Monday, December 31, 2012

Banished Words

Year-end lists of "banished words"—yes, they're fun to snark at, but they should be used for entertainment purposes only! Paul and I explain why in a new Moxy Blog post, "The Futility of 'Forbidden Words.'"

Now. All that said, here are some words and phrases that I would like to banish (a purely subjective list!):
  • Off the reservation—This term is used to mean "off brand," or just "inappropriate" in corporate America. I hate it and am pretty sure it's in poor taste if not outright offensive. 
  • Edgy—Used only by people who wouldn't know "edgy" if it shivved them in dive-bar bathroom.
  • Manscaping—Just blech. 
  • Fiscal cliff—The cliff metaphor is not apt. Call it what it is: a clusterf&%#.
  • Huntie—If you don't watch Ru Paul's Drag Race and don't know anyone who does, you might not have been exposed to this term; it's sort of a disdainful way to say "Honey." Like a lot of drag argot, it was funny the first thousand times and then became awfully tiresome.
  • Awesome—This is a personal challenge: Charles, stop saying "awesome" so much. Use your words! You are a 4[redacted]-year-old marketing professional with a massive vocabulary, not a teenage skateboarding prodigy. 
  • It is what it is—Talk about an empty sentiment (in the category of YOLO and similar painfully obvious platitudes). If you don't have anything useful to add to a conversation, you can always just nod politely and make sympathetic noises. 
  • Hipster—The definition has gotten too broad. I challenge speakers to use appropriate subcategories, like "skinny-jean lumberjack guy," "neck-tattoo pixie girl," and "bicycle militant."

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Agony of 'Les Misérables'

As for the new film version of Les Misérables, I wouldn't trust a reviewer unless he loved the musical (in all its sappy excess) as much as I do. So here's what I thought:

If you love the musical, you're going to at least like the movie. (You can stop reading my review now if you don't want any further spoilers.) The music and the story have been successfully transported to film. The major themes—redemption, forgiveness, and all that—are handled in an appropriately melodramatic and heavy-handed way. (This is a musical we're talking about.)

The scenes I liked best were ensemble scenes: "Lovely Ladies," "At the End of the Day," and "One Day More" stand out in my memory the day after viewing—these scenes seemed to best capture the energy and emotion of the good stage productions I've seen, while taking advantage of the medium of film and adding visual interest and depth. I also very much enjoyed seeing Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers: they brought the comic relief (much needed in this very earnest show), and their scenes were just dark enough.

Poor Anne Hathaway's presence in the film has been incredibly polarizing. I sort of understand the animosity: she's just so ... perfect and lovely, and maybe she seems a little smug. Often, she's too obviously acting when I see her on screen. However, I want to now give Hathaway her due. She was pitch-perfect as Fantine, both as an actor and as a singer. Melodrama suits her, and she has a lovely voice. The other female leads also did a fine job. Samantha Barks as Éponine turned in a Tony-worthy performance if not an Oscar-worthy one—clearly a professional. Why weren't more casting choices made like this one?

That is to say, the film's primary problem was in the area of casting—specifically the male leads. Much has already been written about Russell Crowe's singing inability, so there's that. (His singing voice reminds me of a Muppet doing a musical impersonation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.) But can we talk about the Hugh Jackman problem? He's so likeable and well liked that I'm almost afraid to say this, but ... he was not good in this movie. His singing voice was reedy and too weak to carry the role of Jean Valjean. It's almost like he was forced into the wrong key.

And Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Oy vey. Why?! He seems like a nice boy. But for one thing, his hairstyle (the same onscreen as off) annoys and confuses me. For another, his singing voice is not up to Les Mis. Just about every other student revolutionary in the film was a better singer. Why wasn't, say, Aaron Tveit, who played Enjolras, cast in the more important role? Tveit can sing!

Another missed opportunity was in the area of scale. I've named some ensemble scenes that took advantage of the medium of film, but not all of them did. A lot of the scenes—particularly the battle scenes on the streets of Paris—were far too sound-stage-y, and the lengthy closeups on singing actors got claustrophobic. Occasionally, I had too look away from the screen because I just couldn't look up Jackman's nose for one more second. (Keep in mind, I saw the film in XD.) I thought the film's beginning sequences—for instance, the prison scenes and the scenes of Valjean wandering the countryside after his parole—promised some filmic grandeur that later scenes failed to deliver.

I'm looking forward to seeing this movie again, on the small screen—to which it might be better suited. Oh yes, I will be buying the DVD. But I'll keep listening to my Broadway cast recording.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Classic Artichoke Dip for Your Next Party

You know how some people muck up their artichoke dip with spinach and stuff? No, that doesn't happen chez Purdy. Here's what you need to do:

  • 1 can of artichoke hearts (14 ounces)
  • 1 jar of marinated artichoke hearts (6 ounces)
  • 3 chopped cloves of garlic
  • 2 or three tablespoons of canned green peppers
  • 1/2 cup of mayo*
  • 1/2 cup of sour cream*
  • 8 ounces of cream cheese (the block kind, at room temperature)*
*Listen, it's your life, but this is a party. Don't ruin everything with nonfat this or low-fat that.
  • 1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
  • fresh ground pepper (a few good twists)
  • a sprinkle of garlic salt
Drain the artichoke bits. Now get out your food processor and chop up all the vegetables (we're using the term loosely here, I know) until it's pretty much a puree. Then add everything else and mix it up. Put everything in a casserole dish and cook it uncovered for about 25 minutes (maybe a bit less, maybe a bit more) at 350 degrees ... the top should be light brown and bubbly.

I hope you really like your friends; otherwise, you won't want to share.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Top 10 Ways to Write a Top 10 List

Whether you’re blogging for fun or profit (or mere fame), you likely know about the power of listicles to drive traffic and engagement. Listicles, listicles, listicles—at Moxy, we believe in them (and write them frequently), but we also sometimes laugh at their ubiquity. So with that, here are our top ten tips for writing your next “top ten.”

(Read the rest of "The Top 10 Ways to Write a Top 10 List" on the Moxy blog.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The 5 Worst Ways of Giving Creative Feedback

Creative work environments run on feedback. Every day, leaders and team members alike are called on to evaluate and critique others’ work and ideas. But ask any type of artist- or writer-for-hire, and he or she will tell you that a lot of us aren’t very good at this important part of collaborating on creative work.

(Read the rest of "The 5 Worst Ways of Giving Creative Feedback" on the Moxy Blog.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shelter from the Brainstorm

In most creative environments, brainstorms just don’t work. That is, they usually don’t work as they’re intended to. But even if a team of creatives does manage to follow the “rules” of a brainstorm, this way of working often ends up quashing ingenuity and prohibiting productive collaboration. There are better ways to inspire creativity.

(Read the rest of "Shelter from the Brainstorm" on the Moxy Blog.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Free Eliza Doolittle!

I had the pleasure of seeing the SF Playhouse production of My Fair Lady last night with friends. It's always fun to see live theater, and I do like the SF Playhouse—it's such a plucky little theater company. If the terms "live theater" and "plucky little theater company" sound good to you, then I think you'd enjoy this production. The music in My Fair Lady is, of course, wonderful—and it's very well done in this show. But the production lacks some polish. The costumes, especially, had a "kids, search your closets" sort of feel. Henry Higgins's black shoes were very distracting: his trouser cuffs kept exposing their giant bat-shaped buckles. Were these shoes a souvenir of the actor's gothy youth, we wondered? 

That's a minor quibble, to be sure. But what's interesting is that these shoes sort of pointed to, I think, a missed opportunity with this show—a modernization or a "look through the lens of our times" that this production weakly pointed to at times. But having one of the Cockneys breakdance for just a moment didn't take this idea far enough. 

I've seen the film version of My Fair Lady a couple of times. It's easy to get distracted by the camp of it all—and the songs, which are so captivating. But the Pygmalion story, as expressed through this musical, really speaks to our country's current conversation about poverty and class, I think. There's a chance I'm still reeling from some of the attack speeches at the Republican National Convention, but My Fair Lady (this production included) almost seems sort of Ayn Rand-ian at times. That's a low insult, so let me explain: For one thing, the show seems to look at poverty as a chosen state. Professor Higgins's viewpoint is something like this: "If the unwashed lower classes would just seek out education, their problems would be solved! But they're obviously happy in their muck." And the poor wretches, as portrayed in the show, support this notion. Their poverty looks like rather a lark. Drink, drink, drink, get some change thrown at you, and then dance a happy jig. It's adorable.

When Eliza presents herself to be Professor Higgins's prisoner and guinea pig, we're led to view it as an up-by-her-bootstraps act of will. "Look—she's improving herself. Anyone can do it." But what if this moment were staged more clearly as an act of desperation, which is what it looks like to me?

There's a lot to explore in this vein, I think. And it could be clearer that Eliza's pride and self-respect are something she holds on to in spite of Higgins's experimentation, not something she gains through it.

The biggest problem with My Fair Lady is the ending, which I guess one can't do much about. I mean, obviously, Eliza Doolittle is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. How else can we explain her attraction to the the abusive, tyrannical Higgins? In George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Eliza doesn't return to the professor at the end, as she does in the musical—in Pygmalion, she goes off to marry Freddy, who's kind of a nonentity in My Fair Lady. We get that Freddy is sort of a sap, but he loves Eliza madly (as she is), and he's nice to her. Something Henry Higgins never is. Compare the worshipful "On the Street Where You Live" with the begrudging (but still sweet, sure) "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

Ugh! Now I hate that ending. It'd be a cute song in the mouth of someone just a bit more self-aware. Free Eliza! Free Eliza! Free Eliza!

This could be staged a lot more convincingly and poignantly. I mean, Freddy's primary shortcoming seems to be that he's not rich. How sad! And how apropos to our times. Because that seems to be the problem that many Republicans have with poor people: they simply don't earn enough money, those rogues. People like Ann Romney seem to think that being rich is easy—after all, she and Mitt started out eating pasta on an ironing board, so why can't everyone get from that level to hers? It's infuriating, the lack of empathy—and the lack of intelligence—on display, the inability to recognize one's own great good fortune (and recognize the difference between truly being poor and "slumming it"). I'm not jealous of rich people. I'm annoyed that they think being rich is something anyone can do if they just work hard. Why can't the English learn to speak? And why can't Americans just get off of welfare?

Maybe I need to lay off politics for a while. It's just ruining musicals for me. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hot Stuff

I have said many times that Donna Summer's Bad Girls album was the first album I bought with my own money -- but this might not be true. It feels true, and the timing is right, so it's likely true. I am pretty sure I remember buying the record on a Christmas-money spending spree. But the details of my childhood are so, so hazy. And no one was paying super-close attention to me in 1979 and 1980, so I don't know whether there's anyone who could verify this independently. Maybe my mother owned the record, and I just appropriated it ... although my buying the record seems likelier, given what I know about her musical tastes.

If it wasn't my first record, I don't want to know. It should've been my first record, and that's good enough. I like my version of history -- in which something in Donna Summer's music called out to me, spoke to me of the glittery disco balls and glamorous nightclubs and sans-souci fun that were waiting, waiting, waiting for me just beyond adolescence. Donna Summer was one of the voices of the gay generation just before mine. I felt the reverberations of her musical revolution -- I responded without knowing why. It would be years before I knew what "I Feel Love" was really all about (before I would feel love -- in the way that Summer meant -- for myself). But I knew it was my music.

As was the song "Bad Girls," which makes me think of my sisters. Not that they are bad girls (again, I think it was a while before I was hip to what "bad girls" were in this context). Rather I think we, or maybe just I when I was that age, aspired to be the candy-coated bad girls the song conjures: tough, playful, sexy, and streetwise. I can picture my sisters and me dancing around our living room to the song. This is likely a composite memory, and the song we were actually dancing to might've been "Hot Stuff," or it might've been the MTV video for "She Works Hard for the Money" -- or maybe we never danced to Donna Summer at all. But, again, I prefer my version of history.

All this is to say that Donna Summer's music was woven through my childhood. But by the time I got to nightclub-going age, disco had died twice. It was the late 1980s, and AIDS was killing everyone. Being gay had become a lot less sans-souci and a lot scarier. Then a nasty rumor (which had Summer saying something cruel and stupid about people with AIDS) greatly damaged Summer's standing in the gay community. She vehemently denied the rumor and worked very hard to repair her reputation among, and reaffirm her support for, gay people. I don't think anything was proved either way.

Who knows. But I believe and prefer Summer's version of history. You know how people love to tear down their idols. ... And even if the rumor were true, I'd be satisfied with her penance.

Anyway. These were the things in my mind today when Facebook -- our modern Greek chorus of celebrity death -- started singing Summer's eulogy to me this morning. What is a life? Well, there are plenty of half-remembered and misremembered moments, and then there are lies that become true, or true enough, through repetition. But there's also music, and disco rollerskating, and jubilant nightclubs, and moments of joy. ... That's what Summer's Facebook eulogy describes -- and who could ask for a better one? In millions of lives, Summer's music was the soundtrack to, or the very reason for, moments of joy: little kids posturing gleefully as "bad girls," hard-working women demanding to be treated right, and young gay men like me feeling love.

Thank you and farewell, Donna Summer. I hope you loved your life.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Friday, February 10, 2012

Go Ahead: Use Your iPhone at the Table

I haven't been writing a lot about etiquette in recent years, but I'm still occasionally asked to talk about manners matters of the day -- journalists working on etiquette-related articles find me online and ask for a few quotes.

It happened today: A journalist wanted to ask me about the use of mobile devices in restaurants (a common topic) -- and as is frequently the case, she expected me to deplore their use. She had pre-cast me as a prim manners maven with sensibilities firmly rooted in a pre-smartphone era: She wanted some quotes along these lines: "No phones at the table! Smartphones at the table are making us ruder and ruining civilization!"

The problem is, I just don't think that's true.

Disagreeing with Myself
I flipped back through my book to see what I'd had to say -- way back in the early 2000s -- about cell-phone use, and I found some quotes that would've have pleased this reporter. For instance:

"People who use their cell phones to carry on chitchatty conversations when dining look, to those around them, not only rude but also silly...."

Yes, I still agree with that one. Then there's:

"Keep cell phones ... off of the table during a meal."  

On this point, my attitude has evolved.

Here's the thing: Smartphones aren't, in and of themselves, rude. People behave rudely; machines are just tools. You can be just as rude at the dinner table with a facial expression or a gesture as you can with a mobile device.

I think it's naive to say that this or that new technology is "ruining civilization" -- keep in mind, people have been saying this with every new technology that's come along since the printing press. The tone of the absolutist anti-smartphone crowd sounds very similar to the tone of, say, the absolutist "anti-unescorted-ladies-in-saloons" crowd and the "anti-teaching-poor-people-to-read" crowd. Their cry is "It just isn't done!"

As someone interested in etiquette, I always ask, "Why isn't it done?" There's always manners friction at times of great change -- when old assumptions about the way things ought to be done bump into new technologies or social mores.

New technologies don't make us ruder. New technologies make us different 

What's So Rude About Texting, Anyway?
We understand that obtrusive noise is rude -- this includes loud cell-phone conversations in otherwise subdued environments, such as restaurants. I wrote my book way back when using a portable phone was likely to mean talking into it -- how quaint, right? But now we're using our smartphones primarily for silent activities -- so what's the problem?

Well, the other reason that using your smartphone at the table is rude is this: It's disrespectful of the people you're dining with -- it takes your attention away from your shared meal, and shared meals are highly symbolic (being that they are the very basis of human civilization).

So it's this display of disrespect that's the problem, not the device (you could be just as disrespectful by turning your chair a bit to one side).

But not everyone feels disrespected by others' using mobile devices -- and this group is growing. For instance, I frequently dine with a set of friends whom I also interact with on various social platforms, and with whom I share a large interconnected group of friends. With these friends, using my iPhone to quickly tweet my location isn't disrespectful -- because we're all familiar with the activity. At a business lunch, it's now quite normal for a group of acquainted colleagues to pause and check in with their BlackBerries. These things are happening; it's time to remove the absolutist ban.

When in doubt about the attitudes of your companions, it's always better to err on the side of caution -- but the complexity of the real world means that "Never do this" rules don't make sense. You have to pay attention to context. As is often the case with questions of proper behavior, the answer to "Is it rude to use your smartphone at the table?" has to be "It depends, dear. Use your common sense, and employ moderation."

Looking to the Future
Recently, a Los Angeles Times story discussed how restaurants are resisting, or adapting to, this change in the way we behave. It struck me that the restauranteurs who wanted to ban smart devices from their dining rooms were objecting primarily to the aesthetics of them -- their basic argument is that the people using them looked tacky. Fair enough. But "tacky" is subjective -- and yesterday's tacky (men without ties and jackets in nice restaurants) is tomorrow's normal. I was much more interested in reading how restaurants are adapting to the new normal.

In some ways, I am old-fashioned. I don't think a phone should be set down on the table, usually -- but there have to be exceptions. When I dine alone (as I often do when I'm traveling), I prop my iPad on the table to read -- call it tacky if you must.