September 2011

Media, marketing and meaningful travel – Part 1

by Steve Brock on September 28, 2011

Last time I looked at how worry blinds us to wonder. But worry isn’t the only culprit.

 I just watched on DVD the documentary, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It’s by Morgan  Spurlock,  the same guy who brought us Super Size Me! This time, fast food isn’t the focus. Product placement is.

The whole movie is about advertising and how companies place products in films, video games and elsewhere with the goal of increasing impressions (and ultimately, sales). This is all familiar territory to me since I work in branding and marketing.

But what stood out to me was that word, “impressions.” Marketers count an impression as any exposure to a particular brand. That could be a mention in a news story on the radio, a banner ad on the Web, a product review forwarded on Twitter, a billboard or a glance at the magazine rack in the supermarket.

The documentary, which cleverly got companies to sponsor the movie by placing their products in the film, illustrated the lengths marketers will go these days to create impressions.

I loved Spurlock’s interview with Ralph Nader in the documentary. Spurlock asks the veteran consumer advocate, “So where should I go where I don’t see one bit of advertising?” “To sleep,” was Nader’s reply. And that’s pretty true.

I’ve read that we’re exposed to something like 6,000 media impressions every day. So is it any surprise that we’ve developed defenses to this media assault?

One casualty of our thick-skinned, tone-deafened senses is wonder. When we block out virtually everything that comes our way, wonder becomes the baby swirling down the proverbial bathtub drain.

So what can we do?

We could try to flee the noise, live in a cabin in the woods and write long manifestos about the evils of so-called civilization. We can even travel to other cultures, but in today’s globalized economy, you end up with the same ads you see here just in another language.

I have, however, found two approaches that I’m trying, thanks in part to travel, that are a bit more practical. I’ll describe the first one here and the second one next time since it takes longer to explain.

First, I fast. Yes, that ancient practice is still an important spiritual discipline today. But refraining from food isn’t the only way to fast. When I’m on a trip, I don’t turn on the TV or pursue keeping up with the news. You can’t walk through an airport without some assault on the senses and some exposure to media, but you can fast from the intentional intake from TV, radio, social media, etc.

When I do this, I’m not running from the world; I’m simply choosing to minimize its influence for a period of a day or a week.

If you’ve never done a media fast, it may sound silly or a bit Luddite-like. But try it. You might be surprised by the results. We rarely realize the influence that media has on us until we step away from it.

Just try not to do it next week, or at least don’t count reading blogs in your list of things from which you should refrain. Otherwise you’ll miss the second exercise I’ve found which is somewhat counter-intuitive, but even more effective at helping us retain our ability to perceive wonder in a world of stuff and messages about stuff.

To be continued…

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Worry and wonder

by Steve Brock on September 22, 2011

It's amazing that something like a dead shrew along the path can be a wonder and even more amazing how often worry prevents us from seeing such things.

How much do you worry?

My guess is more than you care to admit. I’ve heard varying statistics, but in general, over half of our worries are about things that never transpire.

Pure imagination.

Another twenty-some-odd percent are worries about our health. Add an additional twelve or so percent that are concerns about what others think. Throw in some other similar areas that you can’t control and it turns out that about 92% of the things we worry fall about are things we can’t really do anything about.

This worries me.

My favorite example is my friend Will who felt he was worrying too much. So he prayed about it and made a conscious effort to stop worrying. And he did. He went for three weeks without worrying. Then, he realized he hadn’t even been worrying for that whole period.

Which, of course, made him worry about not worrying.

Why remind you of something you’d prefer not to think about? Because worry affects how we travel.

On the good side, I’ve found that travel is one the most surefire antidotes to worry. I go on a trip, particularly overseas, and I finally come face-to-face with the aforementioned reality that most of the things I worry about are not things I can change anyway particularly when they are thousands of miles away. Physical distance helps me let go of what I really should never have carried to begin with.

On the bad side, if we don’t let go of worry and we pack it along like an additional carry-on bag, we soon find that it starts taking from us. It robs us of peace, of the ability to be present and most of all, worry robs us wonder. We let what is preoccupying us on the inside blind us to what lies all around us on the outside.

I experienced this just a few weeks ago. I was walking a familiar trail near my house in a relaxed mood, conscious of my surroundings and appreciative of this day. As a result, I noticed a small, mouse-like creature near the trail. It was less than two inches long, not counting the tail and though it looked to be merely resting, this little guy wasn’t going anywhere.

I was so fascinated by what turned out to be the first shrew I’d ever seen in person that I scooped it up in a plastic bag and brought it home to show my boys who were equally enthused.

You may be thinking “big deal” (or worse if you’re not wild about rodents). A small animal along your way. You call that wonder?

I do. It was a small wonder because it was novel, beautiful in a pointy-nosed-cute-mouse kind of way, unexpected and it caused me to give thanks for its discovery. I was grateful just to have noticed it. In fact, it rather made my day.

But here’s where worry kicks in.

A week or so later, I walked the same trail, yet on that day, I was preoccupied with a number of concerns. It wasn’t until I was almost home that it dawned on me: I had no idea what I had just seen.

I had let preoccupations about the imagined future steal my ability to perceive present wonder or even be aware of the present.

Now I could worry about all this. Or I could make a choice to trust God and stop the worrying. That’s not easy, but I’m learning, through travel and life experience in general that it comes down to intentionality. I have a choice every day to worry or to trust.

I’m rather tired by the former, so I’m doing my best to rely more on the latter. After all, I say I believe that God knows my every need and cares about every little detail of my life more than I do. Amazing, when you think about it.

And that’s exactly what I intend to do: think more about what God has done and will do and less about all those things I can’t control anyway.

I may never encounter another shrew on a trip, short or long. But by not worrying, I can at least be more aware of the journey and more open to whatever wonder comes my way.

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Magic, music and Montreal – Part 3

by Steve Brock on September 19, 2011

Just Sumner, me and several hundred of our closest newfound friends at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

In Part 1 of this series, we saw that I wasn’t as wild about jazz as I’d like to be. In Part 2, I told of a trip to New York as a teenager that was magical for me, but mostly a soggy trial for my parents. And through it all, I’ve raised the question of how these two issues relate and why I would want to spend time this summer at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Here’s the scoop.

I went to the jazz festival not because I like jazz, but because my son Sumner does. You may recall the story of Stein on Vine and Sumner’s surprise baritone saxophone performance for his grandparents. That was just one manifestation of his passion for this music.

When we found out we would be in Montreal this summer during the famous Jazz Festival, I was just as excited – well, almost – as Sumner was to try and catch at least one or two shows there.

The festival runs for a few weeks with multiple performers playing at various venues in a central area. The music goes non-stop from afternoon to late in the evening. Thus, while we weren’t able to make any big name performances (we were traveling with my parents and my brother’s family, so time with them took priority), we did catch some wonderful acts in the afternoon on two days.

There we were, Sumner enraptured by a big band performance, oblivious to everything else around him and me, well, I was enjoying it for reasons other than the music.

I wasn’t thrilled to be standing – there are no seats for most performances – in the hot afternoon sun, surrounded by hundreds of other perspiring bodies. But that didn’t matter. We were there together, my son and I and all these other strangers who, for that moment, weren’t total strangers.

Like a jazz ensemble itself, we came together for a time and were all part of that performance, swaying almost as one to the rhythm, smiling and nodding to each other like old friends after a particularly accomplished solo.

As I stood there with this crowd, I thought back on my trip to New York and my parents accompanying me through the rain to the various magic stores and the Broadway performance. And then it struck me.

Was I now just modeling something I’d seen my parents do for me? Putting their own interests aside because they knew how much the experience meant to their son? Perhaps. But it’s not that simple.

Or maybe it is.

Maybe what I realized there in Montreal was something that lies at the heart of being a parent and is central to meaningful travel: Our best trips – our best selves – aren’t necessarily found in pursuing what we think we most enjoy.

Instead, we find a deeper satisfaction, perhaps even a reluctant joy, in seeing the delight of another and knowing that we made it possible. It’s an act that is both simple and yet not easy to pull off, all about us yet not about us at all. Sort of like a certain form of music.

I’m beginning to like jazz.

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Magic, music and Montreal – Part 2

by Steve Brock September 14, 2011

A magical trip to New York as a youth sets the stage for explaining why, when I don’t like jazz, I’d spend my vacation as an adult at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

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Magic, music and Montreal – Part 1

by Steve Brock September 9, 2011

I wish I liked wine, coffee and jazz better than I do. So why then, did I go out of my way this summer to attend the Montreal Jazz Festival? Find out…

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The journey to The Magic Castle – Part 4

by Steve Brock September 6, 2011

The final part of my pilgrimage to The Magic Castle reveals that while we may reach our destinations, that doesn’t mean our journey is over…

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The journey to The Magic Castle – Part 3

by Steve Brock September 1, 2011

Seeing your best friend almost assaulted by a prostitute on Hollywood Blvd. provides you with a different perspective on meaningful travel…

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