[Soundtrack to this post: Beach Boys' Good Vibrations]
As I write this, the Beach Boys are playing New York's Beacon Theater about thirty blocks away. I didn’t dish out $200 to be there tonight, but I did see them perform once.
I lucked into the concert tickets when I was just a frizzy-haired 12-year-old without a pop culture clue: I didn't know the Beach Boys from the Beastie Boys. For example, although I had not been cool enough to have seen Wayne's World at the theater, I eventually heard that it was cool and I asked for “Bohemian Rap City” for Christmas. I got Queen's Greatest Hits in my stocking, to the bewilderment of my uncle Jack. I assured him, that yes, I definitely was a “Queens” fan.
I had also recently discovered WKFR, a Kalamazoo, MI top 40 radio station that was going to turn me into someone who knew about cool things. I remember bragging to my mom about this great new artist I knew about, Eric Clapton, with his new song "Leila" who was apparently quite a guitarist.
Anytime my mom ferried us around in her white and grey striped van, I begged her turn it to 103.3. I’m sure you’ve already guessed that WKFR was never actually cool. There was a legitimately cool radio station out of the local college that played a lot more grunge but it came in fuzzy in our end of town.
I loved listening to WKFR, but I also loved being on the phone with WKFR. I called in with shy requests and left messages on their “rant line” (one time, I said, "this is what I think of you!" and flushed the toilet. It was the craziest, most rebellious way I could think of to say, “You stink!” But my mom picked up the extension just as I did it, to my bright red embarrassment.) And of course, they didn't stink; I cherished them. I also regularly called WKFR to try to win absolutely anything they offered. I was furiously redialing one day when the deep-voiced deejay actually answered. "WKFR, you're caller 103 - you're going to see the Beach Boys!”
I sheepishly told my mom that she could take Dad because I didn't know “who these singers are.” Nah, she said, your Dad doesn't like the Beach Boys. So she took me to my first real concert.
We went to see the old guys with guitars and drums and beach balls play in Battle Creek the next night. Battle Creek was the next city over, a town that had slightly bigger malls where we would one day shop for prom dresses and was home to Kellogg's cereal factories. I remember desperately wanting to be one of the cheerleader-y-beautiful "California Girls" who danced on the stage with the band. We had pretty good seats off to the right of the arena stage and I remember my mom gushing that we were close enough to spit on them as they exited the stage. I looked at her cautiously - was she going to? I mean, it was a school night, I was at a big concert, as far as I was concerned, anything could have happened.
The concert ended and we climbed back into the van. I pulled out the map I had to finish labeling for Social Studies class the next day and my mom began whistling “Wouldn't It Be Nice?” As I grew into a real teenager over the next few years, I would grow to find her cheery whistling unreasonably irritating. But that night, as we crawled along in the post-concert traffic, it was actually kind of cool.
It's official - I have a new job!
I just finished my first full week as the new Communications Manager at Common Ground, an organization that is working to end homelessness here in New York City. In 2004, Common Ground pioneered an innovative model (that was soon adopted by NYC) that pairs safe, affordable housing with on-site social services. This model tosses out the old idea that homeless people must first achieve sobriety and health before they can handle permanent housing. Common Ground has proven that affordable supportive housing can actually be the life-changing factor that puts individuals back on a path to productive, healthy lives.
I am so excited to be doing communications in support of this effort.
On Friday, I dug right in and got my hands all code-y – I got the keys to our organization’s brand new website, commonground.org. I’ll also be leading a new intranet project that I hope will make it easier for employees to find the information they’re looking for and connect with their fellow do-gooders.
I am so relieved to come inside from the job hunt. It’s ferocious out there. But I’ll write about how tough it was some other time. Today, I’m all smiles and sighs of relief.
[Soundtrack for this post: Can't Stop the Rock by Apollo 440, which was on our team "Psych-Up CD" for the 2002 Quebec Swimming Championships.]
On Monday night’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart joked to his guest Shaquille O’Neal that he wasn’t sure how to tell his Jewish son that he’ll probably never make it in the NBA.
To which the 7’1” All-Star responded, “Tell him Uncle Shaq said baruch hashem (Hebrew for “good luck;”) and he can make it.”
I used to have my own giant-sized athletic dreams. I was convinced I would go to the Olympics one day. I figured my best bet was 1996, because I would turn 20 the summer of 2000 and, to me, that sounded a little old.
In 1992, as I watched Team USA gymnast Kerri Strug and her bescrunchied teammates, I whined to my mom – why hadn’t she kept me in gymnastics? I could have been one of them! She frowned at me. “Beth, those girls are so shrimpy. Look at you. You’re a foot and a half taller than them. You would have hit your head on the bars.”
I scowled and refocused my Olympic dreams on swimming.
After all, I’d been a competitive swimmer since I was five. My parents had trekked my siblings and I all over the state for swim meets, enduring many Saturdays on hard metal bleachers in humid natatoriums. They dutifully wrote our events on our hands with Bic pens and shooed us down to the starting blocks every forty minutes or so. I developed a collection of colorful ribbons and a powerful chlorine smell that wouldn’t fade until my early twenties By fourteen, I was swimming for two hours twice a day and lifting weights.
By the time I joined the high school swim team, I was strong and fast. My sister, a senior, was the team’s best breaststroker, and I was incredibly proud to be on the team with her. We swam in the elite Lane Six with the other fast girls.
But then one day, my coach said offhand, “You’re a really good swimmer. I mean, you’re not going to the Olympics or anything, but…” Which is when he gave me a puzzled look in response to my puzzled look. “You do know that, right?”
I nodded, oh yeah, yeah, like I’d always known that.
But nope, until that moment, I had still been hoping. It was right then that I realized that 1996 was right around the corner and nobody had yet handed me my Golden Ticket. My Olympic flame was snuffed.
I did qualify for the State Championships each year, and was named an All-American swimmer with my fellow hot shots, Gracie, Anne, and Katie.
I was lucky enough to continue swimming at McGill University, where I consistently made it to Canadian Nationals. There, I finally shared a pool with with some Olympians – the Canadian variety – but even though they were legendary to me, even the best of them never held a candle to any American Olympian, least of all the likes of Americans Amy Van Dyken or Michael Phelps. I finally understood how distinctly in their own league those incredible athletes really were.
But I was also finally okay with it. I had enjoyed a long swimming career that had formed the basis of my identity and my social life. As a shy and awkward teenager, high school probably would have been a lot lonelier without a whole team of girls looking up to me. And though, in college, I had to go to bed sometimes when others were just going out to the bars, I had a whole team of buddies with whom I spent some of the best years of my life.
So I’m with Shaq – there’s no need to squelch the boy’s basketball dreams. Yet. Let him figure it out for himself one day, and until then, have a lot of fun.
(To the tune of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me.)
I'm paying a fortune to get my Master's in Strategic Communications from Columbia on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, so I thought I'd share a few cents' worth of wisdom with anybody who stumbles across this blog.
Tonight, I gave a presentation on Scope mouthwash. We have been working on our abilities to articulate a brand's position, i.e. the unique place it occupies in the consumer's mind, and the assignment this week was to do so by uncovering unique customer insights. For three weeks, I've been interviewing my friends and family (and even a few friendly-looking strangers in bars) about their mouthwash habits. Yep, swirl it, gargle it, or avoid it, I've been trying to talk to you about it. (If you actually answered my questions, thanks again! If you didn't, I will stalk you harder next time.)
Mouthwash is a personal topic, and a complex industry, but don't worry, I've managed to squeeze everything I could ever want to say on the topic into twenty colorful, Dr. Suess-inspired slides.
Check it out!
I think my presentation tonight went really well. So what if I did a practice run earlier for a six-year-old and he gave me an F? He's not even old enough to use mouthwash!
Tonight's wisdom takes the form of a quick primer on communications strategy:
A strategy has the following parts. (So far; we're only halfway through the semester!)
Communications objective (what tangible measurable thing do you want to have happen as a result of your communications strategy?)
Single best competitive advantage (you know, from Marketing 101 - what is that one, best, unique thing about your brand?)
Communications role (what feeling or belief (about your brand) do you want to create, change, modify, or amplify?)
Target audience (duh, who you're targeting. Pick a group you'll be able to a) reach and b) affect.)
Critical insight (an opinion that your audience already has that will motivate them to have the feelings for your brand that you're trying to get them to have.)
For examples of these things, check out my presentation here. See if you like it better than the six-year-old did.
The second piece of wisdom is that, while Listerine's marketers didn't invent the word "halitosis" to transform bad breath into a medical condition as is sometimes believed, they did popularize the use of the word.
[Soundtrack to this post: Cake – What's Now Is Now]
It’s the beginning of March. Do you know where your New Year’s resolutions are?
A mild late winter has already swept away the first two months of 2012. For fraction fans, that’s one-sixth.
The good thing is, one-sixth is not very much. Take this hypothetical example: if your mom saved a piece of your dad’s birthday cake for your brother who won’t be getting home until after his late-night hockey practice, you can take the sharpest knife in the drawer, slice off a one-sixth sliver, shove it in your mouth, and tiptoe to the downstairs bathroom to finish chewing before anybody notices.
So, we tortoises have lost nothing in letting all the hares get a two-month head start on stimulating the New York Sports Club economy. It’s our turn to lace up our running shoes, get to bed at a reasonable hour, and greet the New York morning with our pale legs.
[Bonus music video: Cake - The Distance]
_[Soundtrack to this post: ”School Days” by Chuck Berry]
Imagine you had to walk an hour to work on an empty stomach. Then, come lunch time, you didn’t have any money, so you had to walk back home where the only lunch you could afford was salted rice. How much would you dread returning to work in the afternoon? How well would you be able to concentrate once you got there?
For kids in rural parts of developing countries like the Philippines, distance from school and lack of nutritious food are unbelievably strong deterrents to their staying in school. (Not to mention a shortage of books and pencils, jam-packed classrooms, and roofs that drip on their heads).
Amazingly, $15 per year will provide a nutritious lunch to one student and increase their chance of staying in school by something like 50%! (I have to check in to the actual figure, but it was astounding).
The Feeding Program is just one initiative by the New York-based “Advancement for Rural Kids” a.k.a. ARK. The program involves parents and local farmers to cultivate a garden right next to the school and prepare hot, nutritious lunches. The kids’ health improves, they pay better attention, and their test scores go up.
I couldn’t help myself. I whispered to the girl next to me, “We’re so lucky.” I doubted that any of the women assembled at Columbia University that day had ever risked dropping out of school.
In my Communicating for Social Change class, we recently talked about the powerful effects of education, particularly for teen girls. Do you remember the “Girl Effect” video that circulated wildly a couple of years ago? Briefly, if a girl stays in school, there’s a much better chance that she will not marry as a young teen, that she will stay healthy, and be able to support her family financially. A follow-up video, hosted on a site that is packed with resources to help viewers spread the message, focuses on the benefits of putting off marriage and children for young girls.
So please take a look! And if your pocketbook is weighing you down in a very immediate way, please go straight here to pick a girl-focused project to support directly. And of course, please consider packing a hot, nutritious lunch for one rural kid by giving to ARK here. Bon appétit!
If these kids can prolong their school days, they’ll do much better in life.
Communicating for Social Change
_ When I was researching options for going back to school, being the “value shopper” that I am, I calculated that an MBA would be the degree most likely to catapult me into a top, richly-paid job in communications. What a bargain – the Groupon of Master’s degrees! But would I be satisfied? After all, it was a longing for more meaningful work that gave me the courage to leave my job and go back to school in the first place.
At various information sessions, when I asked to what extent the program du jour married the goals of profit and social good, I was met with a mix of blank stares, mumblings about a “fringe movement,” and off-track quips about sustainably sourced printer paper. To be fair, there may be more progressive, socially oriented MBA programs out there. My narrow research was limited to schools that randomly appealed to me either based on ranking or cost or geography (whether in Toronto or Singapore or Fontainbleau, France). In any case, as I begin my second semester in Strategic Communications at Columbia University in the City of New York, I am happy with my choice.
Last night was the first class of Communicating for Social Change. Right off the top, our instructor Barbara Becker emphasized that it’s not only traditional non-profits that can use communications to transform the world. Non-profits, government agencies, and even arms of major corporations can support the arts, advocate for education, and promote social change. This was exactly what I wanted to hear!
As I continue my job hunt, I don’t yet know whether I’ll join a non-profit, or perhaps, for a start, a creative corporation that employs happy people and serves fair trade coffee in the cafeteria. I’m applying for one impressive corporate foundation that annually invests tens of millions of dollars in the communities where they do their manufacturing. And employee volunteerism truly seems to be an integral part of the corporate culture.
Last semester, I was happy to land a short contract in UNICEF’s Communications Division. I was inspired that everyone assembled around the table was motivated to help the children of the world. Yet, UNICEFers didn’t walk around in some kind of righteous buzz. Day-to-day operations unfolded like any other large corporation, with a typical amount of bureaucracy. As we put pen to paper on a framework for a multi-year communications and advocacy strategy, there were many stakeholders to consult and to please. I hope to combine that experience with what I learn in my classes, and to soon be back in the boardroom, designing communications strategies in a like-minded organization.
Today and Friday, I am attending the Womensphere Emerging Leaders Global Summit hosted right here at Columbia University. The event dovetails into a career and social innovation fair at the end of day one. I am excited to meet some women who are making great things happen in their various fields and begin making some change of my own.
[Soundtrack to this post: C.R.E.A.M. by Wu Tang Clan]
I'm five weeks into my new American life. I'll admit that adjusting to a new country, a new neighborhood, and a new way of spelling the word "neighborhood" hasn't been easy-breezy. I should have seen it coming when I flashed my American passport at the border and instead of a "Welcome back, Beth! Where've you been for a decade?" they searched my U-Haul and confiscated my extra "u"s (sorry, "neighbourhood", "colour", and "favourite.")
And so began the culture shock.
In addition to flimsy green dollar bills (so long for now, "loonies" and "toonies,") I write "checks" instead of "cheques," "dip" my debit card at the ATM, and flash ID when I use my credit card, even if it's just for a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.
When I first moved to Canada, I marveled at all the Bryan Adams on the radio. Did they not know that his popularity had fizzled after one last great slow dance ballad (entitled as I recall, "Everything I Do, Ahhh-ahh-ahh, I Do It For You")?
My friend Alli explained that it was a legal requirement (Americans, that would be "Canadian Content" a.k.a. "CanCon.") Here, a generous helping of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett seems to satisfy any legal requirements.
But I remain an optimist about our future together, me and New York. After all, this place is throbbing with culture and I am truly enjoying my classes at Columbia. M&Ms taste like they did in my childhood and there's mail on Saturdays - for now, anyway.
If I can just make one complaint, New York, the honking has been hard to get used to.
I bought myself these lady earplugs to muffle the sounds of the cars racing down my street and honking up a storm all night long. These helpful drivers wake up the neighborhood to let us all up to let us know that other cars are double-parked. Thanks, guys!
The Duane Reade cashier just laughed when I complained about the constant noise, repeating what everyone's been telling me: "You'll get used to it."
One week from today, I will wake up to a trailer full of all my worldly possessions and a GPS programmed for New York, New York.
This past Friday, I handed in my iPhone and closed the book on my life in internal communications and social media at Rogers, Canada’s largest communications company. I’m heading back to my home country, the U.S. of A., to pursue a part-time Masters degree in Strategic Communications and find a full-time gig in communications.
I am elated, scared, and proud.
Earlier this summer, I created a comprehensive project plan (nerd alert!) entitled “NYC or Bust” and I’ve already ticked off the intimidating milestones of getting accepted to Columbia, finding an apartment, and giving my notice. My move is around the corner, and the logistics are falling into place.
The next big one: finding a job.
On the whole, friends and colleagues have been terrifically supportive, including my amazing VP whose reaction was “awesome!” A couple of comments caught me like thorns, however. First, a good friend said she admired my courage for going back to school “at my age”, the ripe old age of one-better-than-thirty. Second, when I mention that I am looking for work in the current New York economy, some people are visibly frightened for me. I recognize that it’s a risk to leave a rock-steady Canadian corporation for the unknowns of a shaky job market. But for me, it’s the right time, the right program, and I’ve got the right stuff.
As Frank Sinatra famously crooned, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." I’ll keep you posted on my progress to the “top of the heap!”
anomie / noun lack of the usual social or ethical standards to an individual or group.
I read this word on the back of Stuart Ross's novel, Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew. The protagonist's life is described as comprised of "childhood summers at a Central Ontario cottage, teenage anomie in a Toronto suburb, [and a] a disastrous university career..."
Interestingly, in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, this entry appears on the opposite page of the entry for Anka, Paul Albert (b. 1941). Canadian-born singer and songwriter, famous since his teens for songs such as 'Diana', 'Puppy Love', 'Lonely Boy', and Frank Sinatra's 'My Way'.
About this blog
I'll use this space to write about movies, bikes, communications trends, pop culture, and my adventures as a new New Yorker.