Want to Give Constructive Feedback? Celebrate the Virtue in the Vice

Wasting time on Facebook is for amateurs. Hemorrhaging your valuable workday is far more worthwhile over on Quora. Recently, someone asked a question about how to give positive feedback in a constructive way. This is (a highly modified version of) my answer.

It’s worth mentioning that sometimes an apparent performance issue is a function of a structural, staffing, or process problem, and that should be investigated before individual employees are taken to task. That said, once isolated issues have been identified—and this is something I’ve observed for damn near everyone: our weaknesses are often the flip side of our strengths. Barring, say, personality disorders or a truly bad attitude, most performance issues contain within them a truth about what that employee truly is, could be, or wants to be. 

Take the quote-unquote “creatives,” for instance. They’re deluged with a constant cacophony of ideas, all blathering inside their head at once—it makes it hard for them to focus. And when they do focus, they can mad-dog, tunneling and obsessing on one project to the exclusivity of anything else. Details that aren’t “priority one” sometimes fall by the wayside.

So as a manager, how do we frame feedback here—that they are failing at project management? No—project management isn’t their job. Creative output is their key contribution. Most creative people need additional tools or support to buffet their lesser efficiencies. If you are managing this person, first order of business would be to ensure the “organizer” skillset is covered by those who specialize in it. If that’s not possible, the flaw needs to be acknowledged as a by-product of the employee’s virtues, and then, together, from a place of cooperation, you will find it is much easier to try and find solutions.

Additionally, many performance issues can alert managers to opportunities for extreme growth and mentorship that may fall outside the employee’s expected job description. I knew a designer once who loved to talk about projects exhaustively before ever embarking. She would ask countless questions, and it was hard for her to launch. She was very verbal and witty, always quick to laugh, but was seen by upper management as needing lots of hand-holding. Eventually, I began to suspect she had possibly even more talent—or at least more disposition—as a writer than as a designer, and she flourished in that capacity. What was paralyzing her off the blocks was that she felt inadequately informed—inexpert—on the topic at hand. Her inquisitive nature also suggested serious strengths as a researcher, which is an undervalued skillset, particularly in smaller agencies with budget restrictions.

Sometimes it seems we’re trying to cast people against type. But there is something to seeing the employee holistically—honing in on those virtues you love that beget the vice you don’t—and asking yourself, how can I assist with that? And, importantly, how can that add value to our team? Once you’re in this more generous space—operating from a place of actual appreciation, rather than condemnation and frustration—you can discuss solutions supportively and cooperatively, and the employee will feel more appreciated than reproached, even if the feedback contains a wish for improvement. This is less about saying what the employee wants to hear—that she or he is appreciated—than it is about reframing it in your own head: weakness in one area is a likely byproduct of strength in others—or may indicate a potential talent that has yet to be mentored.

This mindset takes effort, but it benefits both parties. The employee feels appreciated and understood—therefore less likely to be defensive—and more amenable toward proposing and discussing solutions. And the manager has converted a moment of negativity and frustration into one of appreciation and positivity; strengthened trust and loyalty; and potentially found a new way to help grow a team member into someone more well-rounded and productive.

Strip it down, surface the story: how mobile has minimalized web design

I was recently asked to weigh the merits of simplicity vs. trendiness in the realm of web design. It’s a cinch to answer, of course, because at this precise point in time, they are one and the same: extreme simplicity (and elasticity) is precisely what’s trendy in interactive design—and that “trendiness” is a combined function of utility and versatility. Everywhere you look, you see similar templates: a responsive or adaptive (scaling) website which will work across all devices. Typically you’ll have your wide, cinematic area (which may be a carousel) with key branding or product messaging, followed by either a 3-prong sell of some sort, or a more concise or focused bit of copy. There may or may not be a bank of testimonials, a wall of client logos…but that is pretty much EVERY site created (that isn’t a movie,  store, news or portfolio-type site) in the last 2 years.

The reason for that is that mobile is now dictating what happens on the web. More people at this point are likely accessing your site from their mobile device than from their desktop computer, and although 8+ years ago the trend was to create a rich desktop website, and then do a stripped-down mobile version for butt coverage, now it’s the opposite: mobile drives the entire design.

The fact that users may be coming in on a smartphone means video can be a barrier (clicking on video launches a video player on many phones, which is  not optimal from a usability perspective). Flash, once a fun tool for storytelling and more immersive advertising experiences, is not supported on iPhones, so it’s all but dead nowadays.

The move away from diverse media expressions (because they’re not optimal for smartphones) has placed the focus less on the matrix of the design (the interface itself) and much more on the content (what’s really being said).  If you ask me, design, at this point, has become almost purely about decision-making—about saying the right thing at the right juncture, and the ornamentation or “artfulness” of design has taken a back seat.

Most design now is about accessibility and focus. It may just be large color fields with carefully chosen typography. Buttons are all but disappearing in favor of text (or varied text treatments). Many “best of” websites are distinctive only for the quality of photos in the marquee area of the website, and much of the favored work on Dribbble is dead-simple vector iconography (much of it actually clipart, or lightly modified clipart) overlaid on bright colors.

So go ahead, have your minimalism and eat it too—as there’s never been a better time to strip your site down, coat a wall with a nice bright color, and lay a well-crafted sentence or two atop it (in a thoughtfully chosen and well-kerned typeface, of course).

“I Don’t Even OWN a TV…” and other ways to sound old and obsolete

Here’s why saying you refuse to watch TV isn’t the badge of discernment it used to be

We all know someone who doesn’t watch TV. Whenever pop culture discussions kick up, they love to shrug—with just a bit of faux apology, but not enough to eclipse the obvious disdain—and say something like, “I don’t evenown  a TV,” (as if that even means anything anymore).

As long as television has been around, this assertion has always had the unpleasant whiff of elitism, a bit of self-aggrandizing: I don’t run with the pack. TV is for the unwashed commoners, the undiscerning.

Implicit is that we are dealing with someone whose tastes are more rarefied, who demands more from their art. A deep thinker, a non-conformist— someone who differentiates between good and bad entertainment and values himself highly enough not to waste time on the latter.

There was indeed a time when most TV really truly was awful (late 70s, I’m looking at you—shoutout to Jack Tripper, biting the palm of his hand as Mr. Rourke shakes his head in resignation). That said, there was always The Twilight Zone. Or the incandescent Cosmos. Still, rooted in yesterdecade, the outright dismissal of television content was far more reasonable and defensible (even if those who took pains to denounce TV always did come off as pompous fun-haters) than it is today.

But nowadays to be anti-television just on general principle (while embracing all other media streams and technologies) just seems anachronistic and senseless, for a variety of reasons. I’ll break some of those down so that you can handily reference this essay should your life be burdened by anyone who still goes around trumpeting this claim like the throwback badge of honor it really isn’t.

Most people do, in fact, watch TV—they just don’t realize it

The word “television” as it pertains to programming, is no longer tethered to the device of its inception. Televised content—which is essential serialized content not produced by a film production company—but rather by television studios or even by “new studio” players like Netflix and Amazon—isn’t exclusively consumed on televisions. So if you are, in fact, watching serialized shows like “Breaking Bad” on your computer, you are watching television. Ditto for playing Nickolodeon shows on your iPad to entertain your toddler, or streaming CNN on your phone. Most people who profess to eschew TV don’t seem to apprehend that—whether they’re watching Game of Thrones, BBC comedy, or effete documentaries produced by progressive think-tanks under joint sponsorship by ThinkChange—are, in fact, consuming television programming at some point during their week—even if it’s not “on TV.”  Yes, it still counts. As my friend Lisa says, “It doesn’t become any less of a TV show because the resolution is shitty.”

 It’s no longer a mark of discernment to denounce television content as inferior to other media

There used to be some small advantage to be gained by decrying a medium that was anywhere from 80% to 100% brain-damaged. By denouncing the stupid, you seemed smarter somehow–in no way complicit with the unforgivable “dumbing down of America.” You were a little above it all–you’re the one out doing something “real” with your life while the rest of the country was anesthetized by the blue glow. You were a deep thinker. Preferred books to television. A loner, Dotty. A rebel!

If books are your bag, watching television these days makes more sense as an art form than movies

Over the last five years, not only did television suddenly stop sucking (well, a lot of it still sucks. Not watching that Kardashian show actually does still probably make you a better person). But serialized content is actually enjoying a gilded age, and in fact, in some ways compares more closely than movies to the longer, richer story arc of a novel. With episodes acting as chapters, allowing for deeper dives into character, plot and subplot can bloom more gradually, and our familiarity with the characters grows more complex and layered.

With the arrival of new players in the production space, great writers whose screenplays have been idling too long on the wrong desks are getting regular exercise crafting brilliant episodic content, and their subsequent success begets ever larger production budgets—ultimately rivaling, or surpassing—the quality of many large-scale movie releases. Also importantly, this ascendancy of great serialized content coincides with the well-documented decline–due to reasons of financial viability—of movies which are not fast-food blockbusters.

A few babies you’re throwing out with the bathwater

There are too many fantastic shows to list, but the storytelling in the original Wallander, BBC’s SherlockThe Wire, House of Cards and Breaking Bad is complex and dimensional. The subtlety and incomparably nuanced acting and writing in the French The Returned is a revelation—it’s the most thoughtful riff on the seemingly inexhaustible zombie theme. Black Mirror, a BBC scifi show which probes the way technology can surface or compromise our most intimately human facets explores humanity in that penetrating, disturbing way the brilliant science fiction stories of the 70s used to do (skip the first episode of Season 1, however). 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation give voice to some of the most triumphantly gifted female writers we’ve yet seen in this country.

Storytelling is storytelling, and old distinctions are irrelevant

No one needs to watch television. But if a person who otherwise partakes of digital media (like movies) denounces–in this day and age–the entire medium of television content, they’re revealing their utter ignorance of the genre as it exists today. To say, “I will enjoy movies (even the invariably bad ones) but never television shows (even the inevitable good ones)”—in other words, saying, “I’m open to storytelling from medium A, but not medium B”—would suggests senseless prejudice just off the blocks. But when you consider that both media are essentially the same anymore—conceived and realized exactly the same way, with the same actors (many of the greats, like Kevin Spacey—are seizing the opportunity for a longer run in the spotlight), the same craftspeople, and materials, these specious distinctions fray a little.

To say you “won’t watch TV” during its triumphant renaissance makes you sound a touch batty and out of step with modernity (Oh look! There’s Grampa, cursing at the Roomba again!) because anyone who hasn’t observed the significant evolution of quality storytelling in television as something on par with movies and yes, even literature, suggests either stubborn resistance or out-and-out oblivion.

The irony of the TV-prouds’ stance is that in an effort to seem more intelligent, they just end up sounding obsolete. There’s no need to pretend we’re pure; statistics suggest you’ve probably already clicked your way through your share of “cat beard” photos just getting to this page—never mind the dark alleys we’ve all clicked through in Facebook.

The way I see it, if your time and sensibilites aren’t too sacred for cat photos, online petitions, and inspirational quotes written in Papyrus, maybe a little bit of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” isn’t all that beneath you, after all.

So Long, Robin

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Robin Williams

This image is an original work of art by Necia Dallas. Please do not use without permission.

Whenever we lose a transcendent, world-class artist, we collectively mourn for the piece of ourselves that they marked—that we willed them to influence. And for those of us who not only partook of the popular consciousness of the 70s, but were actively weaned on it (hey, our parents were busy working and partying—it’s cool, man!) today’s death of Robin Williams—an apparent suicide— feels less like a loss than an amputation. We were the kids who—at ages so tender they’d mean jail time for parents nowadays—let ourselves quietly in with our house keys and camped at the TV with our Swanson Salisbury Steak dinners. We decompressed and did homework from the beginning of The Brady Bunch til the end credits of Mork and Mindy, and every single one of us, at one time or another (or a hundred), turned to our siblings, made scissor hands and said “Nanu Nanu!” until our parents left the room and started drinking in earnest. Robin Williams was our generation’s nanny. He was Mrs. Doubtfire even before he fucking knew it. He was family.

Of course we never know our celebrity heroes, but the best of them expose a humanity so palpable that it binds us to them, or at least to our notion of them. That’s the urgent—maybe emergent?—gift of their expression, but it belies the exhaustion incumbent with such constant perception. Robin Williams had a whole population in his head. It was like every single person he ever interacted with remained somehow, like a song fragment, a flechette; there seemed to be something about everyone that he wanted to memorize and emulate. If anyone contained multitudes, Robin Williams surely did, and maybe that makes a person tired after a while.

Is it any surprise a comic genius is terrifically alone in his head? Hell, he shot onto the scene in a burst of prescient honesty: as a literal alien. Does the fact of his suicide make our pleasure in his art a guilty one? No. It shouldn’t, because that pleasure was sincere, and it likely kept him going as long as he did. While it’s been said that making art exacts a terrible toll on artists, I’d argue that the toll is higher if they deny the impulse.

If you’ve struggled with depression you know that it is not an emotion. It’s not “sadness.” It’s worse: it’s a desolate mental prison. It’s part vise, and part paralytic, so you can actually hear your own pep talks in your head (and even your own contempt for your immobility) but you can’t do anything about it. In other words, it’s pretty much the opposite of what you see in a Robin Williams stage show–the kind where he leaps around frenetically—triumphantly— and pulls deep draughts from one of 12 water bottles with great frequency—and sweats at least enough to offset that—in a frenzy of leaps and huge gestures, shouts and facial expressions so exaggerated they were visible even decades before the back rows had big screens to look at. It probably took about 25 barrels of high-octane nervous energy (and, later in his life, some illicit substances) to propel these marathon sessions of ecstasy and hilarity. It is not surprising to me at all that when he finally sat still again, the unfunny pieces of the world that had blissfully retreated from the nuclear blast of those virtuosic performances—the unfunny people; the unfunny troubles, the pain that always comes to collect, and that can’t be avoided by anyone no matter how beloved or famous—all the multitudes were there waiting for him…not just the euphoric ones.

He was one of a kind, and by that, I don’t just mean that he was singular (and he was surely that). But he was that particular type of performer who embraces people, who somehow with every portrait he draws, includes something of himself, and something of us, too. From the same era, Steve Martin is another such performer, whereas Dennis Miller is pointedly not.  With Miller, you loved him because (or rather, if) you “made the cut”: you had the college, the vocabulary, the navel-gazing philosophy classes under your belt. But whatever sharp edges Robin Williams drew were mitigated by his laugh lines—if ever a face was shaped by humor it was his—and by the certain and seemingly incontrovertible fact of his inherent kindness.

I have a friend who, years ago, saw Williams out jogging in The Presidio in San Francisco. She ran past him and recognized him only two seconds afterward. Flustered, she yelled back, “Hey! I love you!” He waved, and without looking back, yelled “I love you, too!”

Is there anyone who believes otherwise?

Stop apologizing and fix it: a shake-up call to the chronically late

“Sorry I’m late,” Ms. Egami said to the class. She dropped her papers, which scattered in that special way papers do when one is running late.” 
― Adam RexCold Cereal

“The longest 60 seconds in the world occur when someone says, “I’ll be there in a minute.”

― Jarod KintzIf you bring the booze and food, I’ll bring the thirst and hunger

Photo credit: Geeks on the Inside

I’ve been meaning for a while to write about my recent efforts to interrupt a lifelong pattern of arriving at engagements exactly fifteen minutes behind schedule, and when a friend posted this article on Facebook I was reminded. (It’s a useful read; check it out).

I’ve lived my whole life fifteen minutes behind. Whether for interviews, hair appointments, lunch dates, happy hours, or concerts. Even when it really matters—like when my friends were getting married!—or when it directly impacted my immediate welfare (like retrieving a package or a huge check) or, even more significantly, the welfare of my kids, I have either eked in just barely under the wire—not definitively late, but just barely on the leeward side of late—or a few minutes past. I came to perfect the grotesque art of the “cringe-pology.”

Once, having allotted insufficient time, I raced to my own going-away party, opting to take my motorcycle to better beat the laws of physics. Desperate as I was to not be late, I mapped the location on my iPhone while actually still driving my motorcycle (elsewhere I have said that the actions of the very desperate and the very stupid are hard to differentiate). I might have succeeded if not for the cable car tracks my front tire found before I did. A separated shoulder and $1,200 repair bill later, I couldn’t help but wonder darkly whether it was a subconscious urge for a truly valid excuse for my tardiness.

On another occasion I found myself a half-hour ahead of the game for a lunch date with a guy I liked. Somehow it made sense to me to spend that half hour assembling a grandiose surprise lunch: broiled brussels sprouts with bacon, panini, a salad. Having realized my lunch was incomplete, I stopped for a bottle of wine and Pellegrino. I was 20 minutes late, and he was gone.

The worst, without a doubt, was my son’s cello concert. We arrived just as the conductor had approached the microphone and I watched my son, searing with embarrassment, wedge himself into the already-situated orchestra row, causing a ripple of disruption as other students repositioned themselves, dragging folding chairs loudly across the floor, cellos colliding in discord. Somewhere near the back, some teacher brought forth a chair and students put down their bows and instruments to help lift it along until it reached his row. I watched miserably as he made panicked arrangements with the kid next to him to share his music stand.

I’ve struggled with this forever—and it has truly been a struggle, because my every late arrival begins with an absolute desire to be on time. Every time that, despite my best efforts, I saw circumstances both within and beyond my control tilt at one another like dominos to make me, once again and always, fifteen minutes late, I’d know that that “tardiness hangover”—a toxic mix of shame, self-flagellation, and guilt—would color the rest of my day—and in some cases, as with the memory of my son’s concert, I will probably never truly forgive or forget.

Cello concert aside, I think that in most cases, my tardiness caused me infinitely more anguish than the people who waited me out, though there were certainly exceptions. Early this spring, I had a meeting which I believed to be a brainstorm between my client, her developer, and myself. I was running, as is customary, 15 minutes behind. At the ten-minute mark she called me up on speakerphone from the conference room and said, “Necia, it’s ten after12 and you’re not here. I need you to be on time to these meetings. I have six people in the room and we cannot begin without you.” I started to stammer that I’d thought it was only two people, then stopped. Why on earth should that matter?

She hadn’t been rude at all—merely direct—but I felt like I’d been hit with a horseshoe. But somehow even in my total—even bodily—shock at this reprimand, there was something else: gratitude, because she’d given me honesty—and with it, an opportunity to change.

Katie called me on this age-old and maddening habit—one which I called myself on (ineffectually) all the time. But because I held her in such high esteem, and saw I had made her upset, she’d brought home that it was not just an annoying behavior but an actually unacceptable one: not excusable as a “creative” type or because I am—genuinely and pretty objectively—an overburdened single working mother, or because I “made up for it” with great work or going double-time when I was in the room.

I ended up thanking her after the meeting for the roundhouse, and soon afterward, I did some research on the evasive and ADD-ish neuroses beneath this behavior. Many “experts” explain underlying issues which can range from passive-aggression to depression to deep anxieties to compulsive perfectionism. As with horoscopes, I saw shades of myself in all of it; it was just a question of degree.

Where I lighted down with my own cocktail of “underlying causes” is less important here (because if you have this problem, your reasons—or you know what? Let’s call them what they are: excuses—will not be the same) than the fact that I was absolutely tired of it. Tired of the stress it caused, the breathless adrenaline rush of racing to the gate, risking traffic tickets, closing the car door on my dress, forgetting important files, chargers, thumb drives, paperwork and, on occasion, even my purse, because poor planning or distractions had left me harried and time-strapped. People in a hurry tend to compound their errors, from having or causing accidents to agitated performance due to a surplus of “flight/fight” chemicals from their race against the clock.

But what concerned me the most was that people would believe I thought their time didn’t matter when typically the opposite was true. It’s rare that my behavior runs contrary to my beliefs, and when it does, it’s time for a recalibration. Whatever evasive tendencies predisposed me to this behavior were much less important to me than the fact that I wanted to curb it, post-haste.

The good news is that once I committed to that, the results were almost immediate.

The first reckoning was realizing that promptness was entirely within my power. I’m a disciplined person. Somehow, I am never late for certain things: workouts, flights, or work deadlines. If I could be consistently—even relentlessly—on time for anything—even ONE thing, I could be on time for everything. Though timeliness isn’t, for me, innate, it isn’t some specialized skill, so it seemed likely I could stop the pattern without any additional tools, and under my own steam. No self-help books, no counseling. I was just, to coin my mom’s favored phrase, “fed up.”

In my case, my tendency to be late is exacerbated by overbooking myself with multiple deadlines or promises, along with childcare and errands and too many appointments or deliverables. Not packing my schedule too tightly, and not planning anything at a time when a project was coming due, were integral in turning things around.

Next was mindfulness of my distractive nature…the fact that when I find myself early, I try and accomplish MORE shit (Sweet, I’m early! I’ll throw a load of laundry into the washer! I’ll clean!). When it’s a presentation I’m headed to, I’ll embellish my (already finished!) presentation: create another slide, do a cooler cover. I want to really knock it out of the park, and in doing so, I’ll slam shut the marvelous window of advantage I created by being so proactive prior to my time-sabotage. This part is harder and it is ongoing: I must identify the behavior as it happens. With time it gets easier—it’s now a totally recognizable sensation when I’m compelled to switch focus under stress. I check myself now: I literally say—even aloud: Now is not the time for that.

As a result (and I do in fact keep a tally), within a month I had gone from probably one out of five appointments arrived at on time, to 5 out of 6. Since then, I have slipped a bit since my top rate in September, though the attrition is with close friends who I know will forgive me (and part of that forgiveness rests on knowing that I am trying assiduously to modify the behavior) and not with clients.

My record is not perfect and occasionally, life intervenes. Recently, I spent a half hour digging through the house for my purse, which as it happened was perfectly covered by my son’s discarded backpack (something something about apples and trees here). In that case, the risks of being late (my friend being annoyed) outweighed the risks of being on time but pathetic (she’d have had to pay for my parking and our breakfast, and I could have been in big trouble if a cop pulled me over). Other times, crazy traffic delays and other events just sabotage us. But in most cases, if you’re chronically tardy, “things” are typically not the culprit, and using them as excuses is an obstacle to correcting a problematic behavior.

If you are a “15-minute” person (or even farther afield from your committed meeting times) I encourage you to really see it for what it is: a problem. An actual impediment to your personal relationships. Because I promise you, even if everyone is too circumspect to just say, “Hey. You being late really sucks for all of us”…they are thinking it. If friends or coworkers joke about how they’ll send you the appointment at an earlier time, or say, “When you say 7:00, do you mean in (Your NameHere) time, or Pacific Standard?” they are trying to find a gentle way to say “You’re predictably late, and it’s inconsiderate and rude.”

If you recognize yourself here, consider that you may be holding yourself back in all kinds of ways over something you can muscle your way through—but only if you believe it’s important. No matter how polite they are, your friends and colleagues probably think it is. And as a person haunted by a certain cello concert, I tend to agree.

JCPenney Now Officially Hipper Than Thou

Most people who grow up gay are pretty accustomed to bullying, so it’s really no surprise that the joy-hating termigants at One Million Moms have been blowing a gasket and threatening JCPenney with boycotts ever since the company hired openly gay and very damn public Ellen DeGeneres as their spokesperson. This kind of scrutiny isn’t particularly comfortable for retailers, particularly when your demographic skews older (JCP’s sales are stronger from 25-year-olds onward, and from that point hit steady stride, only dipping again for shoppers over age 64) and undoubtedly encompasses a vast and vocal populace who isn’t necessarily progressive on this issue.

So it was with genuine admiration that I read today on Gawker about JCPenney’s new Father’s Day campaign, which features an openly gay couple horsing around with their ecstatic kids. It’s brazen. It’s beautiful. It’s got nothing to do with stock imagery and everything to do with joy:


About the campaign, Gawker writes:

“In what appears to be a direct response to the failed boycott campaign of anti-gay group One Million Moms, JCPenney yesterday unveiled a new Father’s Day ad featuring a same-sex couple playing with their children.”

Gawker continues:

“According to the company, the two men who appear in the ad are “real-life dads Todd Koch and Cooper Smith,” and the jubilant children are their kids, Claire and Mason.”

JCPenney goes a step further: just to ensure that the interpretation of the photo is totally unequivocal, the accompanying copy reads:

“First Pals: What makes Dad so cool? He’s the swim coach, tent maker, best friend, bike fixer and hug giver – all rolled into one. Or two.”

By adding in this copy, they’re insisting that viewers not mistake what they are seeing:  family scene. Two dads. No copouts for the company, no rationalizations for the viewer.

Kudos to JCPenney for coming back even more resolved after would-be boycotters tried to hate on their gay-friendly advertising. It’s totally rational to feel deep-soul happiness at this bold stance, and to not be cynical about it.

To the cynics arguing that it’s a marketing ploy, I say:

1) Who cares if it is? If so, it’s exactly the type of marketing ploy we need more of: one that shows non-sexualized images of not just a “gay family,” (meaning a bunch of models making twee on a living room sofa) but an actualgay family. So not only is JCPenney embracing reality by not using models in some lofty “lifestyle” shoot to sell their merchandise–already a step in the “unusually honest” direction–but by showing a gay couple–to promote a Father’s Day event, no less–they’re taking a firm stance on a wildly divisive issue, and one which undeniably affects their demographic.

Oh yeah, and 2) It’s a marketing ploy that might well hurt them, so maybe–just maybe–they’re actually doing it for the right reasons?Whether this is collective conscience or marketing manipulation scarcely matters, because what is undeniable is that JCPenney could garner attention or controversy in any number of ways without compromising fanship among their god-and-country demographic. They did nothaveto hire Ellen DeGeneres, a very out and very public lesbian, as their spokesperson, and they could have easily backed down after One Million Moms–who must have at least One Million Nannies in order to find time to petition against a concept that in all likelihood has actually no bearing in their lives at all–rushed in through the Crazy Gate threatening boycott.JCPenney could have done a lot of things. They could have called an emergency press conference and thrown out lots of rhetoric about how hiring a spokesperson is apolitical. They could have whisked DeGeneres away with a contract buyout and a mushmouthed apology.

But they didn’t. 

They came back wearing the “f*ck you” on their collective t-shirts. Make that hoodies. And without the slightest apology. We’re living in a time when corporations have camped out at “morally ambiguous” and seen even greener pastures at “out-and-out evil.” J.P Morgan. Monsanto, for godsakes. Our government has seen fit (with one shameful, ill-advised piece of legislation) to give corporations the same rights as individuals, but we all know if they were really people they’d be the guy approaching your car with a cast asking for help moving a piece of furniture…and knowing what we know about these types of scenarios we’d lock our car doors and get the hell out of there.

So when I see corporations taking a stand (repeatedly!) for kindness and acceptance, even knowing the resultant backlash could be quite adverse for their bottom line, I want to celebrate it in any way possible. And in fact I would like to support them, too, with my shopping dollars…

But that’s where the problem comes in. See, I have checked out JCPenney’s wares and for women’s clothing, I don’t find much to love. On my last visit–admittedly several years back–the high-waisted, faux-wrap dresses had a texture and material I can only describe as reminiscent of my old high school basketball uniforms. I’m not sure what’s at play here, as they’ve followed Target’s wildly successful model of hiring short-term big(ger) name design talent for showcase runs, but they haven’t seemed to land the best talent, or the right talent…or if they have, either these designers are creatively hamstrung by committees, or by the constraints of the demographic…because whatever innovation and style is being imported, it’s not making it as far as the retail floor.

And yet now they’ve now established themselves–with or without having arrived at the Target water line of quality or aesthetic style–as being the hippest game in town, because hipness today, as my friend Fran Culp correctly points out, means “no tolerance for literal or figurative gay-bashing (yes, that means you OMM).” JCPenney is taking a risk and they’re humanizing a population that’s maligned, misunderstood, and quite literally bullied to death. The reasons for taking that risk scarcely matter, as it’s a bandwagon that frankly can never be too crowded, and in the end, Fran is right: they may actually understand “hip” better than any of us, after all.


Remembering “Where the Wild Things Are”

A more perfect book has never been created.

As a kid I read it…or really just sat with it…over and over, for years, speculating at its promise and menace, its delicious sense of possibility and its sublime terror. As a parent, I lost myself in it again, watching its darkness and light play out over my boys’ expressions as they huddled in wearing pajamas with feet. When Dave Eggers, whom I knew briefly in San Francisco (a friendship which produced what remains one of the funniest email exchanges to ever grace my inbox) set out to expand this book into a movie, I couldn’t–despite my belief in Eggers as a brilliant writer, a soulful human, and a consummate artist in his own right–even contemplate seeing the movie. I realize this has much to do with my own deeply personal relationship with the book as with any philosophical or scholarly objections I could gather together. To me, “Where the Wild Things Are” was childhood, concentrated. This is no ordinary children’s book, and it doesn’t pander with primary colors or puppets or winsome eyes, or even truly happy endings. It’s full of gifts but just as full of misgivings; every gain contains a loss, and setting out for new shores means abandoning old ones:


He sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are

It’s dark as he sails, and a year is forever to a child–to a person who defines herself in increments of such (“I’m seven and a half.”) The drawing are rich–desaturated jewel tones. They’re nocturnal…they’re bleak. Sendak, with his deceptively simple lines, could capture more dread in one drawing than Roald Dahl (whose books I find incredibly savage in places, and who operated from, it is said, a rather violent and misanthropic perspective) could conjure in all his books. This economy of gesture and line is otherworldly, as if Sendak’s few, precise words and his terrifying but glistening images were shot directly to him in a brown paper bundle along a devoted Zipline straight from God. There has never been another writer, ever, who could say so much, so sparely.

My parents divorced when I was six or seven. In the tumult that followed, I was shipped off for half-summers and odd weekends from my small college town in western Washington to a yet smaller rural town–small and rural enough, anyway, that it viewed my own small town as “The City.” During those times away from the safety and regiment of Things As They Had Always been, the environment was alternately magical and hostile…even dangerous. On the one hand, there were pastures and crawfishes in the creeks, huge skunkweeds, a gravel pit to explore, a dilapidated barn, horses. On the other, there was a visceral side–the butcher slitting the hog’s throat, a carrion wagon that made the rounds every week or so with cows’ legs jutting stiffly upright from its cargo hold. There was an icy pond in the forest that you wanted to skate across in your boots–and you did!–hearing the crack and groan of the ice, knowing no one would find you for days if it gave way. And of course, there was resentment, and a family where I was made to feel often guilty, frequently unwelcome, and always different.

Max in his wolf suit was all of us: storm-tossed kids finding our way in a luminous and treacherous environment where aloneness was our sanctuary, but also laced with the dread that we’d been forgotten…maybe even actually abandoned.

The manic-eyed creatures Max encounters love him…or do they? They say they do…but then, children are always told falsities. From Santa to the Easter Bunny to “Everything’s fine!” to “Things will be better this way; you’ll see,” we know so early that affirmations asserted by anyone showing that many teeth are patently suspect. Max is coronated, he’s defiant, he’s borne aloft, king of the foreboding forest…but, well. He did go to bed without dinner, and his stomach is rumbling.

For so many kids of my generation, shuttled between households, the world was–in an almost literal sense–split, with a heavy seam down the middle separating two radically different environments. Each coming and going was an expedition, but it was also a deportation. For the people who responded, almost at the cellular level, to this story, it was because we saw ourselves reflected, as if in a car window: in transit, never settled, never reconciled, and really we did not, ever, reign over our rumpus…but we imagined it constantly, and fiercely. We imagined it differently.

How did Sendak understand this much? How did he remember this much? And finally, how did he tap into the quick of it all…the abstract pathologies, the hysterias, and the defiant tenacity of wayward children? There has never been a book like it–so scary, so ecstatic, and so unbelievably restrained. A masterpiece in all that it withheld, it’s proof that sometimes the most generous thing an artist can do is to not answer his own questions…but to just build for you an intriguing and luminous moonlit theme park, and leave the gate unlocked.