Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Tale of Two Commercials

I encountered two health-related commercials this week, one which I found revolting, and one which I found surprisingly charming. I’m a health libertarian--I’m fine with anyone guzzling, smoking or otherwise digesting whatever they want as long as it doesn’t negatively affect others. And nothing bores me more than talk about “healthy lifestyles,” mostly because thanks to rampant misinformation, none of us actually know what a healthy lifestyle entails anymore. (Can we decide on eggs for once and for all? I’m so tired of their five-year rotation on and off the naughty list.) I’m not sure why I’m oddly obsessed with two commercials touting “health,” but maybe the recent Seattle soda tax has been on my mind.  

The first commercial I shall discuss is for Special K cereal products. After years of bringing us the “red bikini” ads and featuring a tape measure squeezing their cereal box like a corset, Special K has suddenly decided that’s okay for women to consume calories, since we need our strength for problem solving or something. There are several versions of this commercial in different lengths, but the 30-second version is here:

Aside from the fact that the specter of people eating elicits in me a deep and visceral revulsion, I find everything about this ad obnoxious. Oh my God, ladies, aren’t we ameerrrrzing?? We have babies!!! We run companies! We problem-solve. God help me, within the first ten seconds I wanted to throw up. Could these women be more smugly proud of themselves for doing completely ordinary things that human beings have done since the beginning of time? We can gnaw on a power bar and breast feed at the same time! We eat chocolate and there’s nothing you can do about it. Snarf, snarf, snarf. Off goes the bra! Ugh. We are approaching 2020. Are they really still shoving the “women eating is a radical act” trope at us? And what kind of a nut job keeps a full-sized box of cereal on her office desk? I honestly prefer their “get skinny to fit into that cute bikini” approach of yore. At least it was goal-orientated.

Alright, so this next one I was pleasantly surprised by. Most anti-smoking ads are terrible. They’re overly-dramatic, shaming, and use cruel scare tactics that are completely ineffective at getting anyone to actually quit. This commercial, made in Ireland, takes a positive, “we’re-all-in-this-together” approach:

I like that it features all ages, it limits itself to one brief “scare” scene, and that it frames quitting as a community effort. I never thought that I would describe an anti-smoking ad as exuberant and light-hearted, but this one manages to be both, while keeping its serious message in the forefront. That, in my humble opinion, is a much more effective approach to behavior change.

Speaking of health, I went to the gym twice this weekend. (Pausing for applause.) I think I deserve some sort of special award or commemorative pin or something. You can mail it to my home address.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Cable Thinks I’m Old, Skyrim Morals, Publishing Empire

I’ve given up on life this weekend, since I am fighting off terrible sinus pain, cramps, and a creeping, impending cough and fatigue. As such, I collapsed in front of the TV last night and watched, glassy-eyed, all two hours of “Twister” on cable TV. Two take-aways: High-waisted pants are best left in 1996 where they belong, and cable TV thinks I’m old. The copious commercials shilled medications for an alarming array of maladies, most of which seemed to be vaguely age-related: weak bladder, diabetes, hair loss, osteoporosis, “crepe skin,” leaky bowels, and weight gain to name just a few. They had obviously and shrewdly calculated that those of us with enough 90’s nostalgia to sit through “Twister” on a Saturday night have likely gone to hell in a health handbasket over the last twenty years. However, it only served to make me feel smugly fit, as I don’t take any medications, and knock wood, have managed to keep my bowels in check most days.

The movie actually holds up pretty well. Maybe it was the sinus pressure, but I was enamored of how brave Helen Hunt’s character Jo is. When I first watched the movie way back in 1996, I remember thinking she was annoying, but now I find her habit of rushing towards danger at every turn charming, and I would even say inspiring, had I any actual ambition or desire to place myself in harm’s way. And while I was sad for Bill Paxton’s fiancé when she realized that those two crazy kids were still very much in love, I think she was right to leave. She’s a nice a lady. I’m sure she found love eventually.  

Speaking of other media that holds up well, in my sick-induced hibernation, I fired up “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” to take my mind off my thudding sinus headache. After all of these years, it’s still a really fun game, and now that I’m just faffing around instead of trying to level, I’m getting a huge kick out of the all of the little extras the developers threw in. For example, my character, a Nord warrior, is pretty straight and narrow, but I’m not above palming a few health potions here and there, or filching an interesting book if I can get away with it. I recently pocketed both of those things in the basement of an inn—not an arrestable offence, but the bartender nonetheless shot down there in flash and said sarcastically, “Oh, you just happen find that stuff lying around, did you? Weeeeellll, good for you!” It was both hilarious and genuinely shaming. Oh, yes, there was also that time I stole a silver ring from a street vendor and planted it on an innocent townsperson in exchange for intel. Don’t judge me. I needed the information, for world-saving purposes, okay? It’s hard to be good in Skyrim.

As previously alluded to, I have set myself the goal of having my novel up on Amazon by the summer. The main issue right now is the proof-reading, which I have turned over to the eagle-eyed Mr. Typist. He’s only gone through five pages so far, and already it’s a bloody red horror show of slashes and question marks, but I’ve come this far, and I intend to shoulder on until this darn thing is published. I’m telling myself that it’s all in the service of learning for when the day comes that I have my own publishing empire. I don’t know what that means on any practical or material level, I just like the idea of having a publishing empire. I imagine myself sitting atop a throne made of gold-plated books, cackling madly and stamping my scepter.

I’m off to crawl onto the recliner with a cup of tea now. If you don’t feel up to committing to the entire two hours of “Twister”, you might enjoy this comical analysis of its myriad technical flaws and plot holes. (Warning: It’s bit risqué if you’re on the sensitive side.)


Saturday, December 30, 2017

An Introvert’s Nightmare, True Leadership, A Pre-Announcement Announcement

In the interest of increasing my efficiency at work, I recently decided to experiment with group interviews for a specific subset of volunteer applicants. I’ve been resistant to the idea in the past, but I’m going to do a trial run and see how it goes. Seeking some tips, I entered “group interviews” into a Google search, which led me to a nightmarish slog through numerous articles extolling their so-called “virtues.” I discovered to my horror that in most group interviews, candidates are pitted against each other gladiator-style, as the smug gatekeepers of employment delight in watching domineering, psychopathically competitive blowhards bulldoze over their more timid challengers, who may have superior ideas but aren’t equipped for verbal battle in an artificial test arena.  This draconian style of interviewing is thought to reveal the “natural leaders” and “courageous communicators” (read: loudmouths) and weed out the weak, undesirable hanger-backers.

Fortunately, I’ve never had to endure a group interview, but as a notorious hanger-backer myself, I take umbrage with these methods. The notion that extroversion is always a virtue still maintains overarching dominance in the American work place, despite introversion having a brief fifteen minutes of fame a few years ago with the release of Susan Cain's book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking." Corporate America still insists on clinging to the quasi-religious belief that extraverts are natural leaders and risk-takers simply because they’re charismatic and put on a good show. One employer, quoted in an article in Fortune, says of group interviews: “Right away you see who’s taking a leadership position, who’s taking over, who’s not contributing, who’s coming with solutions. It’s great stuff to watch and really tells us a lot.”

No, it doesn’t “tell you a lot.” The problem with this approach is many-fold. First of all, no group is going work effectively if every member is constantly vying for dominance. You need a mix of different strengths on a team, and despite popular opinion, strength is not always equivalent to volume. Secondly, “natural” leaders are not necessarily the best leaders. The may be the most confident and the most effective at asserting themselves, but some of the best leaders are those for whom it does not come naturally; those who have never seen themselves as leaders but nonetheless find themselves in leadership positions through the vagaries of corporate fickleness. The “non-natural” leader’s reluctance often means they are willing to put their egos aside, shut up, and listen deeply. Their humility allows them to step out of the spotlight so their team members can truly shine. And because they are not attached to being right, they are not afraid to make mistakes and admit it when they do. So, corporate America, overlook those “weak” hanger-backers at your own peril. You’re missing out on some real gems if all you’re hearing is the loudest voice in the room.

Now that I have completed my yearly lecture on the over-valuation of extraversion in American society, I have a pre-announcement announcement! Starting in early 2018, I’ll be working towards the self-publication of my novel, “Day Job Blues.” My goal is to have the book available in e-format by mid-summer. Watch this space for more information—and for the inevitable entertaining emotional breakdowns to come as I weed-whack my way through the process.

Oh, and before I sign off, it occurs to me I should note that my group interviews will not involve competitive shenanigans such as designing a vessel that will protect an egg from breaking when dropped at twenty feet. I’m a nice lady. They will be mutually supportive and hand-holdy, and shy people will not get points off.

Finally, here are some links to my general grousing about the trials of living as an introvert:

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Cover Art Rabbit Hole, Someone Wrote a Story and the Internet Lost its Mind

Here’s why I need to stop reading advice on the internet: I’m looking into one final option for novel publication before going solo with self-publishing. Said option requires nominal “book cover art”, so I spent a good portion of yesterday scouring the internet for public domain images that might fit the bill. I found myself rapidly careening down a rabbit of hole of ever-more bizarre non-sequitur image searches, until by the end I was frantically typing in strings of words such as “art woman rain blues sad ink umbrella.” You see, according to the wisdom of the internet, one’s book cover image must be simple, yet emotionally impactful. It must be colorful, but not too colorful. It must reflect the narrative thrust of your story, but be visually uncluttered. It must immediately draw the reader in, but not distract. And have no doubt that your book will fail spectacularly if your cover art is not up to snuff in every way. The end result is that I am sick of looking at images of sad women in the rain with umbrellas, and I still don’t have any cover art.

I wasn’t going to wade in on this, but against my better judgment, here I go: The New Yorker recently published a perfectly decent short story about two emotionally inept, communication-challenged people who went on an awkward date, and the internet proceeded to completely lose its mind. I kept seeing headlines about the story, and I finally felt compelled to go and read it myself. I really don’t understand the uproar, the gist of which seems to revolve around a lot of buzzwords like “emotional labor” and “intimate justice.” My experience of reading the story seems to be vastly different from the majority—unlike most of the women who are weighing in on it, I did not relate at all to the main character, and in my estimation, the story is fairly unremarkable. My main thoughts were, “Oh, how sad. They don’t know how to talk to each other,” and “Cripes, this chick is an emotional limp noodle.” That’s about it. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it had the internet’s collective head not exploded over it.

What I did find interesting is that the story seems to be scientifically designed to invite massive amounts of personal projection. The main character is a classic Mary Sue, the sexual situation the two get into is just ambiguous enough to be interpreted as non-consensual, and the male character seems to have caused universal discomfort simply by being mildly oafish. I find it fascinating that such an ordinary, even somewhat dull story could spark a million think pieces in under a week. My take? The female character was not a victim, the male character was not an ogre, both of them were equally incompetent, and if there really is such a thing as "emotional labor," women can avoid that burden by not bloody performing it. The last time I checked, we still had a little something called personal agency, a fact that seems to have been forgotten of late.

On the writing front, I’ve given up on the sonnets entirely after deleting the one I’d been working on in a fit of a rage. I think what I need to do for a while is draw or paint or color. Sometimes that helps loosen things up a bit on the writing front—to shut down the “thinky” parts and get some blood flow going to the more intuitive, unconscious parts of my brain. I have art supplies squirreled away all over the apartment for just such occasions, and I plan to drag them out and dust them off. A little coloring feels like just the ticket in these drab, dark Northwest days.

--Kristen McHenry