Archive for January, 2008

Pemco’s Northwest Profiles: A Little Bit Different (and a lot of fun)

January 30, 2008

Latte machineYou know, writing advertising copy is tough. I mean, seriously, take away the accounts for glitzy cars and sexy smartphones, and what are you left with? Necessary, very unsexy, items like acne medicine and insurance. But the powers that be at Pemco Insurance had the gutsiness and chutzpah to try a goofier, more circumnavigated approach to advertising their insurance; they hired the very talented folks at DNA Brand Mechanics to craft a oddball set of Northwest Profiles.

For people who live around Washington and thereabouts, you’d probably have to live under a rock not to have chuckled at some of the amiable mocking of “The 50 Degrees Shirt’s Off Guy” or the “Marymoor Off Leash Dog Lady.” And if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, you probably haven’t heard these ads – but Pemco has them all up on their website, so it’s a fun diversion to check some of them out.

My current favorite is the radio ad featuring one of their newest profiles, “The Super Long Coffee Orderer”:

With the brilliance of a medieval alchemist, he guides the guileless barista through a terrifying labyrinth of seemingly incongruous ingredients and commands.

Come on. When was the last time you heard the words “guileless” or “incongruous” in an ad, much less in the same breath? Pretty impressive. And the narrator of the ads does a brilliant presentation of the copy as well. One of the reasons I like the ad so much is because once you’ve been suckered into the Starbucks latte addiction, you find yourself reeling off strings of adjectives while ordering a latte with a comfort that, frankly, is a little frightening. You never forget the first time you automatically order a “grande decaf reduced fat no whipped caramel latte at 170 degrees” without thinking about it. There is some shame involved, I confess.

But in the final analysis, are the ads effective? Because you can have the best writing in the world, but the advertisement still has to make you remember that these guys are selling insurance. And yes, I do think the ads are effective. I would predict that Pemco probably has humungous name recognition out in this area, and the ads miraculously do manage to tie in the silliness of the profiles with the service Pemco offers. So kudos to advertisers that make me actually want to listen to a commercial.

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A Not So Itsy Bitsy Spider: Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys

January 26, 2008

Anansi Boys coverBoy, have I been in a reading rut recently. You know, where you read a lot of books, and they’re all okay, or pretty good, but nothing that makes you flip over the last page and close the cover with a satisfied sigh. Well, I finally broke through the rut with Neil Gaiman‘s Anansi Boys (2005). This was a book that was pure fun to read from the first page to the last.

Its central character is Fat Charlie Nancy, a man who was dubbed with his nickname in childhood by no less than his father. You know when you have a book whose father delights in practical jokes, and drops dead on a karaoke stage while grasping a buxom woman’s top, that this is a book worth reading. Even more so when Charlie finds out that his father was not your normal, run-of-the-mill embarrassing dad, but Anansi, the spider-trickster god from West African mythology.

The characters are imbued with such a three-dimensional sense, that they appear to be direct descendants of some of Stephen King‘s best characters. The story too is invested with a wealth of detail so that the reader has no trouble jumping in to the thick of the text. Consider this short excerpt from the first chapter:

There was a dog who had lived in the house across the way, in the Florida street on which Fat Charlie had grown up. It was a chestnut-colored boxer, long-legged and pointy-eared with a face that looked like the beast had, as a puppy, run face-first into a wall. Its head was raised, its tail nub erect. It was, unmistakably, an aristocrat among canines. It had entered dog shows. It had rosettes for Best of Breed and for Best in Class and even one rosette marked Best in Show. This dog rejoiced in the name Campbell’s Macinrory Arbuthnot the Seventh, and its owners, when they were feeling familiar, called it Kai. This lasted until the day that Fat Charlie’s father, sitting out on their dilapidated porch swing, sipping his beer, noticed the dog as it ambled back and forth across the neighbor’s yard, on a leash that ran from a palm tree to a fence post.

“Hell of a goofy dog,” said Fat Charlie’s father. “Like that friend of Donald Duck’s. Hey Goofy.”

This excerpt has nothing to do with the plot; it’s a throwaway anecdote that illustrates that once Fat Charlie’s dad named something, it stuck. But in a benefit to the reader, the vividness of detail and comic tone is maintained through the entire book, from the secondary background to the main story arc. It truly is pure fun to read.

Political Writing: Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 21, 2008

MLK Jr. DayIt seems appropriate on this day to comment on the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr. When I think about my gold standard for political writing, the writings of this man are what come to mind. Recall, if you will, in my earlier posts about the best political writing; I mentioned how truly great political writing talks about America in a global sense and in terms that inspire, often at the same time as they challenge.

Hopefully, everyone today will get to hear Reverend King’s “I have a dream” speech at least once today. And while it’s easy to let the words fly by if you’re not really paying attention or busy doing something else, or view it in a blase manner as just another day without mail, I urge you to take a moment and either listen once more to the speech, or to read the transcript. You can do either at the website American Rhetoric. But talk about inspiring and challenging – read these words:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

Today’s speechwriters and politicians would be well served to study this speech, and deconstruct it for the writing lessons it provides. Its inspiration does not flow from some magical source. Reverend King used repetition to great effect, but not just repetition; he subtly wove in allusions and quotations from the founding fathers and The Bible. He interspersed these historical contexts with current day examples. He used metaphor and analogy and alliteration, all in a way that complemented the words he spoke from the heart. Truly, his writing will live forever.

From the Sublime to the Just Plain Silly: The Tick

January 19, 2008

The TickOne of the best things about Christmas is that you get all these great books and DVDs that you’d been meaning to get for eons, but just hadn’t. So one of most appreciated gifts under the tree this year was the DVD boxed set of The Tick vs. Season One (1994).

What? You’ve never heard of The Tick? A nigh-invulnerable blue superhero with crazy antennae sticking out of his head, whose battle cry is “SPOON?” Whose sidekick is Arthur, mild-mannered former accountant who dresses in a moth costume that everyone thinks is a bunny costume instead? Who battles villains like Chairface Chippendale, who is an evil genius with a chair for a head; the Breadmaster, creator of an army of evil gingerbread men, and El Seed, a huge sunflower gone bad? Well. Once you watch The Tick, you never can look at superheroes in quite the same way again.

Originally created as a comic book by the clearly insane, yet brilliant, Ben Edlund, the best part about The Tick is his dialogue. He utters the most inspired mixed-metaphor cliches ever created. And you know, it takes a pretty good writer to mangle the written form so dramatically. Read through some of these Tick quotes and see what I mean:

Destiny’s powerful hand has made the bed of my future, and it’s up to me to lie in it. I am destined to be a superhero. To right wrongs, and to pound two-fisted justice into the hearts of evildoers everywhere. And you don’t fight destiny. No sir. And, you don’t eat crackers in the bed of your future, or you get all… scratchy.

[after jumping off a tall building and landing on the ground] Gravity is a harsh mistress.

Don’t ever try to swim against the mighty tide of justice.

I am mighty. I have a glow you cannot see. I have a heart as big as the moon. As warm as bathwater. We are superheroes, men, we don’t have time to be charming. The boots of evil were made for walkin’. We’re watching the big picture, friend. We know the score. We are a public service, not glamour boys. Not captains of industry. Keep your vulgar moneys. We are a justice sandwich. No toppings necessary. Living rooms of America, do you catch my drift? Do you dig?

So, America, catch a wild ride onto The Tick’s surf and, as the great one says, “Hang ten for Justice.”

The Wire: Why David Simon is No Mere Mortal

January 14, 2008

the-wire.jpgSheesh. Politics got me so worked up last week that I plumb forgot to post that HBO’s The Wire –my weekly exercise of picking my jaw up off the floor in awe — is back on. I now have a reason to go on watching tv. Whoo-hoo!

Now, I know this show is a critic’s darling, but gets sucky ratings and ignored at awards time. So maybe this post is redundant and/or irrelevant. Don’t care. I’m going to tell you, in writing terms, why The Wire is the best written show, maybe, ever:

  1. Voice: No other show that I have ever seen — and as you know, I am a couch potato priestess, so have seen many — captures the voice of a city as well as this show. This is probably where David Simon’s and Ed Burns’ backgrounds in journalism, police, and teaching play into effect the most. They — and with their guidance, the show’s other writers — can tap into absolutely credible dialogue from the inner city streets, to the police room, to the inner workings of the Mayor’s office.
  2. Characters: You’d be hard pressed to come up with a show that had a larger cast of characters. The police department alone hosts fifteen characters that we’ve seen in first two episodes of this latest season. And yet — and this is an important point for anyone considering jumping into watching The Wire and feeling intimidated — the characters are so well drawn that the show never feels bloated or overpopulated. In fact, even after watching just a few episodes, it’s so easy to claim any number of characters as your favorites, that when they get screen time, you celebrate to see them. Their language is so vivid that half the fun is finding out what these characters are going to say. Here’s a sampling of my favorite quotes:

    “Bring me a Shrek 2 slushie and some Krispy Kreme.” Squeak

    “I keeps one in the chamber, in case you pondering.” Omar

    “Ain’t none of you ever been in the military? Don’t you know how to make a 30-inch quick tie? (Silence) Draft dodging peace freaks, huh?” Lester Freamon

    It’s very easy to pick favorite characters. In my case, I love Omar, the scarred gangster who will rob and kill — but not on Sunday; Lester Freamon, a smart detective with a passion for miniatures; and Prez, the former cop turned teacher.

  3. Plot: Every season, The Wire walks the fine line between being complexly and intricately plotted, and being unwatchably confusing. They have not erred yet. Things move slowly — a seemingly throwaway reference will resurface five episodes later. But all the information is there for the viewer. Nothing is hidden. The show is as epic in scope as a Shakespearean tragedy, made all the more tragic because these events are based on what’s really happening in our towns and cities today. It makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes that I derive so much enjoyment from watching the series, but don’t get off my couch potato carcass to do anything to rectify the problem.

So if you haven’t been watching The Wire, what’s stopping you? If you don’t have HBO, rent some of the earlier seasons. If you do have HBO, then this should be appointment television. And if you are watching, then post who your favorite characters are and why. I’d love to hear from you.

Political Writing: The Best Writers of the Republican Presidential Candidates

January 13, 2008

MicrophonesWow, it was as if the political higher powers heard my cry — “Why, oh why, isn’t there one single location where I can find transcripts to speeches on a single topic by all the candidates? Why must I suffer through websites that have no place to pull up speeches?” (Yes, I’m talking to you, Rudy Giuliani and to you, too, Mike Huckabee and Duncan Hunter). But a quick Google search on “transcript 2007 Republican candidates” pulled up the answer to my dreams — the blog for the Family Research Council. In its “Washington Briefing” section, the blog offers transcripts of remarks of each of the Republican presidential candidates (McCain, Thompson, Paul, Giuliani, Romney, Hunter, Huckabee) given at the Voter Values Summit held in October, 2007 in Washington, D.C. Huzzah, I say!

Why am I so stringent about the point that I want to read transcripts of speeches rather than watching them on YouTube or the candidates’ websites? Because I am looking at the writing, not the presentation. As with their Democratic opponents, these men are all experienced public speakers, able to make you believe they are talking to you and you alone. There has been many a public speaker who has been able to finesse a poorly written speech simply by the sheer force of his or her speaking skills. Therefore, I want the words.

In case those of you just joining in to the conversation did not hear my disclaimer from the post on the Democrats’ writing, let me repeat it here:

  • I am not — repeat, not — making any candidate endorsement by telling you who I believe the best writer to be. While there have been great Presidents in our history who were also great writers, I do not believe there is any hard and fast correlation between one’s writing ability (or one’s speechwriter’s ability) and one’s ability to lead the country.
  • My criteria for judging the “best” writing from a speech was whether it was able to evoke a true feeling of community or vision. Now, speeches in the primaries are obviously different from presidential speeches for State of the Union or other occasions. We are not going to get “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Primary speeches must set forth the problems of the country and pose solutions, tell the voter why the opposing party or administration is cognitively challenged or morally bereft, and why the candidate poses the best solution.

And now, the envelope please. . .

In my opinion, the award for the Republican candidates for President with the best writing chops (or the best speechwriters) goes to both Sen. John McCain and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In John McCain’s speech, he ended his speech with a memorable, evocative story from his time in VietNam, about a cellmate of his who had sewn red and white strips of fabric to his blue uniform shirt to fashion a rudimentary American flag, and how he’d been beaten when it was discovered:

As I said, we cleaned him up as well as we could. I went over to lie down to go to sleep, and
as I did, I happened to look over, and in the corner of the cell beneath a dim lightbulb with a piece
of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and his bamboo needle, with his eyes almost shut from the
beating that he had received of course was my friend Mike Christian sewing another American flag.
He wasn’t — (applause) — he obviously wasn’t doing that because it made him feel better, because
he knew how important it was.
Now today, we have another generation of Mike Christians who are over there, fighting for
someone else’s freedom, putting it on the line every single day. And I am most proud — I am most
proud to tell you that they are the best, they are the very best America has ever produced.

This story obviously serves a political purpose by reminding the listener of Senator McCain’s time in captivity. But it also serves as a beautiful metaphor for the American spirit and was an ideal way to end a speech on an inspirational — if somber — note.

The only other candidate in his speech whom I felt referenced the America that I associate with the most stirring political speeches of history was –frankly, much to my surprise– former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In his remarks, he stated:

I see a country that’s committed to building a more civil society based on a spirit of
mutual respect. I see a country that’s committed to restoring the social contract which
says for every right there’s a duty; for every benefit we have an obligation. And I see a
country that is truly committed to promoting a culture of personal responsibility.

and:

It’s been my experience that unless we work hard to reaffirm basic society standards,
civic decay starts to set in. Individual responsibility erodes. That’s why the next
president must work to restore this very basic idea; it’s a core idea of our government and
our society: For every right, there’s a duty. For every benefit, there’s an obligation that
goes along with it.

Finally, a little lighthearted comparisons:

No. of candidates who opened their speech with a lighthearted family anecdote: 2 (Thompson and Hunter)
No. of candidates who referenced the Founding Fathers in their remarks: 6 (all but Hunter)
No. of former Presidents quoted: 3 (Lincoln, Jefferson, and Reagan)

So, let’s have some lively debate. How do your favorite Republican candidates stack up as writers?

Addendum (1/19/08): I received a lovely email from Tracey deFrancesco of the organization Procon.org. She informed me that their website has a page dedicated to the 2008 Presidential election, including speech transcripts of ALL the candidates, Democrat, Republican, and Third Party. So hooray for Procon! And definitely check them out if you’re looking for information about all the Presidential candidates. I only wish I’d heard of them earlier. Sigh.

Political Writing: The Best Writers of the Democratic Presidential Candidates

January 9, 2008

SpeechI am getting very jazzed over the presidential primary elections. But it’s made me wonder — do any of these politicians have the writing chops to back up their views on the issues? So I decided to look at each of the remaining Democratic candidates’ websites (and before any people start hollering at me about fair play, just hold your horses — I’ll get to the Republicans later this week). As much as I would like to judge them using entirely objective measures, it simply isn’t possible from their websites. For the record, I looked the websites of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, and Dennis Kucinich.

Okay, I thought – I’ll look at a speech from each candidate as a representative sample of their work. Now, I’m not naive — I know perfectly well that a more appropriate title for this post is the Best Speechwriter Hired by a Democratic Presidential Candidate. But who, besides speechwriters, wants to read that? So be that as it may, I went trolling on the candidates’ websites for a speech, preferably one on a subject all of them had touched upon, like the economy. Much to my shock and dismay, I had to hunt for speeches. And in Dennis Kucinich’s case, while he has video of everything he’s ever said on his website, he blatantly discriminates against those who would rather read a transcript. So I Googled him instead to come up with a speech.

Was it possible to come up with a speech on a single topic that all the candidates had given? Heck, no. So instead, I viewed speeches on the economy (Clinton); restoring our democracy (Edwards); a personal message “You Can Help Me Win” (Gravel, whose website offered no speeches that I could find); reclaiming the American Dream (Obama); a new foreign and domestic vision (Richardson); and nuclear nonproliferation (Kucinich).

Now what kind of opinion-maker would I be if I didn’t back-pedal and offer some disclaimers? Before I give you my results, first the rationale:

  • I am not — repeat, not — making any candidate endorsement by telling you who I believe the best writer to be. While there have been great Presidents in our history who were also great writers, I do not believe there is any hard and fast correlation between one’s writing ability (or one’s speechwriter’s ability) and one’s ability to lead the country.
  • My criteria for judging the “best” writing from a speech was whether it was able to evoke a true feeling of community or vision. Now, speeches in the primaries are obviously different from presidential speeches for State of the Union or other occasions. We are not going to get “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Primary speeches must set forth the problems of the country and pose solutions, tell the voter why the opposing party or administration is cognitively challenged or morally bereft, and why the candidate poses the best solution.

And yet — within these speeches I did come across two candidates whom I felt gave some memorable images about America and its promise: Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich. In Obama’s Nov. 7, 2007 speech, “Reclaiming the American Dream,” he stated:

America is the sum of our dreams. And what binds us together, what makes us one American family, is that we stand up and fight for each other’s dreams, that we reaffirm that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – through our politics, our policies, and in our daily lives. It’s time to do that once more. It’s time to reclaim the American dream.

Similarly, Kucinich was able to evoke a sense of real global unity in his May, 2005 speech given at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference:

As we work to create new models for enhancing cooperation between participants of nation states, a new model is evolving in the world of diplomacy. Wherever and whenever nation states fail to reconcile their differences, a new citizen diplomacy arises: Citizen diplomats summon the power of their own hearts and confirm their own humanity through reaching out and discovering their brothers and sisters speak other languages, have other colors and other religions and share a common desire to live out their lives in peace and tranquility. The work of nongovernmental organizations is equally urgent in saving this planet.

Both these candidates for me, at least, best typified the type of writing in a speech that can inspire as well as educate. But that’s just one writer’s opinion.

What say you all?

Addendum (1/19/08): I received a lovely email from Tracey deFrancesco of the organization Procon.org. She informed me that their website has a page dedicated to the 2008 Presidential election, including speech transcripts of ALL the candidates, Democrat, Republican, and Third Party. So hooray for Procon! And definitely check them out if you’re looking for information about all the Presidential candidates. I only wish I’d heard of them earlier. Sigh.

Who’s Your Pol? USA Today’s “Candidate Match Game”

January 7, 2008

j0384726.jpgI just got turned on to a terrific merger of writing, graphics, and reader interaction. USA Today’s “Candidate Match Game” shows a bar graph with all the running candidates (recent drop-outs are grayed out, but still match-worthy). You answer a list of 11 questions on your own views ranging from the Iraq war to immigration to health care using a multiple-choice format, and as you enter your answers, candidates whose views match your own slide higher up the scale. By the time you’ve answered the final question, you have your perfect candidate.

There are a couple terrific features to this application. There is a slider scale to your right that allows you to give an issue more or less weight. Thus, if you answered the question, for example, about a candidate’s experience, but don’t feel it’s terribly important to the election, then you can weight the issue low on the slider scale, and your candidates will shift accordingly. Additionally, you can hover your mouse over a candidate’s bar graph to find out his or her view on any of the given questions (with the source — generally a speech — cited accordingly). You may be a little frightened with the results, finding that your views are not that far askew from Dennis Kucinich’s, say, or Ron Paul’s. But you will be more enlightened about what the candidates are saying, and how they differ from one another.

If you’re feeling brave, feel free to tell me which politician you matched closest with. . .

Best of the Best of 2007 Lists

January 2, 2008

ListsReally, I love the end of the year, because I cannot get enough of “Best of” lists. It’s as if my only reason for drudging through the first fifty weeks of the year is to catch up fanatically on the “Best of” lists to find out, in reality, that I saw none of the best movies, read none of the best books, played none of the best games. Notice I didn’t put television on the list, because I in fact, pretty much watch all of the best television. But, you know, everyone has to have a talent.

But it seems like it’s harder and harder to find these “Best of the Year” issues at the newsstand. A few years ago, I could buy five to ten issues easily and sate my thirst for these lists in one fell swoop while finishing up spiked eggnog and stale Christmas cookies. Now? You have to search. Really search. So I decided it was high time that someone, namely me, gave kudos to those publications that still give enough of an opinion to offer a best of the year retrospective. Note: I am picking only paper publications for this list, since part of the sensory fix of the lists for me is flipping the pages of the magazine to get to the next list. Websites, you’re out of luck on this one.

  1. Entertainment Weekly God bless these folks, they offer a whole issue devoted to nothing but “best of” lists from 2007 in movies, books, television, music and more. When this issue arrives at my household, I jump on it faster than Double Stuf Mint Oreos. For those keeping score, I saw .5/10 of the best movies (one movie out of two critics offering 10 choices each); bought 1/10 of the best music; watched 7/10 of the best tv shows; read 0/10 of the best books. Ouch.
  2. Time With fifty top ten lists to choose from, knock yourself out. My personal favorite is the top 10 oddball news stories, featuring the woman who finally had surgery to remove a pencil that had been stuck in her head for 55 years. Of the media lists, here’s my score: Movies – 0/10; Music: 1/10; Books: 1/10; TV: 4.5/10 (They divided the list up into new AND returning series. That’s just not fair).
  3. The New York Times Week in Review This is kind of a cheat, since it’s only one list. But such a doozy: the best buzzwords of the year. With items such as “gorno” (a movie genre that blends gore and porn), and “nose bidet” (a nasal irrigator to help allergy symptoms), I just had to include it in the Best of Best of list.
  4. Seattle Magazine Okay, this one focused exclusively on Seattle happenings over the last year, so it definitely has a “You have to be there” kind of vibe to it. Also, they lose points for not including a corresponding web version of many of the lists for online readers. But it was a terrific retrospective look to the year that was.

Incidentally, I’m not the only “Best of” list fanatic out there. A big thank you of a shout-out to Fimoculous.com, who compiled a list by category of all the year-in-review lists. It was like finding a virtual soulmate.

What are your own personal “Best of 2007” lists?