Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dental Correspondence

Madison lost her fifth baby tooth last weekend, it had been wiggling for a couple of days and she finally pulled it out herself. At some point she mentioned that someone in her class gets books and small toys from the Tooth Fairy - instead of money - and said she was interested in exploring a similar redefinition of this key relationship.

We encouraged her to write a short letter to formalize the request, maybe provide a little context on this most recent escapee. As soon as I saw the letter I knew I would have to post it. Briefly considered cleaning up the typos but couldn't bring myself to change her text. One of the standing objectives here, after all - in addition to trashing Microsoft ads - is preserving these kinds of small moments with a certain degree of authenticity.

I did take the additional step of clarifying a few key words that may be difficult to decipher, my contributions appear in brackets.

Here is the letter, exactly as it was hand-written on five pages of lined paper:

My tooth

Dear, tooth fairy

Yestr day I was

wigling my tooth

It got verey lose

I waned it to come

out but I still had

to go on the bus

so I cudnt pull it

out but wheen I

got home I wiggld

it a lot but it

still dint come out

evin at night it

woudnt come out

I was geting

frusradt aftr are

move (movie) ended I

went up stars and

gradd (grabbed) a tishuw and

jently trid to

pull it out but

it wodnt buj

a bit.

So this morning

I lookd in the

meara and it

was so lose

that I cudnt

stand not pulling

it out so I

did and it felt

so good the end.

And by the way I

have a qweshins

that I have bian (been)

waning to ask you.

1 - do you like to read?

2 - do you feel lonly some times?

3 - is there fareys all over the world?

4 - how do you get undr my pillow with out waking me up?

5 - do you have a casal (castle) of teeth?

Plese rithe back

can I have a

supr cool captr (chapter) book

abowt your land

and as a little surprise

can I have a little

book abowt fall

for my sistr

Love,

Madison

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Brand About Nothing

I heard the reports a while back about a new Microsoft ad campaign featuring Jerry Seinfeld, and even as someone who still genuinely looks forward to watching him and laughing every night at 11 - I have to say I didn't get it. His show was peppered with product plugs and placements, but I guess I don't really see Jerry as a particularly impactful pitchman. Especially now. Especially endorsing a past-its-prime technology behemoth like Microsoft. Especially standing next to Bill Gates.

The first commercial came out and, as many have observed, didn't make any sense. Nothing explicit in relation to the core product, the funniest thing in it was the family standing outside the shoe store speaking in Spanish - about shoes. "Don't worry," we were collectively told by the mouthpieces out of Redmond, "it's a build, we're starting a conversation, the relevance will come." Fair enough.

Second spot broke, long-form engagement with Jerry and Bill living with a regular family, doing regular things, being amusing and... regular. It still didn't make much sense to me, but you could sort of see the start of something, a new template and objective emerging. Bill Gates (Microsoft) as a fish-out-of-water that eventually becomes the water, or at least pimps the technology that enables the water, with a popular comedian along for the ride as the Merlin character, Bill's trusted partner and guide.

Shortly after seeing that second spot I read a really interesting piece in the Economist that basically reached the conclusion that this little campaign might just be genius, and could actually succeed, by - believe it or not - leveraging the halo and goodwill generated by the lovable PC Guy in Apple's tremendous and long-lived "Get a Mac" campaign.

People genuinely like PC Guy, he's pathetic and self-effacing and makes us laugh, and as Steve Jobs himself has pointed out, PC Guy is the one who makes those commercials work. Mac is the straight man, the Bud Abbott to Lou Costello, Bert to Ernie, Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis, and - as the Economist observed - which one would you rather have dinner with? OK, fine, throw Dean and Jerry out of the analogy.

After reading that piece, I started to understand. "People love PC Guy," the pitch to Microsoft must have gone, "so here's what we'll do. We'll turn Bill Gates into a real-life version of this lovable character. We'll get him a charming and endearing national treasure type to pal around with - someone with humor and a no-nonsense edge, and after spending about $300 million America will rekindle its love affair with the PC and with that great old technology company that first set out to put a computer on every desk and in every home. Microsoft will cease to be an enormous and uncaring android monolith, it will be accessible, human, even nurturing - and Bill Gates as an even more authentic version of PC Guy will get us there."

As a die-hard Apple evangelist and Mac enthusiast, the viability of the premise gave me some pause. Because there is an undercurrent of people out there - Red Staters mostly, is my guess - who maybe feel a bit put off by the minimalist products being cranked out by those fancy schmancy people out there in KOO-Per-TEENO, who maybe thought Justin Long was just a little too smug and sure of himself for his own good, even after being dumped by Drew Barrymore. Write them off if you want, but these people win elections, and they are ripe to be mobilized. Think Revenge Of The Nerds: Flyover State Edition.

I'm not saying it was time for panic in Mac-land or anything, but there was definitely some potential there. If you move beyond the uncommonly beautiful, insanely functional, easy-to-use and rock-solid reliable qualities of the devices Apple makes, Microsoft more or less has green fields and unencumbered open road ahead of it.

But then somebody panicked, and they canceled the campaign, at least the Seinfeld piece of it, as suddenly as it had arrived. There were some comments about maybe bringing him back down the road, but let's get real - Jerry's cashed the check and is already focused on finding a parking space for his next car. The PR people tried to spin the redirection as some kind of grand plan, which didn't play with anyone. In the end, Kramer almost lasted longer at that company that never really hired him than Jerry did with Microsoft.

They threw up something that looked a lot like a contingency approach, probably one of the things the agency considered or pitched along the way, with an ugly and even dorkier "real" version of John Hodgman (the revelation of the first "new" spot was that there actually is someone working at Microsoft who looks like that) saying that he's a PC and he's been turned into a stereotype. The lament was followed by a string of people - with the requisite familiar face or two thrown in - claiming to share that same proud designation. I'm sorry, I forget, remind me again why I care that Eva Longoria supposedly considers herself a PC?

Who can tell where this will go, or what they'll wind up trying next, but there's one thing crystal clear at this point - these people don't know what they're doing, have no idea how to define, or redefine, their brand, or to appeal to consumers on a broad scale that is organic and makes sense. This is problematic, particularly in the wake of the Vista disaster. Their core business is under assault on all sides and being trumped by a variety of fresher-faced competitors, both new and old; their attempt to attack the core competency that turned Apple around (portable music players) is laughable; and Bill Gates waxes poetic in public forums about the payoff that is coming by virtue of Microsoft's pioneering work in robotics software. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Still and all, I'll place my wager (and focus my attention) on the wild scene of diverse and enthusiastic humanity I saw in the 5th Avenue Apple store in NYC earlier this week. Bill - you can keep the robots.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"This Is Water"

I saw the news on David Foster Wallace last weekend, like everyone else, and was shocked and saddened by it. As someone who does battle with words on a daily basis - the right ones, the wrong ones, the simple ones, the transcendent ones - his brilliance was manifest, and unattainable.

I'm just one of the many, many people who bought, was blown away by and did not finish Infinite Jest, but I think I read page 15 about 100 times, years ago, and actually remember laughing out loud - repeatedly - at the lines, "The integrity of my sleep has been forever compromised, sir," and "We witnessed something only marginally mammalian in there, sir." I don't know why I didn't get all the way through, my attention span was fleeting back then, I guess. I'm older now, and it's still here. There is hope.

A friend sent me a link to a commencement address Wallace delivered at Kenyon College a few years ago, and it was beautiful to read, all of it, but I was particularly moved by this:

"Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth.

Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation ... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."


What a mind. What a loss.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Shea Hello, Shea Goodbye




I had been thinking about taking the girls to Shea Stadium - effectively "home field" for my entire life - before they knock the place down after the current baseball season in favor of the new Citi Field, which has been under construction for the last couple of years and now looms over the outfield wall. Games with my father, and then friends, concerts, so many trips to that 1970s-looking blue and orange behemoth, which could probably have been considered a "dump" on the day it opened, but it was our dump, an oddly-endearing dump, an underdog's dump.

Noticed earlier in the week that the Mets were playing the Braves on Saturday afternoon, so I got Gwen on board and then tapped a connection to secure some great seats - wanted to do it right, for our family to go both in and out on the proper note. It was more for me than for them, of course, the girls know nothing of 1969, or 1986, the Sack Exchange (before the Jets moved to converted swampland in New Jersey), hopes and dreams hanging on the arm of Richard Todd, the Beatles concert their grandparents went to, none of the moments that have brought the place to life. But somewhere along the line I'll be able to point at a book, or at an image on a computer screen, and say, "we took you there, we went there once."

We got lucky with Friday night's rainout, which turned yesterday into a double-header. Ava started saying that baseball was "boring" and demanding to leave around the second inning of the first game - with Santana on the mound, no less - but we managed to make it all the way to the middle of the nightcap by distracting her with a steady supply of peanuts, soft pretzels, popcorn, chicken nuggets, french fries, soft-serve ice cream and Cracker Jacks. We drew the line at neon blue cotton candy.

By the 4th inning of the second game the crowd was getting a little, shall we say, boisterous for little ears, as Ava continued her "I want to go home!" demands, so we got our stuff together and trekked out of the place before things really went off the rails. But not before witnessing a funny and disarming exchange between a fan and a player that seemed perfect for the scene, and for the spirit of Shea.

Our seats were near the Atlanta dugout, and at the end of one of the innings as the players trotted back a typical ballpark loud-mouth in our area shouted out to Braves' Rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, who I guess is wrapping up a bit of a challenging year.

"Hey FRANCOEUR!" the guy yelled. "I had you on my fantasy team, you were TERRIBLE!"

As the player approached the dugout, he surprised everyone by stopping briefly on the top step, looking up in the direction of the heckler, offering a slightly sheepish nod, shrugging his shoulders and saying, "I know."

The guy was stunned to have gotten a reaction, let alone an admission. "It's OK," he finally called out. "I'll pick you again next year."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remember

Seven years ago tonight, Gwen and I were in our apartment on 79th Street in Manhattan with Madison, who at the time was just shy of 6-months-old. Earlier in the afternoon, we'd been joined by my younger sister and her boyfriend - now husband - who had abandoned their place downtown for the comparative safety and security of the Upper East Side. We drank red wine and watched the news in a state of shock and disbelief, while Madison slept in her crib in the room next door.

As I was approaching my office building in Rockefeller Center that morning - it was a beautiful day - I noticed a small group of people huddled around a transistor radio and thought it was odd, but I walked on by. Then the elevator doors opened and I exited to find basically my entire firm standing around the bank of televisions in our reception area. The faces told the story before I even looked up at the screens and saw the burning buildings. A woman whose husband worked in the World Trade Center frantically rushed back to her office to try to reach him on the phone, she never did. At some point people wandered away from the waiting area and went off in their respective directions.

I called Gwen, who was completely unaware - she was sitting in our apartment watching Baby Einstein videos with Madison. She asked if I was coming home, I told her no one was leaving, no one knew what was happening. I was sitting in my office when someone came into the doorway and said, "the Pentagon just got hit," it was chilling. What exactly were we dealing with here, and how far was it going to go?

The first tower came down. Then the second. We stood there together and watched in stunned silence, except for the occasional gasps, and then started to leave. I called Gwen to say I'd be home soon. When I hit Fifth Avenue and looked downtown I saw an enormous cloud of dust and smoke that reminded me of the brush fires I used to cover as a reporter out in California. Looked exactly the same. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

I walked home through crowded streets and sidewalks. People were unsettled, but there was a palpable sense that whatever this was, we were in it together. The subway was shut down, bridges and tunnels were closed, leaving the island was not an option. I picked up some food on the way, and we hunkered down and watched CNN and the local stations when Madison was napping, tried to make believe nothing was wrong when she wasn't. We left the city in the months that followed, needed more space and a lawn and a swing-set for our growing family anyway - but the attack accelerated the plan, and it changed our consciousness.

I don't think I'll ever look up at a plane cutting gracefully across the sky in exactly the same way again, and for quite a while after that day that image, formerly filled with majesty and wonder, was deeply unsettling. We came through it, like everyone else who lived through it, but it's still here. And it always will be.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

No Camera


OK, so I was wrong, Apple made it through yesterday's iPod event without announcing the addition of a camera to the iPod Touch. I still think the enhancement is coming, to support the evolution of the Touch into a full-fledged mobile Web-enabled device and take advantage of its built-in WiFi capabilities. They went for the gamers in this product refresh, and certainly I'm not going to question the wisdom or the timing of the good people out there in Cupertino.


My little failed prediction aside, I have to say I continue to be amazed by how far these incredible products have come, really in just a few years. The new Nanos are unbelievable, and Santa is watching.

In our house, video-capable iPods have completely replaced the clunky and dreaded "portable DVD" devices we used to lug around with us on long drives with the kids, flights to Aruba, anywhere brief interludes of screen-based distraction could avert moments of hellish insanity reminiscent of Martin Sheen's experience sitting in that hotel room in Saigon, waiting for his next mission.

Invariably, the overpriced behemoth's battery would fail exactly when it was most needed, or the disc containing the only movie the kids' wanted to see would go missing at the bottom of a carry-on bag, or we'd get some kind of panic-inducing "Error" message, just after the flight attendants had passed by with the drinks cart and we'd made the catastrophic error of eschewing Dewar's for a Diet Coke.

No more. We're all about iPods and around-the-ear headphones for the girls' portable audio-video needs these days. Apple's gift to parents everywhere. Another one.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Jobs!

This blog received a really nice shout-out this morning from one of my favorite podcasters, Ken Ray of Mac OS Ken, after I sent Ken a note predicting the addition of a camera to the iPod Touch at today's Apple event.

We'll know in a few hours whether or not I was right, but in the meantime let me greet any new visitors arriving by virtue of the plug with some of the Apple/Mac highlights that have graced this little writing project over the last couple of years.

First off, the definitive post, documenting our family's transition from PC to Mac. This was before the Seinfeld commercials, of course, but I think we still feel pretty good about the move.

Further reflections on the bounty that is Mac, and the gifts that Steve has benevolently rained down upon us.

Then there was an odd and unsettling moment, which - I'm quite happy to say - has never been repeated.

And it all began with the first Apple-related post in the history of this blog, in which our daughter Madison, then five, imagined a day when there will be song lyrics on an iPod.

That's a pretty good start, a solid quartet, just to get things off on the right foot. But, as is always the case when it comes to Apple and all-things-Mac, it feels like we're just getting started.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Labor Day Ineligible







And, we believe, quite happily so.