Maybe I Could Be a Marketing Genius Too

A while ago I noticed that the day after I had been searching online for a certain type of light bulb, the ads on various web pages I viewed featured similar light bulbs. I also buy and browse office supplies at a major retailer. I won’t mention their name–they’re not paying me anything–but I’ve also noticed that soon after I buy something from them I start seeing their ads for the same or similar items.

Initially, of course, this results in a sort of creepy feeling because the internet is spying on me, it knows where I’ve been and what I’ve bought. After a while I made my peace with that, an uneasy peace but what the hell. Buying this stuff online, with free next-day delivery, saves me the hassle of getting in my car and driving several Boston-area miles (1 Boston mile is equivalent to, say, 2 Minneapolis miles; 3 or 4 at rush hour, which lasts most of the day) to a crowded mall parking lot where my car is likely to get dinged or worse. Not driving saves me the stress of getting the finger from drivers who want to pass me on the right in residential areas because I’m only going 30 in a 25 zone. Maybe the upside to having my life be an open book to the adbots on the internet outweighs the downside after all.

I’m in the middle of a job-hunt, though (actually I hope it’s the end of the hunt and there’s a job in my immediate future–not that I have any evidence upon which to base that hope in this lousy job market), so I look at these ads from the perspective of someone who has worked as a book editor for a lot of years and believes strongly in the ability to transfer skills and is frustrated by the job market’s refusal to buy that premise. I have to assume that whoever wrote the algorithms for these ads has some sort of marketing savvy–but then again maybe not. The day after I purchased an 8-gigabyte flash drive and an 8-prong surge protector for my son to take to school, the office supplier tried to sell me a 4-gig flash drive and and 6-prong surge protector. Whenever I buy ink cartridges for the one printer I own, it tries to sell me cartridges for printers I do not own. If I buy blue ballpoint pens it tries to sell me–wait for it–blue ballpoint pens. As if I emptied a dozen pens in the day and a half since receiving my free delivery.

Based on the evidence, I think I could be a marketing genius, too. If all it takes is looking at what the customer just bought and then trying to sell them equal or lesser versions of the same product, or randomly related products, well, I think I can do that. I know it doesn’t make sense. I worked as a bookseller a couple of decades ago, and I never once suggested to a customer, “Oh, you liked Stephen King’s Cujo? Might I suggest that you buy another copy since you liked it so much?” But if this is what passes as internet marketing I don’t anticipate too many challenges if someone puts me on the payroll.

I’ve decided to celebrate this sort of marketing, when it occurs on blogs and sites that I like and visit often, by clicking through on the ads regardless of their obvious irrelevance to my life, just so the site’s proprietor can get his or her 48 cents, or whatever the going rate is these days. Every little bit helps, and I’m glad to do my part.

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Cheap Plastic Pearls

Not so long ago I attended a baptism at a Catholic church. Try as I might, I still can’t forget the little illustrative story the priest told as part of his performance of the ritual.

The gist of the story is this: A father and his little daughter, Emily, go into one of those “dollar stores.” Her father says she can buy one item, and Emily picks up a string of pearls. Cheap plastic pearls, of course, but the little girl’s heart is set on having them. She loves and cherishes them and takes care of them, but then one night her father says to her at bedtime, “Emily, I love you. Can I have your pearls?” The girl is distraught and offers her father anything else—her teddy bear, her dolls—but will not give up her pearls, her cheap plastic pearls, much to the father’s obvious dismay. The next night her father says again, “Emily, I love you. Can I have your pearls?” He receives the same response, and again demonstrates his disappointment. The third night the father repeats his question: “Emily, I love you. Can I have your pearls?” This time the little girl gives in and hands the plastic pearls to her father. When she does, he reveals in his other hand a string of real pearls, valuable pearls, and hands them to little Emily to replace the string of crappy pearls, the ones that she loved with all her heart.

The priest prefaced his telling of this story by emphasizing that it is one of his favorites, and he told it with enthusiastic maudlin theatricality—the whiny voice of the little girl in marked contrast to calm assuring tones of her father. Style and substance were both awful. I’m not keen on creating conflict, though, especially when collateral damage could be significant. I attended this baptism because, differences in religion aside, I love the parents and children involved. So for better or worse I did not feel compelled to confront young Father Wet-Behind-the-Ears about the awful story with which he regales the families of newborns being baptized in his church.

If I had confronted the young priest, however, I would have told him I’m an ex-Catholic atheist with a master’s degree in theology, and that even in my “believing” days I would have found his story to be beyond the pale. I would have told him that the father who buys the cheap pearls for his daughter, because she loves them, and then tries to take them away from her, is an abusive parent. By asking for the pearls, rather than demanding or simply taking them, he creates the illusion that he is respecting the little girl’s free will. But he is in effect forcing her to make what is to her an incomprehensible choice, and he does so from a position of authority. He asks for the pearls knowing that she loves and cherishes them, and does not hide his disappointment when she offers the teddy bear or doll but will not give up the cheap pearls. He subjects her to the kind of guilt-based manipulative tactics that are associated with the abuse of children in, among other contexts, the Catholic church.

Further, the father (the God-character, of course) displays no evidence of the “unconditional love” that is supposed to characterize the Christian God. Despite his repeated insistence that “Emily, I love you,” there is an undercurrent of conditionality attached to the giving up of the cheap pearls, which is indicated by the father’s overplayed disappointment. A little child in that position could not be blamed for feeling afraid that her refusal to give in to her father’s demand will result in the loss of his love and care.

And then there is the annoying implication that “father knows best”—the pearls he gives Emily on the third night, the “real” pearls, are better than the ones that the daughter loves. These are the “right” pearls, and making the exchange with her father is an obvious good, of course, because he is wise and all-knowing. He knows better than his daughter what is good for her and what choices she should make. This is a perfect demonstration of the infantilism that religions in general and Christianity in particular, attempt to imbue in their followers. Do as I say, the God–father character says via his earthly representatives, and I will fulfill your needs and give you comfort; obey and everything will be okay. Deferentially suck at the church’s tit from the womb to the tomb and you will have your eternal heavenly reward—not your crappy plastic pearl necklace.

But what rankles me the most about this story is that the father does not seem to accept or appreciate the little girl’s act of love. She loves those cheap plastic pearls. She holds them dear. They mean the world to her and she treats them accordingly. That is why she does not want to give them up. When the father replaces them with a string of real pearls, he is telling his daughter that her love has no value unless its object is the object he has chosen. Given this attitude, it should come as no surprise, then, that the church devalues so many forms of love: Love of someone of the “wrong” gender; love of the “wrong” kind of philosophy; love of the “wrong” “divine” being; love of the “wrong” kind of neighbor. Love who, and what we allow, the church says, because you are not qualified to make that judgment for yourself.

There is a lot of criticism out there, rightly, of so-called honor crimes in the Muslim world. Fathers and brothers kill and maim their daughters and sisters for the “sin” of “dishonoring” the family. And what comprises such dishonor? Loving a member of the wrong sect or religion; loving someone without the permission of one’s father or eldest brother; having a sexual relationship that is not approved by the father; and on and on. (You can read my recommendation of a novel on this topic here. ) How many steps are these heinous acts removed from the Catholic priest’s story of a father brow-beating his little daughter into giving up something she loves in order to satisfy his desire to control her most intimate feelings? Far too few, I would say. And the reality of Christian honor killings bears this out, as in this example, not to mention the misogyny embodied by Catholic Ireland’s long history of virtually enslaving “difficult” young women in its Magdalene laundries.

I am not sure what message this young priest thinks he is putting across with his unpleasant and offensive tale. It is fortunate that the infants and children involved are too young to be imprinted by this nonsense, and with any luck the parents and other adults are too preoccupied during the ceremony—with keeping older siblings quiet, for example—to really pay it much attention. I can only hope that this is the worst this priest has to offer as he exercises his false authority week after week from his bully pulpit.

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Fanfare for the Common People

I admit to feeling a bit worn out by the incessant politics of the past several weeks of the debt-ceiling “crisis” and its bitter and stupid “resolution.” We know by now that the American people are the big losers in this deal, that no new jobs will result from it, that stocks and retirement plans are heading into the tank, etc etc. The petulant children on the right–and I mean no insult to actual petulant children when I use that term–will never compromise, never be happy, and most likely never learn to spell until they perceive that America has been re-created in the image of the corrupted, nationalized, and thoroughly cherry-picked and proof-texted Christ they follow. (On second thought, I doubt they’ll ever learn to spell; “i before e, except after c,” after all, reeks of Nazi-style indoctrination.) And my disappointment in the presidential spinelessness and inability to hold the line is quite large. I’m still processing that. Maybe I’ll understand it someday, say, if someone tries to throw me under a bus and I choose not to resist.

Anyway, in a effort to pick myself up, here’s Aaron Copland’s stirring “Fanfare for the Common Man” to remind us that America is all of us and that there a lot more of us than there are hoarders of the wealth who are putting so many out of work and into the  margins. Then, take a listen to William Shatner’s version of Pulp’s “Common People” from his 2004 album “Has Been.” Perhaps a little rage will lead to constructive action.



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The Seven Deadly Sins Have Never Been More Fun

Now that the heat wave that has been sweeping the nation has reached Boston—the heat index was just about 100 degrees today, with more of the same expected tomorrow—I can think of nothing better to discuss than The Seven Deadly Sins.

Well, not exactly the sins themselves, but comedian Mark Watson’s take on them from a series on BBC radio in 2007 called “Mark Watson Makes the World Substantially Better.”

The 6 episodes of series 1 were made available recently on iTunes, and I discovered them there last weekend while looking up Tim Minchin. After downloading and busting a gut laughing over episode 1, I quickly bought the other 5—a total investment of less than $12 for 3 hours of mirth.

Watson, with his Welsh-inflected rapid-fire diction, takes on the subject of sin with the help of comic poet Tim Key and the satiric singer-songwriter Tim Minchin. Watson’s stated goal is to make the world better—substantially better—by exploring the sins through poetry, comedy, and song. Starting with Greed and Gluttony, episode 1 is a 2-sins-for-the-price-of-1 production. Subsequent episodes introduce Lust, Pride, Envy, Sloth, and Wrath with hilarious gusto and evolving dynamics among the comic trio.

Tim Key offers a poem on each sin, Watson provides a standup sermon complete with highly amusing exempla, and Minchin concludes each show, after providing incidental music and jingles throughout, with a song about the sin in his incomparable style. “Sloth,” for example, is sung in the voice of that adorable mammal from Minchin’s native Australia. Members of Minchin’s growing U.S. fan base will no doubt enjoy his contributions, as irreverent and clever as ever.

The show, though, ultimately belongs to Mark Watson, whose observations and “lessons” stand up (okay, pun intended) to repeated listening. Given the challenges inherent in making the world substantially better, I’m happy to settle for a few hours of making the world substantially funnier.

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Postscript: Mark Watson is also the author of a handful of books, none of which I have read or can vouch for, but I expect to land one on my Kindle before long. His Amazon page is here.

Here’s a snippet of Watson to enjoy. Plenty more can be found on YouTube.


Cross-posted from Tucker Seven Editorial Services.

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Climatologists on the Run

Science writer Chet Raymo, whose daughter is a climate scientist, writes in his blog today:

I read recently that leading Australian climate scientists have been moved from place to place to protect them against threats on their lives, so deep is the wrath of climate change deniers.

Read the rest here.


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Republicanity, by Gary Laderman

I urge folks to read Gary Laderman’s latest at Religion Dispatches: ‘Republicanity’ — The GOP Transformation is Nearly Complete.

Laderman begins:

“Let’s just face the facts and not kid ourselves anymore. Yes, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee… er, tea: The Republican Party is no longer a political party—it’s a full-fledged religious movement.”

Read the article here. And please share.



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Rob and Mother Bernadette Mary

My iPod seemed to be making a point of shuffling songs by Sinéad O’Connor into my ears the other day as I took my hour-long walk around the high school track. Earlier, a friend on Facebook had mentioned O’Connor in a status update. So I got to thinking about Sinéad and her hardly typical career as a singer and songwriter.

I think there’s no arguing with the quality of O’Connor’s music or its ability to challenge listeners on many levels, whether musical, historical, political, or theological. She is perhaps most known for her notorious practice of free speech during a performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, in which she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II while saying, “Fight the real enemy.” I’m sorry to say I missed SNL that night, but it’s one of those pop-cultural moments, like Woodstock or the death of Elvis, that seem to become part of the social fabric and memory.

I was Catholic back then, and I took note of O’Connor’s action. I was not, like many others, offended by her action and statement. In fact I never had much affection for the Catholic hierarchy and was more interested in participating in a sort of Catholicism “from below,” focused on the justice Jesus espoused in the Gospels when he wasn’t caught up in handing out “difficult sayings.” The radical nature of that justice becomes more visible once you strip away all the centuries of pageantry, vestments, and abuse of power mucked onto it by the official church. Sinéad’s action fit right in with my Catholic sensibilities. I’m also an American and I think that the only cure for free speech is more free speech. Anyone who disagreed with Sinéad had plenty of opportunity to respond, whether on editorial pages or by booing at her concerts.

There’s another moment that comes to mind when I think about O’Connor. Later in the 1990s she announced that she had been ordained a priest in the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, which is an independent church that is not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and that she would be known from that point on as Mother Bernadette Mary.

It wasn’t a front-page story (this was before the internet became saturated with every imaginable kind of news), but one of those you might see on page 2, not longer than a few paragraphs, with a small picture of the shaved-headed O’Connor in a Roman collar to bring the point home that this woman was one odd duck. I was working at the time for a Roman Catholic publishing company, and it was the reaction there to this little story about a gifted musician that came to the front of my memory as I circled the high school track with ear buds delivering Sinéad’s music to me.

I was not the only “progressive” Catholic (oxymoron be damned) on the staff of this company. Most of us were well aware of the Church’s misogyny, abuse scandals, and condescension toward the faithful, but we hoped we were part of a wave of Catholics who would overcome the conservative and paternalistic Church of Rome. The Vatican, though, was digging in its heels. It had issued a new catechism in the early 90s—a poorly written, badly structured tome of male-centered conservative ideology that did little to promote love of God or neighbor—which was to become the bellwether of all Catholic curriculum that publishers such as us were producing. If we didn’t play the game of making our product “consistent with the catechism” we would find ourselves on the short end of the market share when we could not put the official stamp of approval on the covers of our books.

In the Church, as everywhere, money talks, even if it means conscience walks.

There was an editor and curriculum writer, I’ll call him Rob, more senior than I, whom I admired for his commitment to trying to bring the Church down to earth. Conservatives didn’t like Rob because of his “low Christology,” which emphasized the humanity of Jesus over the divinity of Christ. A low Christology has greater and more creative pedagogical possibilities and is arguably a better direction from which to build a faith that is oriented toward everyday people than toward the hierarchy and an overly abstract idea of divinity. If the Church is ever to be reformed in any meaningful fashion, the theory goes, it will have to happen from below.

Rob read the news story about O’Connor with a bemused look on his face. He rolled his eyes. I don’t remember our exact conversation, but I’m sure Rob used terms like “flake” and “crazy” and asked “What does she think this accomplishes?” His point was that this sort of action was ineffective—O’Connor was in no way a real Catholic priest (and had not claimed to be one) because her ordination was not valid in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. She was merely thumbing her nose at the Vatican, stirring up a hornets’ nest, which was not, in Rob’s view, an appropriate way of responding to the oppressive and repressive past and present of the Roman Catholic Church.

I didn’t say much. Live and let live would have been my attitude. If that’s how Sinéad, Mother Bernadette Mary, wanted to live out her Christian commitment, then she had every right to do so. What I would have liked to say, but did not given the office politics of the situation, was that Rob’s approach to reform—tweaking traditional catechetics into a more progressive and humanistic enterprise—was no more effective than what O’Connor had done. It was a meek and mild whisper of a protest that reached few ears and would be drowned out by the conservative voices that dominate the Church. I did point out that Sinéad O’Connor made the news, and that when she did, it was impossible to ignore the implications of her actions in terms of justice in the Church and the need for it to become a more inclusive and contemporary institution. I chose not to point out that Rob’s work reached only a few parishes around the country. Okay, maybe a few hundred parishes, but there is little evidence that work such as his has the potential to be a significant agent of change in the Church at large.

These days my views are radically different from back then, when I thought reform might actually be possible. Today I think that the Church is more likely to implode than be reformed, and implosion would be a desirable outcome. Progressive or traditional, liberal or conservative, the bottom line remains that the Church stands on an edifice of antiquated, outdated “wisdom,” human-made myths, and magic rites. It is rife with corruption, including that of protecting generations of child abusers, which is simply unforgiveable. I can imagine no reform that goes far enough to make the Church the least bit palatable to me, and I can no longer conceive of a “god,” big-or-little g, that is worthy of belief.

Sinéad and Rob are intelligent, talented, and interesting people. I respect their intentions regarding their faith, but at the end of the day cannot take seriously a worldview that remains enmeshed with the myth and magic required of even the most progressive Christian belief system. They would both be great humanists, even atheists, if they could just buy into the idea that what is good and necessary, that what we strive for when we are at our best—fairness, justice, community, taking care of one another—are human characteristics, not some sort of divinely given invention that is ultimately achievable only if we play by an arbitrary set of god-spawned rules.

*     *     *     *

As long as we’re on the topic, enjoy a classic Sinéad performance of “Thank You for Hearing Me”:

With thanks to Brian at Atheist Nexus, here’s the Saturday Night Live performance:

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The Habits of the Bullfrog

It’s been a while since I have sauntered around Walden Pond. In the interest of taking a little break from reality, though, I dug into some old folders and unearthed this little poem, a “found poem,” that I put together a few years back while reading  Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries. The original, of course, was in prose, but I broke it into sections and made it into this poem, which seems to be about the art and science of observation.
































Related by Mrs. Daniel Chester French in Memories of a Sculptor’s Wife (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928), and quoted in Walter Harding, ed., Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries (New York: Dover Books, 1989).

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“Can I Get You Anything?”

It was very hot today when I attended a networking meeting for professionals who are looking for jobs. The room was warm, cooled only by ceiling fans, and we discussed our professional identities and shared whatever information and connections we could. At some point though, I started thinking about Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame.

I’ve never actually read the Victor Hugo novel, but I’ve seen a couple of movie adaptations. What I remember most from one of them is when Quasi (Anthony Hopkins), unjustly accused of some heinous crime, is being harangued and harassed by the townspeople when he receives a drink of water from the seductive Gypsy girl Esméralda (Lesley-Anne Down). He rejoices in this drink. “She gave me water! She gave me water!” he repeats again and again, like some sort of crazy mantra, as they cart him off to prison for whatever it is he is accused of having done.

A strange train of thought, yes, but it was connected to a job interview I had on a similarly hot day a month or so ago. I had driven more than a half hour to this office, arrived on time, and waited past the assigned time for the CEO to send for me. Eventually he came out himself, and after we shook hands in the lobby he turned to the thermostat on the wall and adjusted it, muttering, “Everyone messes with this thing,” and then led me back to a meeting room with a large window facing directly into the sun and with an ambient temperature that had to be at least 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike the CEO, I was wearing a tie and blazer despite the fact that the day called for layers of no more than a t-shirt and the hair on my chest.

The CEO sat down across the table and started with some chit-chat before launching into his questions.

The first question I really, really wanted to hear was, “Can I get you anything? Water?”

Alas, that was not the question. I spent the next hour dry-mouthedly answering questions about a job that ultimately would not have been a good fit for me. I am not surprised that I never heard from the company again. I don’t hold that against them.

But it was warm in the office, I had driven quite a ways, I was thirsty, and he did not offer me a drink.

One of my favorite bosses was a guy named Don. A big man, an imposing presence, some might say domineering, even daunting. But when we had an interview scheduled—for a staff job, an internship, or even just a freelance contract gig—he always made sure: “Do we have enough water in the fridge? Let’s get some ice tea, too, just in case,” and one of us would grab a bill from the petty cash box and go down to the shop next door and get what we needed. Don always wanted to make a good impression. It was his way of saying, This is how we treat one another around here.

And when the candidate arrived and hands had been shaken, the first question was, “Can I get you anything? Water? Ice tea?”

It goes both ways, this hospitality and human relations thing. I worked on a book several years ago about business practices. When it came to hiring, this author said that once he had narrowed the field down to the final two or three candidates, he took each of them out to lunch. They went to the busiest greasy-spoon diner in town, in the middle of the lunch rush. Whatever the candidates said about, and how they related to, the waiter or waitress, was key to his final decision on the hire. It’s not likely that he hired too many smart-asses or snooty-noses who expected the undivided attention of the waitress.

I suppose we can’t be Esméralda to every Quasimodo out there, but if it’s in your power to inquire, “Can I get you a glass of water?”, it would be a good idea to ask.

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Learning My Way Around

I will soon be trying out some new things here.

In the meantime, enjoy a few minutes with Tim Minchin, singing “Not Perfect.”

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