Thursday, October 22, 2009

Social Media Me

Every morning they beg to be freed from their prison in my closet. Purses. Pumps. Presentation suits. My business clothes. Put us on, they whisper. You'll feel good. You'll look good. You'll sound good. Shave your legs. Spray on some French cologne. How about a little lipstick? You remember lipstick, don't you?

I read an article once about the huge market for American used clothing in Africa. It would take a village to wear my closet: I've been the same size for about fifteen years, which is how long I've had some of my clothes. Now that I work at home, I'm rarely out of my pajamas before noon. Let's face it: my well-appointed wardrobe is going to remain as closeted as Kevin Spacey. I'm north of forty, I moved to what just might be the most insular advertising market on the planet and the real unemployment rate, once you factor in the underemployed and the folks who've stopped looking, is around 18%.

These days, I work part-time and freelance, or rather, "consult", which is supposed to sound more glamorous. Once in a while, I land something conceptual and maybe even fun. Mostly, I write table tents, emails about prostate cancer and brochures on electro-convulsive therapy (Yes, McMurphy, that's the politically correct term for electroshock). I can't really mourn my salad days, because many of my friends' situations are way more dire. Besides, I'm the moron who walked away from a VP/ACD title when she was on track for a promotion to Creative Director. (If I had kept that job, I'd probably be unemployed by now, like many of my homies).

Bottom line, I have a business to build. I'm doing as much old school networking as I can but in these lean times, the classic "your friend so and so gave me your name" tactic is ineffective. People tell you to call back in two weeks when they're done with their focus groups, huge pitch, vacation, company retreat, hernia operation... you get the picture. You write yourself a note, wait the requisite two weeks, call and leave a message, and after unreturned phone call#3, scratch another name off your call list. Not that I blame these people. They're probably getting ten of these calls a day and they'd rather help a friend than a friend of a friend.

What do you do in an anti-social business climate? Make like everybody else and turn to social media. I started with the most logical choice for business purposes, linked in. It's turned out to be an invaluable forum. You pick up interesting information, communicate with people from all over the world, discover kindred spirits, read interesting links about trends in your industry. The etiquette is simple and the discussion groups are a great place to get feedback or advice from peers. I've even gotten work off of linked in, from people who read my profile or snarky wall posts.

Twitter, I have not had much use for. I'm sure I would, were I an oppressed Iranian, tweeting about the street protests and subsequent government crackdowns. But I'm just an underemployed yankee ad wench. I get annoyed looking at Twitter's too-cute retro design and ugly colors. I don't feel like checking in with the tweetosphere multiple times a day to see who's being pithy now. I am not going to follow the Mexi-Korean fusion food truck around town. I don't care when the krispy kreme donuts are coming out of the oven and I have no desire to cyber-stalk Ashton Kutcher. Once or twice a month, I get a notice that somebody I've never heard of is following me on Twitter. Good luck with that. Following me on Twitter is like chasing a parked car.

Facebook is the SM I resisted the longest. I just couldn't see how to walk that line between the personal and the professional. Even if stay resolutely away from topics like God and country, how is the fact that I like pilates and putrid French cheeses relevant to a potential client? But FB has become a terrific 5 minute diversion when I'm in the middle of some particularly dreary assignment. Not only can I stay in touch with old friends, I've gotten to know many of my acquaintances a lot better. The fun facts you pick up! Who knew that October 24th was Zambia's 45th birthday. Or that Thai people punctuate everything they say with "na". I just found out Richard Thompson's 1952 Vincent Black Lightening totally rocks, and that an African American congregation in Georgia is learning the meaning of namaste. I even got introduced to the axolotl, a Mexican salamander that looks like it crawled off one of my son's old pokey man cards.

So here I am, sitting in my home office. The business clothes remain incarcerated: It's 3:00 p.m. and I'm still in my pajamas, blogging and cranking out radio spots. I'm afraid I haven't provided much insight into social media, but if you want a free, detailed upload, take a peek at this art director's blog. He's a nice guy, and judging by his facebook page, he cooks a mean Irish breakfast.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yesterday's happy ending

Full disclosure - I'm not a huge musical fan. I know many are timeless entertainments, with classic, catchy songs beloved around the world. Maybe I'm a narrative junky, but I always want more information on the characters than musicals tend to provide. All those singing interruptions too often take time away from character and plot development. Whenever the conversation starts to get interesting, someone breaks into song. But my husband wanted to go see the Broadway revival of South Pacific and so, we went. Which is as it should be since I've made him sit through Greg Brown (on a particularly folky night), Manhattan Transfer, and an excruciatingly minimalist modern dance in which the choreographer sat in a chair, facing away from the audience, and made agonizingly subtle motions with her back muscles.

It was my turn to do something outside of my aesthetic comfort zone.

On with the show. First, the classic songs. Bali Hai is an icon of musical kitsch - the melody itself remains resolutely so, no matter how you orchestrate it. There is Nothing Like a Dame? Silly, corny and sexist. Yes, there is nothing like a person of the female sex. Except, if you are generalizing to this absurd degree, all other persons of the female sex. And then there's Wash that Man Right Out of my Hair which is always fun, no matter who sings it, because the lyrics are so charming. As for Some Enchanted Evening, the song has a deep, romantic emotional truth - anyone who has ever loved remembers that first time your eyes met, that feeling that anything could happen.

Based on a compilation of several short stories from James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning first book Tales of the South Pacific the musical is set on a Polynesian island during World War II. The American sailors stationed there are going stir-crazy, waiting for their orders. Our heroine is Nelly Forbush, a Navy Nurse who has fallen in love with a dashing French plantation owner named Emil Debeque. Widower Emil has two half-Polynesian, toffee-hued children whose existence he has not yet divulged to Nelly.

Being half French, I appreciated the Debeque character, an honorable, decent guy and not a racist (if you forgive the fact that indigenous servants are tending to his life of white privilege on their island). I kept waiting for Emil to put on a beret, surrender to his poodle and dissolve into a pool of cliche slime. Fortunately, for once, the French character didn't turn out to be a scumbag, drug dealer, sleaze ball, coward, womanizer or cheat. Thank you, James Michener. As for Nellie, she's a tirelessly spunky little Southern broad with attitude and a down-home naivete.

Anyway, Emile DeBeque throws a party for Nellie, at the end of which she meets his children. At first, thinking the kids belong to Emile's manservant, she drawls that they are the "Keee-you-test thahngs" she has ever seen. But when she learns that Emile is their father, Nellie recoils in shock. The realization that her paramour has brown children and has ostensibly had sex with a brown woman - horrors - more than once, is just too much. Nelly has a hissy fit and storms off, we later find out, to request a transfer.

Meanwhile, Joe Cable, a dashing young Princeton-educated Marine on a secret mission to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific, is having his own Island fantasy with a Tonkinese girl named Liat. The actress playing Liat in this production is maybe 5 feet tall and very young, and her Joe towers over her at about 6'4. Their seduction scene comes off as child molestation, or at least the exploitation of a barely adult woman. It makes you so uncomfortable, you have to wonder whether the casting was intentional. Especially as Joe is smarmily singing "younger than Spring time". Of course, later he mournfully admits he can't possibly bring some Gauguin babe home to Mother Dear and chalks it all up to his upbringing. Now if you can have that degree of insight, why not keep thinking? Why? Because Joseph must go home and take his rightful place in the Wasp ruling class. He abandons Liat, leaving her his grandfather's watch as a souvenir. Or payment for services received.

Joe Cable ultimately recruits Emile De Beque as his civilian partner on the Spy mission: to sneak onto an island occupied by the Japanese and observe their maneuvers, reporting back to the US military by radio. Debeque knows the island and has contacts there who can help. The mission is a success but poor Joe never makes it back to the states live out his life as a member of the Yankee elite. News of Joe's demise reaches base camp and Nurse Nelly fears Emile, too, has gone to meet his maker. She suddenly realizes WHAT'S IMPORTANT. And so the play ends with Nelly ensconced in Emile's plantation, where she has apparently decided to take over mothering his kids. When the Frenchman turns up alive and unannounced, he quietly observes the nurturing way Nelly feeds his children soup and is so touched by her maternal behavior that he takes up where they left off.

If you're living in the Obama era, (and an vituperatively vocal minority of Americans are not) it's hard to relate to the plot of South Pacific. You don't WANT elegant Emile to end up with small-minded Nellie. Yes, I know, some individuals genuinely and profoundly change. I also know lots of people revert to their bigoted upbringing as soon as they get mad at their spouse. How often does a stone racist like Nelly do a 180 and become an enlightened humanist? For God's sake, it's 1950. And the woman is from Little Rock Arkansas, not known for its Civil Rights street cred. Wouldn't it be a healthier reaction for Emile to not want Nelly near his children, whom she may deep down consider the products of miscegenation?

So that is the problem with South Pacific. When it came out in 1950, many needed to hear its message. Today, it's hard to feel warm and fuzzy about that nice Emil Debeque, with his romantic aura and Enchanted Evening baritone, walking off into the sunset with narrow minded little Nell Forbush. According to modern mores, her behavior should be a deal breaker. If she has something to be mad about, it's the fact that the guy let things get this far romantically before springing two kids on her. That's a contemporary and justifiable beef. But no, she's too busy tripping out over a dead brown woman to whom Emile was legally married. And while the death of any young man in combat is always tragic, when we learned of Joe's, I found myself thinking oh well, one less frat boy. Joe's dalliance with Liat was never intended to be more than an exotic interlude. He used her because he could, and he convinced himself he loved her just long enough to justify his own behavior.

You have to suspend your contemporary attitudes about race, and racists, to enjoy South Pacific for what it is, an entertaining artifact of the past. The set designer certainly understood that - you can't go understated on this one. It's gotta be realistic, it's gotta be technicolor and if you don't throw in the ocean and at least one palm tree, you're fired.