Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Proust and Plunging In

People wish to learn to swim and at the same time to keep one foot on the ground.

— Marcel Proust

What is it about aging that makes us so cautious? I’m not talking about the “afraid I’ll break a hip” or “driving down the freeway at 35 mph” type of caution. But more like the unwillingness to take risks that I once wouldn’t have even considered risky.

I thought wisdom, not caution, was supposed to come with age. Perhaps there is wisdom in this carefulness—I’m just not smart enough to see it as that. From my perspective, caution just looks like fear. And I’ve never liked being afraid.

So what is it I’m afraid of? Spending my savings to fund my dream. Paying thousands of dollars to publish my children’s novel online and market it to the masses. (More about the book and website in future posts.) I’m afraid to risk my rainy-day bundle on something that might never bring in a dime—especially since there’s not a lot of cash coming in these days.

My younger self wouldn’t have thought twice about spending the money. (Of course, my younger self didn’t have a mortgage or want to retire in the next decade or so.) If I wanted something and had the wherewithal, then the decision was made. No second thoughts, no regrets.

I wanted to move cross country to San Francisco and spread my wings while putting down roots. Check. Quit my ad agency job to work on a novel. No problem. Take months off from freelancing to drive across country and then years later, more time off to focus on my personal writing. Done.

But now…I don’t know. Maybe. Sounds awfully risky. It might not work out.

What if work stays slow for months and months? What if I need every last cent of my savings just to pay my bills? What if I never get work again?

I can “what if” myself into a frenzy.

So I try to turn it around with what if I didn’t even have the money? What if I never earned it, or worse still, invested it with Bernie Madoff? Then I wouldn’t have this dilemma. Or this opportunity.

Am I too old to believe that the details will fall into place if I just head in the right direction? Am I too scared to have the faith that has allowed me to make bold moves before? How long will I cast about for a safety net, a guarantee, when I know life offers no such thing? Can I find the courage to trust that I’ll be okay no matter what happens?

Deep in my heart, I know that I really don’t have a choice. I either spend the money on my dream now—or spend the rest of my life being mad at myself. In that equation, the money seems a much smaller price to pay.

So it’s time to take a deep breath, let both feet leave the ground and dive into the deep end. Stay tuned to see whether I sink or swim.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cave Paintings and Instant Memorials

People first started illustrating cave walls around 32,000 years ago. While there’s some debate as to their original purpose—decorative, religious or instructional—these petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) continue to fascinate us, providing a connection to early humans.

My brother’s family had to have their beloved dog put to sleep last week. Gretchen the golden was 13, a good age for a dog her size. Still, the parting was sad, as it always is.

I found out about it in the morning when I opened my Facebook page. Fifteen minutes earlier and 3000 miles away, my niece had just posted “R.I.P. Gretchen” followed by a picture of the old girl. I clicked on Comments to offer my quick condolences and was shocked that I wasn’t the first to leave a sentiment. In the time it took my niece to type a response to me, another friend of hers had posted her sympathies.

Now I’m no stranger to the instantaneous nature of the Internet. Still, the speed with which this impromptu memorial sprung up and continued throughout the day astonished me.

This got me thinking about how much communication has—and hasn’t—changed since humans first started etching scenes from their lives on cave walls.

Our technology is so sophisticated these days, it’s easy to forget that it’s built on our ancestors’ ingenuity. We always use our past as a ladder to the future. Yet we’re so busy looking up that we sometimes forget to appreciate where we’ve been.

So here’s a quick look at a few of the clever inventions that made our modern interactions possible.

As noted above, humans began communicating in a permanent form using sharp stone tools, lumps of charcoal and berry-based paints on cave walls. The walls weren’t exactly portable, so later civilizations created clay tablets and a stylus made out of bone or bronze to engrave them. Depicting whole scenes in art form was pretty time-consuming (and wouldn’t fit on the tablets), so somebody had the great idea to use symbols to communicate rudimentary ideas.

The never-ending quest to improve the day’s technology led to the invention of papyrus, parchment and eventually paper. To write on these surfaces, people moved from sharpened reeds and bamboo shoots to quill pens—which dominated for a thousand years before being replaced by fountain and then ballpoint pens. Of course, the development of inks accompanied these innovations. And to further speed along our written exchanges, humans shifted from symbol-based writing systems to alphabets.

In short order, we added typewriters, electricity, miniaturization, logarithms and iPhones to our communications arsenal. All of which brings us to today and our amazing ability to instantly commune with others about our losses, loves and lessons learned.

An online memorial to a family dog clearly demonstrates how much our tools have evolved. But it also shows that the reason we communicate—to forge a connection with our fellow humans—is the same as it ever was. We just use a Facebook wall instead of a cave wall.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pomegranates and Social Media

The pomegranate gets its name from the Latin “pomum” (apple) and “granatus” (seeded). Seems like a good name for a fruit that has reddish skin and around 600 seeds.

I took my friend out to lunch the other day to thank her for creating my online portfolio. Knowing my fondness for beer, she suggested a brewpub in between our two homes. It was a hot day, which made the pomegranate wheat beer on the menu all the more appealing.

Pomegranate is such a trendy cocktail ingredient these days. Pomtinis (the best name, if not concoction) Pom cosmos, margaritas, punch—you name it. The color alone draws you in like a magnet.

So of course, we both ordered the pomegranate beer.

It proved to be the perfect accompaniment to our conversation.

As 50-something women who have both made a living on the creative side of marketing, we are dismayed and shocked to be more-or-less out of work. Sure, a few little jobs drib and drab in. Sadly, they’re not enough to keep either of us from eyeing our savings.

It’s disheartening to think that this is happening despite the fact that I’ve been writing advertising for more than 25 years. For over 20 of those years, I’ve been a freelancer and kept myself quite gainfully employed. I can’t put a number on my friend’s years as a graphic artist, but suffice it to say, she’s earned a “senior” job title designation. Yet here we both are, trying to remember what it’s like to sign the back of a paycheck.

Our lunch conversation touched on how we’re trying to, not totally reinvent ourselves, but retool ourselves for today’s social-media-dominant world. That’s why my friend is in school learning how to develop websites. As print sinks, online rises. By adding HTML to her CMYK* skills, she’s able to cast a wider net for jobs.

I too, am finding a migration from traditional advertising vehicles to ones I’m just now dabbling in. I’m seeing a lot of job posts for copywriters who “understand social media like they were born into it.” I’m about 25 years too old to fit into that category. But I do have the “active social network” they request. It’s just in person, not on the Web.

So now I’m asking friends and family to follow me into the world of blogging, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Digg, etc. to help prove that I know how to start a conversation, build a community, encourage participation and bring in friends of friends. Just like I’ve been doing since I was a kid. Only this time, it’s online.

Because I don’t want to totally change what I’ve spent my career doing. But I am willing to make myself more contemporary, more relevant. Willing to add a little pomegranate to my beer.

*That’s industry-speak for adding computer skills to her print production talents. HTML stands for hypertext markup language (which is a fancy way of saying the code that makes web pages do what they do). CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). These are known as process colors, or the colors used in the four-color process—the printing technique that makes the junk mail you receive so enticing.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Aristotle and Avedon

Over 2300 years ago, Aristotle observed the optic laws that make a pinhole camera possible. But it took until the 1820s for humans to figure out how to combine these laws with chemical processes to create modern photography.

A friend was in town visiting over Labor Day weekend and while she was here, we went to SF MOMA to see two exhibitions. The first was a Georgia O’Keeffe/Ansel Adams show titled Natural Affinities. The pieces were displayed to illustrate how each artist captured the natural world—often the same part of it—in their work.

I particularly enjoyed seeing so much of O’Keeffe’s work in person. Her paintings are even more alluring when you can distinguish individual brushstrokes and experience the vibrancy of color that no print can reproduce. It’s also easy to see photography’s influence on her work in the way she magnified her subjects—much like a close-up lens—to bring out their simple beauty.

This magnified beauty had a parallel in the work of the third genius on display—Richard Avedon. The retrospective of work from his entire career (1946–2004) featured his renowned fashion photography, as well as political and celebrity portraits. But the pieces we all found to be the most powerful were those of everyday people that he photographed in the late 70s, early 80s.

Enlarged to mural-size, these portraits of coal miners, carny workers, homeless and others seemed to radiate the very essence of these people. The epic proportions drew my eye to the tousled hair, dirt-encrusted fingernails and freckles that looked like paint spatters. I remember one photo in particular where the wrinkles under the man’s eyes resembled a river tributary system.

There was something about this magnification that made me realize these portraits were not powerful despite the people’s flaws, but because of them. The ordinary became extraordinary. The “ugly” became intriguing, at times endearing. I saw that, viewed through the right lens, anything is beautiful.

I left the museum with a strange elation that took me a few days to crystallize. What I experienced that day was the knowledge that bringing our limitations to light doesn’t make us less attractive, only more human. And our common, everyday humanity can be exquisite.

This has given me the courage to begin writing about my life, knowing that this will put my imperfections on display. You may view these as flaws. Or just what makes me, me. It’s a matter of perspective.

Something I’m sure Aristotle figured out 2300 years ago.