Sunday, July 31, 2016

not to put too fine a point on it

Remember that girl in your fourth-grade class who dotted her "i"s with little bulbous hearts? Do you ever wonder if, as an adult, she still does that? Perhaps she is now a doctor with a family practice. Do you think she's writing prescriptions for Amoxicillin and capping those three "i"s with a plump, little heart floating above that vertical stroke and placed at a jaunty angle? I doubt it. I'll bet she's not using another bit of punctuation from her youth — the exclamation point. In order to show the urgency of the prescription, I'm sure she is informing her patient that it must be filled upon leaving the office and an immediate dose is of the utmost importance. I'd be willing to bet that nowhere on that prescription does a single exclamation point appear. Nowhere.

Y'know why? Because exclamation points are silly and childish and have no place in the adult world, much like a heart-shaped tittle (the technical term for the dot on the "i").

Look, I'm aware of the old adage: "Everything in moderation." I don't expect the exclamation point to totally disappear. People will continue to employ it at the end of a personal sentiment when signing a birthday card ("Best wishes, Mom!") and on banners brought to a baseball game ("Hit it here!"). But. please, can we limit its usage on every single piece of correspondence, especially those of a business or professional nature? And, if you do feel compelled to include an exclamation point in your communications, please, please, limit it to one. There is nothing more infuriating than seeing a pert little squadron of fifteen exclamation points following the eight letters that comprise the words "thank you." One can just as easily convey the gravity of an idea or the sincerity of a feeling with some carefully chosen words rather than the repeated staccato of dots with dashes balanced precariously over them.

Exclamation points should be treated like a box of Cocoa Puffs. Sure, they were great and plentiful when you were six. But, now as an adult, perhaps a wiser choice would be more beneficial. It's okay once in a while, but overuse could have detrimental results.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: "An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke." And he knew a lot more about writing than you do.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

save me, white jesus

Yesterday kicked off the annual Xponential Music Festival*, a 3-day undertaking, offering live performances by artists featured prominently on Philadelphia member-supported radio station WXPN. The festival has been the jumping off point for many performers who rose to super-stardom and others poised to do the same. Indie folkies The Lumineers played the show's smaller stage just prior to the recognition that would have them playing 25,000-seat indoor/outdoor venues within months. A nervous Grace Potter opened the festival several years in a row, before taking a coveted headlining spot on the final day and making appearances on the national concert tour and talk show circuit,

And then there's Josh Tillman. Ya gotta love Josh Tillman.

The enigmatic musician and one-time member of a dozen, just-under-the-radar, indie rock bands, emerged in 2012 under the guise of one "Father John Misty." As Misty, Tillman released two full-length, critically-acclaimed albums, 2012's Fear Fun, a dark and mythic journey through the desolate underbelly of Hollywood, and 2015's I Love You Honeybear, a self-described concept album about himself. Honeybear, while lauded as one of the year's best albums, was also derided as "misogynist," and "lacking in memorable hooks or choruses." Unfortunately, the majority of reviewers didn't understand what Father John Misty was all about. The truth is: he's musically pulling everyone's leg. Sure, he can pull off a lovely ballad, but if you listen closely, the biting wordplay of his lyrics are dripping with irony. The lead single from Fear Fun was the hauntingly beautiful "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings." The lyrics, woven within an ethereal musical arrangement, cryptically describe the singer's penchant for having sex on top of marble tombs. 

His live performances are curious spectacles, ranging from straight-forward deliveries of selections from his two releases, along with a few unexpected covers to an April Fools Day show that consisted of a single song - both performed and noted on his hand-written set list. He once performed a new song while standing behind a six-foot cutout of an iPhone, stating that this is how most people experience new music. Father John Misty messes with his audience. If you're a fan, you love it. If you're just a casual listener, you may be bewildered and possibly put off.

It's a joke, dammit.
On the first day of the Xponential Music Festival, after crowd-pleasing sets from local darlings Queen of Jeans, Texas indie rockers White Denim and Jersey blues guitarist Billy Hector, Father John Misty took the main stage — a stage cleared bare of any and all monitors and instruments. Prior to his entrance, he scribbled a curious setlist (pictured) of songs, none of which he had any intention of playing. Then, he informed the good folks at WXPN that his set would not be suitable for radio broadcast. Then, he strode onstage, standing alongside his holstered acoustic guitar and began to address the anxious crowd — anxious to hear live renditions of the familiar tunes they had heard on the radio. But Father John Misty wouldn't have it. He launched into what amounted to a six-minute, profanity-laden, near-incoherent rant, touching vaguely on various subjects, including "our next potential idiot king," his disdain for the decommissioned Battleship New Jersey docked nearby and his belief that "entertainment is stupid."

The audience squirmed and squirmed some more. 

Finally he picked his guitar from its stand and strummed a meandering, improvised ballad that was self-referential and narrative to events of the day. The audience began to express their displeasure. Although there was a smattering of cheers and laughter (include me and Mrs. P among those offering approval), the audience's collective reaction was one of anger. Jeers, boos and catcalls of "get the fuck off the stage" cut the air at various points throughout the crowd. After nearly ten minutes of basic strumming and puzzling lyrics, Father John Misty brought the piece to a close. He started his venomous, curse-filled banter again, only to interrupt himself with a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire," featuring another set of improvised lyrics. He replaced his guitar, said "That's all I got." and walked off the stage  —  a full thirty minutes early. The staff scrambled to calm the restless and disappointed crowd.

It was priceless.

What the overwhelming majority of the festival-goers didn't understand was; they were had. It was a joke. A put-on. A ruse. A carefully calculated piece of performance art. Those familiar with Father John Misty's stage antics were captivated, entertained and completely enthralled. Those poor uninitiated who came to hear "Chateau Lobby #4" had no idea what to make of this guy with a voice as big as the apparent chip on his shoulder. They had no clue that Father John Misty was more Andy Kaufman than he was Bill O'Reilly. He wasn't there to deliver a politically-charged, "Wake Up, America" message. He was there to entertain. And entertain he did, it's just most of the people didn't realize that they were being entertained. That made the whole thing funnier.

Father John Misty did exactly what was expected of Father John Misty... and that's the unexpected. There was no deep meaning. There was no message. It was a piece of performance art. And while performance art isn't for everyone, it does make for a great experience watching those who don't quite get it.

On Saturday, day two of the festival, the discussion in the queue waiting the enter was filled with discussion of Father John Misty's set. Twitter was "a-twitter" with discussion of Father John Misty's set, as was Facebook. Other bands even made reference to the previous day's performance. Two days later, the were still talking about him.

A few years ago, comedian Ricky Gervais was recruited to host the Golden Globe Awards and was criticized and condemned for telling off-color jokes and politically-incorrect observances. But, he was hired for his skill in just those areas in the first place.

Now do you get it? If you don't, you never will.

*presented by Subaru

Sunday, July 17, 2016

rum, sodomy and the lash

Remember that contrasting scene in James Cameron's Titanic when Rose's family was elegantly enjoying a dignified tea on the top deck of the fated ocean liner while Leonardo DiCaprio and his grimy comrades, confined to the lower bowels of steerage, partied their asses off with steamy dancing and readily-flowing liquor?

Mrs. Pincus and I just returned from our fourth cruise together in as many years. She had taken a cruise five years ago with her family and members of her sister-in-law's extended family. I maintained that there wasn't a ship big enough to get me to accompany that crew, stuck in the middle of the ocean for eight days. Besides, I don't recall being invited on that trip to begin with.

Just as I predicted after my first cruise, all cruises are pretty much the same. Sure there are some slight differences — different people, different ports (although our first three cruises had the exact same itinerary) — but, for the most part, the basic experience is the same. You eat, you lay out by the pool, you see a depressed Caribbean city, you eat some more, you see a hokey show, you eat.... well, you get it. It's not a bad time. It's just the same time. This is what happens when you take a cruise. Just like this is what happens when you go to the dentist. You sit in a chair. Your teeth get poked at. You get it.

So, I was convinced that the "cruise experience" is similar from one trip to another, from one cruise line to another. My beliefs were seriously altered, however, when Mrs. P and I innocently wandered into a darkened nightclub aboard the Carnival Sunshine on our second day at sea. The late evening event was billed in the daily "Fun Guide" schedule as "Karaoke (18+)." It was a deceiving description considering what was transpiring. Sure, we had watched karaoke on other ships. Hey, we even participated a few years ago, nearly clearing the room with our gut-wrenching (and ear-splitting) rendition of Marty Robbins' classic cowboy ballad "El Paso." But, this particular evening, we were merely observers... and "observe" we did. We took a cozy seat in a curved, padded booth several rows from the small stage. The DJ was already calling the name of the next karaoke performer. A young lady approached the microphone amid a barrage of whoops and hollers from a stage-side table jammed with her travelling companions. The prerecorded music began and she belted out a horribly off-key take on Mary Wells' Motown classic "My Guy." Despite her cacophonous performance, the crowd ate it up, especially when she punctuated the song's rhythmic back-beat with a series of pelvic gyrations and suggestive shimmying. When the song concluded, the audience erupted in cheers and accolades, not unlike a Sunday service at an AME church. (Can I get a "Hallelujah?") She was followed by another woman who offered her version of the late Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," complete with the same provocative repertoire of physical alacrity. Midway through the song, a young man joined her onstage, draping a lanky arm around her shoulders. He pressed himself close to the singer and began nuzzling her neck. The air was filled with primal catcalls and unintelligible chatter. Each subsequent amateur performer was equally as titillating and was cheered with equal salaciousness. The evening climaxed with a foursome of young men delivering an unrecognizable tune (unrecognizable by me and the missus, anyway), one of whom bestowed a personal lap dance to a woman in the front row — a woman old enough to be his mother. Actually, it may have been his mother. The DJ thanked all the participants, as well as the audience, and everyone grabbed what was left of their drinks and filed out of the club. My wife and I exchanged puzzled glances. It was as though we were at a party, but weren't on the guest list. We weren't shunned or told to leave, but, we were not overtly welcomed either. We were just, kind of, ignored and left to ourselves, even though we were in full view of everyone. It was a very odd and palpable vibe.

The coveted ship on a stick.
A few evenings later, we spotted another late-night, adults only event cryptically listed as "Carnival Quest" on the schedule. Angelo, a very friendly member of the ship's entertainment staff, encouraged us to come to "Carnival Quest," but recommended, as first-timers, that we watch rather than participate. It turns out that "Carnival Quest" is merely a risqué Scavenger Hunt, and, judging from the throng of eager participants, it's quite popular and very familiar to regular "cruisers." Before beginning, the room was carefully scanned for anyone under the age of eighteen. Those not meeting age requirements were promptly shown the door. Then, the host divided the anxious group into teams and distributed laminated cards displaying each team's number. He announced that there would be a series of challenges, with the winning team awarded a fabulous prize. (As we learned, a "fabulous prize" on a Carnival cruise ship is a plastic trophy and a bottle of the worst champagne available.) The host also warned that those who may be offended by foul language and the occasional exposed body part should exit the nightclub at this time. Everyone laughed and no one left.

Hold the muster.
The first challenge was easy and innocuous. The elected captain of each team had to present a passenger ID card with a "B" muster station. (For those who have never taken a cruise, your vacation begins with a lifeboat drill prior to launch. Passengers gather at various designated points throughout the ship. These places are known by the nautical moniker "muster stations." Anxious and somewhat annoyed passengers stand around and watch crew members in colorful vests scramble about with clipboards and whistles until they are given the "all clear." At this point, drinking promptly resumes.) So, team members produced their individual IDs until they found one labeled "B." The entries were counted and the next challenge was announced. This was where things began to take a turn. A male member, selected from each team, must present himself front and center... dressed as a woman. Mrs. P and I noticed things were getting a little weird. We saw a few girls around the room remove a lacy sweater or a pair of high heels and force those articles on to a giggling male teammate. Other women, however, brought extra clothing — bras, jewelry, boas — with them. Within minutes, seven men were paraded around the room, all sporting some sort of women's wear. All — I repeat: all — were wearing bras on the outside of their clothing. The non-participating audience was in stitches, as it was quite a sight to see. It was unlike anything I had seen on three previous cruises. The next challenge was the opposite of the previous one. A female teammate was to be clad in men's clothing. The same amount of clambering took place, as petite young ladies were fitted with baseball caps, sunglasses and oversize T-shirts. One imaginative girl jammed an aluminum beer bottle into the crotch of her shorts to give the illusion of an erection. It was truly inspired. The next task was to show the host an X-rated photo on a cellphone. A few teams began scrolling through the gallery of digital images stored on their phones. Others began shoving their phones into their pants and snapping off a few quick shots.

This is probably all you need to see
of "The Human Centipede." Trust me.
The final two challenges were the most outrageous of all. One was an ass-shaking competition ("twerking" as it has come to be known) followed by a recreation of your favorite scene from your favorite pornographic film. Considering that most teams were comprised of total strangers, inhibitions took a back seat. Music blared and asses shook. A lot. An awful lot... until, after intense deliberation over each trembling posterior, an impartial squad of judges chose a winner. Then troupes from each team assembled and, while remaining fully clothed (for the most part, although a couple of women quickly discarded their tops, comfortably performing their scene in just a bra), fondled and spanked and whipped and kissed and bumped and ground into each other  — male, female, old, young. There was plenty of uninhibited, although simulated, (as far as I could tell from my vantage point) fellatio and cunnilingus and even a few depictions of sodomy and bondage. Several teams sent only male participants or only female participants to perform  — much to the delight of the audience. One extremely creative team enacted their version of the cult horror film The Human Centipede*. Hundreds of cameras snapped pictures and cellphones captured video that would be uploaded to YouTube as soon as a strong (and free) WIFI signal was available. It was unbelievable.

When it was all over, winners were crowned, prizes were distributed and the teams were lavished with wild praise. Mrs. P and I were bewildered. Up to this point, we thought we had seen everything there was to see on a cruise ship. We discovered that there was more to cruising than just deck chairs and an endless buffet.

*Don't search this at work.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

stop making sense

Você tem alguma idéia do que eu estou dizendo?

I entered the corporate world in the middle 90s when I took a job designing and composing newsletters for a large legal publisher. My background in newspaper composition coupled with my newly-gained experience in Pagemaker 4.0 made me a natural for the position. Prior to this job, I had worked in small businesses of not more than 10 or 15 employees. 

Within a few years, I grew bored and decided to move on. I became the art director for a Philadelphia-based chain of floor-covering stores. Here, I designed daily ads and weekly circulars. I knew nothing about carpet and yet, I managed to produce successful advertising during the three years of my employ. It was also during my tenure there that I was first exposed to the inane corporate jargon that is so prevalent in conference rooms and offices today. My boss — a shrewd, deceptive and despicable businessman — would regularly spew buzzwords at meetings. His favorite was "smartbombs." While discussing which lines of carpeting should be featured on the front of a four-page newspaper insert, he'd veer off course and say "We need to drop some smartbombs. That's what customers respond to — smartbombs!" I worked for him fifteen years ago and I still have no idea what a fucking smartbomb is.

Once again, I grew bored with my job and sought employment elsewhere. This time, I ended up in the marketing department of a national after-market auto parts supplier. Here's where the real corporate bullshit was. Advertising meetings were packed to standing-room. Executive Vice-Presidents in charge of who-knows-what would erupt in phrases like "low-hanging fruit" and "vertical thinking" and "tuna and bananas." Tuna and bananas? I thought we sold auto parts.

At my current employer (a job I have had for nearly ten years, and after this blog post, I hope to still have), every day is a new lesson in the business world lexicon. I have scratched my head trying to figure out what some of my co-workers are saying. It sounds like English. I have heard those words before, just not in that order or in that context. When I started out in the field of graphic design, I used to make these things called "brochures." Now, they have become "deliverables." People "used" things. Now, they "utilize" them, Co-workers would "call" each other. Now, they "reach out" to one another. We no longer "talk about it later." Now, we must "take it offline." Unless, of course, you are "off reservation," though I honestly don't know what that one means. Not content with the already-confusing clichés, someone decided to start mixing them up, like a big, interchangeable, corporate Mad-Libs. I once had someone tell me that a specific task was "in my wagon wheel." Later that same day, in a meeting, someone said "let's get our cats in a row" followed two sentences later by "that's like herding ducks." I wanted to stand up and interrupt the proceedings by asking, "What the actual fuck are you talking about?" I often wonder if they spoke this way only when dressed in freshly-pressed Dockers and a button-down Oxford. 

I believe that the proliferation of this overly flowery, often nonsensical code-language attempts — over anything else — to make the user sound more intelligent. Often, these words are being used incorrectly (as is the mistaken synonymy of "use" and "utilize"), along with incorrect grammar ("me and him" or "contact Joe and I") for added effect. In reality, "corporate-speak" only serves to make the user look the opposite of intelligent. There's a word for that, but it eludes me at the moment.

You wanna come off as "intelligent" to your superiors and subordinates alike? Concentrate more on the substance of your ideas and less on how you talk about them.

Also, you could try using the word "proliferation" more, 'cause that's a cool word.

(That illustration at the top of this post entry is called a "word cloud." Another "buzzword." It makes for a great design, but it's total bullshit.)