing, their spokespeople, their attitude, and the apparel itself that spoke to me.

I read news stories about how Stephen Curry, one of the NBA’s biggest stars and the face of the Under Armour brand, had been half-heartedly pitched by Nike—they mispronounced his name, which sounds like “Steph-in,” not “Steph-on”—before choosing Under Armour as his endorsement partner. And I ate it up.

I even read stories about how the company’s founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, started the company by selling sweat-wicking athletic t-shirts out of the trunk of his car. A true boot-strapper, an American success story, taking it to Nike. What was not to like?

I bought so much Under Armour gear you would have thought I owned stock in the company (which I do).

Fast forward a few years to last week, when a story broke about the CEO, Kevin Plank, and his comments as a new member of President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council. Plank told CNBC: “To have such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset for the country.”

That was, apparently, a mistake.

Plank has since faced backlash from Curry* not to mention two other big names under the Under Armour flag: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Misty Copeland. Under Armour eventually released a statement clarifying Plank’s and the company’s position, but the damage had been done. [EDIT: Since posting this on February 14, the story continues to evolve. Under Armour’s CEO, Kevin Plank, took out a full-page ad in the Baltimore Sun on February 15 to write an open letter to Baltimore, where UA is headquartered, clarifying his previous statements about President Trump.]

*Curry said he agreed with Plank’s comments, if you take “asset” and “remove the -et.”

I started writing this piece a few times, including the day after Pennsylvania-based construction supplies retailer 84 Lumber aired a controversial, seemingly pro-immigration ad during the Super Bowl. Its CEO, Maggie Hardy Magerko, a Trump supporter, then came out and said the commercial wasn’t necessarily promulgating a pro-immigration message, so much as a vaguer, “that through struggles we will do anything we possibly can to make [the world] a better place for our children” message. In other words, 84 Lumber paid at least $10 million for a Super Bowl ad, the result of which is a lack of understanding of what it meant.

I could have written this piece even earlier, following the #DeleteUber movement in late January, when the on-demand taxi app caught flack by undermining a cab driver strike at JFK Airport in New York, in response to President Trump’s short-lived executive order on immigration (a.k.a the “Muslim ban”). Consumers were outraged that while cab drivers staged a work stoppage to draw attention to the ban, Uber was still sending its fleet to the airport—and charging higher rates, a.k.a. “surge pricing”—during the ban to capitalize on the lack of competition due to the strike. In response, hundreds of thousands of Uber’s (ex-)customers deleted the app from their phones.

When I heard about #DeleteUber, I rolled my eyes as I often do when I catch wind of this sort of slacktivism. Will it really make a difference?

Uber isn’t a publicly traded company, so we don’t know whether the company’s value took a hit (more on that later), but #DeleteUber certainly had a ripple effect:

  1. Uber’s biggest competitor, Lyft, smelled blood in the water and pledged to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years. (The ACLU was in the news at that same time for its lawyers storming American airports to offer pro bono council to Muslims affected by the ban.)
  2. Uber set aside $3 million for a legal-defense fund to support drivers.
  3. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, facing consumer and employee pressure, stepped down from President Trump’s economic advisory council.

So, did some silly slacktivism campaign actually move the needle in any significant way? Hell yes.

My friend Elliot has taken to calling this “commercial activism,” a.k.a. voting with your wallet. Perhaps the most prominent recent example is Nordstrom, which announced it would stop selling Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. (President Trump famously replied to this news via Twitter.)

Nordstrom said sales of the eponymous brand have plummeted over its past fiscal year, and that this was purely a business decision. If that’s true, and people are exercising commercial activism in response to a president whose beliefs and policies oppose their own, then we’re seeing something special here. And we should expect a lot more of it moving forward, regardless of who (or even which party) is in the White House.

Brands like Patagonia pride themselves on doing the right thing, particularly from an environmental perspective, by encouraging people to “buy less” of their clothing rather than wastefully replacing their coats after a few years when all then need are a few minor repairs. (I know this to be true from personal experience: I once brought in an old Patagonia coat to one of their retail locations to be repaired; instead, they offered to take my old coat and let me select a new one right off the rack.)

While it’s a unique and interesting time from a business perspective to think about how brands might align themselves politically to put themselves in the best possible positions financially, for me it raises lots of questions.

For example, would (or should) a left- or right-leaning CEO or brand intentionally manipulate its marketing messaging against its own core beliefs if they thought it would help them sell more widgets? If they did, is that unethical?

And circling back to my earlier example, should Kevin Plank’s (the Under Armour CEO) comments dictate whether I continue to buy Under Armour’s products if I don’t agree with Plank’s political views? What if Plank supports Trump, but his employees—including the spokespeople who came out against him—mostly don’t? Should I simply ignore the CEO’s comments, because by boycotting him I’m affecting his employees, who had nothing to do with those comments?

I’m not sure how I feel about Under Armour at the moment. As The Rock said in speaking out against Plank, “a good company is not solely defined by its CEO.” But do I want to put money in Kevin Plank’s pockets, knowing that he may use a tiny fraction of it to support a political candidate I don’t like? And if I decide to buy Nike, or Adidas instead, must I research those companies’ executives’ campaign contribution history? Or do I just stick my head in the sand and simply buy whichever products I like best, regardless of my (or the company’s) political leanings?

Regardless of how (or whether) I’ll personally take action moving forward, my takeaway from the last few weeks is this: brands absolutely care what consumers think of them, perhaps more now than at any point in history. Companies exist to make money, and if consumers decide—for whatever reason, political or otherwise—to stop giving them money, they will notice and they will react.

As the Seth Godin quote at the top of this post suggests, we as Americans don’t just vote in November. we vote with our money–and our social media, and our Google search history, and what we watch on TV–all day, every day. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make my votes count.

We’ll Miss You, Jim

On Sunday, my 35th birthday, my step-grandfather, Jim, passed away at age 93.

I met Jim about 20 years ago, when my mother was dating Jim’s son and my stepdad, Tom. Jim and his late wife, Rose, were older than my biological grandparents. As is typical with blended families, we didn’t know what to call them, so we simply referred to them as Jim and Rose.

Over the years we would visit with Jim and Rose, going to their house on Long Island for holidays. Even when they became my ex-step-grandparents, I still made a point to stay in touch as much as I could with an occasional visit when I was in town, or a call to the house every so often. When Rose passed away a few years ago, my wife and I attended the wake.

Since his wife’s passing, Jim’s own health had begun to deteriorate. He had fought and won a battle with cancer two decades earlier, but now his body was breaking down though his mind stayed sharp.

Over the past year, I put reminders in my calendar to call him every few weeks to check in, to see what he was up to, what he was reading, how he was feeling. My wife and I would stop by for a visit when we could, and he was always appreciative when we did. On one of my visits, when he was still feeling well enough to move around the kitchen, he made me lunch—chicken soup.

Despite what I can only imagine was heartbreaking frustration at not being able to use his body to do much of anything, he didn’t let his brain quit. He devoured the New York Times every day, listened to books on tape with an old school tape player at his side, read long biographies, and listened to music.

Once he mentioned that he had read about all the excitement the then-new musical Hamilton was generating on Broadway, and that he was curious about it—though not sure he’d like the show’s hip-hop score. A few days later I sent him the original cast recording.

Given the speed of the singing and rapping—especially the character who rapped in double-time with a French accent—I wasn’t sure Jim would get past the first few songs before setting it aside. But when I called him a few days later, he told me he had listened to it twice.

He admitted that the music was not exactly his cup of tea, but that he did his best to follow along using the CD’s printed liner notes. That just blew me away. That he would even listen to Hamilton (twice), no less read the tiny-print lyrics, told me a lot about Jim’s thirst for knowledge. Just because he didn’t have the energy to leave the house, take a train into Manhattan to see the show on Broadway, didn’t mean he wasn’t going to at least see what all the fuss was about if he had the capability to do so from his living room.

In the past few months his health took a turn for the worse. I didn’t get the full details—I could have, but didn’t feel the need to pry—but it seemed that as hard as he battled he wasn’t going to win this time. Still, he persisted. On several occasions I thought I would be speaking to him on the phone for the last time. On some calls, I got the sense he thought that, too, especially when he would effusively thank me for calling him so often.

In the last months I began to call more frequently. His daily routine of taking midday walks had been all but curtailed; he spent a lot of time at home sitting, doing some light physical therapy in the house when he had the energy. I figured he was bored, so I called. Sometimes he was too tired to chat and only stayed on the phone a few minutes. Usually I could tell his energy level by how well I could hear him. In the past few weeks, despite some complaints about physical weakness and pain, he sounded as good as he’d sounded to me in years. In one of our most recent conversations, Jim told me he had just finished a biography about the Wright brothers (on his iPad), and suggested I check it out.

This past Thursday, I called Jim to firm up plans for my wife and I to come out to Long Island and see him on my next visit to New York a week later. He jokingly said, “Um, let me check my calendar. Let’s see, Saturday. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Yeah sure, you can come by on Saturday.”

I wasn’t planning to call Jim this week because I knew I’d see him in a few days. I went on with my day and week, celebrating my 35th birthday over the weekend. I even received a card from Jim in the mail.

On Sunday night, while returning some birthday calls I’d missed during the day, I spoke with my stepdad, Tom, who told me that Jim had passed away earlier that day. He had been in some pain and the family made the decision to move him to a hospice facility, where he passed away peacefully.

Jim told me stories about his childhood, growing up on a farm, and about his time after the war when he and Rose moved to Virginia for a few years, not far from where I live now. He told me stories about taking his station wagon full of kids across the country to camp in national parks. About how with the help of doctors and medication and meditative gardening in his backyard, how he beat cancer.

If you met him just once, you would say Jim was a nice man. He was also a World War II veteran, a teacher, a gardener, a cancer survivor, a husband and father of four, a grandfather and step-grandfather. And he was my friend.

%d bloggers like this: