Wednesday, December 31, 2008

So long 2008/Fave book #2

Let me tell you a long loopy story that leads to the second in my erratic series, I just bought a hardback first edition copy on of one of the books that forever changed my life and now I'm going to share it with you.

In early 1994, I was an art director at Wieden+Kennedy, finishing production on a bunch of TV commercials, all for Nike: basketball, tennis, cross-training ("cross-training"?), Superbowl commercials.

I was having so much fun, traveling, learning so many things. I had just begun what was to become a deep and enduring friendship and creative partnership with Stacy Wall.

You learn a lot of practical things producing TV commercials, and like all intense work, you get a lot of opportunities to learn things about yourself.

For the Superbowl, Stacy and I came up with an idea that involved Michael Jordan faking his retirement and playing in disguise for small-league basketball teams around the country. Nike liked the idea, but the mood was tense during the entire production. They were spending a lot of money on media and production and on Steve Martin, who was appearing in his first and last television commercial. The shoot required Jordan to do a lot of work and he was not happy.

On day 1, Jordan walked onto the set in a jheri curl wig and everyone busted up laughing, the crew, the extras. I was standing by myself on the opposite side of the gym. I don't know where Stacy was. Jordan turns to a crew member and asks a question and the guy looks around the gym and points at me.

Jordan swings his head towards me and walks across the full length of the basketball court until he is standing about a foot away from me, staring me straight in the eye. Again, he is wearing a jheri curl wig.

"This commercial your idea?" he asked. Um, yeah, I stuttered.

"It better be fucking funny," he scowled.

Uh, it wasn't. Here's part one, courtesy of I think it came in second to last in the USA Today poll.

Stacy and I learned what kind of Superbowl ad not to create: arcane, insider, subtle, packed, dialogue-heavy commercials about hypothetical events, that demand repeat viewings.

The next Nike campaign took me on my first trip to Paris. It blew my mind. That this magnificent place existed, had existed every day of my life, people speaking their own language, it was real, and I had never really considered it.

I realized I needed expansion, so when I got back I uncomfortably walked into Dan Wieden's office and volunteered to be transferred to work in W+K's Amsterdam office. "No," he said. "You're more valuable to me here." And that was that.

I decided to try to expand in Oregon. I began spending each weekend exploring the state. I would drive into eastern Oregon, which was - surprise to me - a giant desert. I'd look at the map and drive to places that had interesting names without knowing anything about them: John Day, The Dalles, Hermiston, Pendleton. That works!

I was reading a lot. I had lost touch with my Catholic roots. I stopped attending mass. I liked the priest and his sermons and the community feeling, but the whole structure and theology was just too bizarre for me to understand intellectually.

My brother John, who was a Catholic priest, recommended that I explore some eastern thinking. He recommended Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace is Every Step. That's not Fave #2, but it's a goodie, and I remember taking it out to the eastern Oregon desert many times.

I was enjoying myself so much that summer, so happy that the Amsterdam thing didn't happen. Then the boss told me to pack up, I was needed in Amsterdam, I had to leave right away. Doesn't that always happen? Hard to avoid your fate.

Anyhow, I get over to Amsterdam, and what I sought, I got. Mind expansion. Too much too fast, probably. The first thing I noticed was that the majority of the Europeans I encountered shared the belief, and when I say majority, I might mean 100%, that the ideology of the U.S. was fundamentally wrong-headed. I couldn't believe it.

I was almost thirty, and for the first time, I was considering the possibility that I was running a faulty operating system. I picked up an obscure progressive history of the United States that I found in an English bookstore. That's not Fave #2 either, but it's another goodie, and it greased the skids. I was thinking, I guess you could call it.

I continued to poke at the religion of my childhood. In the midst of a theological conversation, my friend Giles, an intellectual and agnostic from London, once asked me, gently but incredulously, "Do you actually believe in heaven and hell?" The wheels were coming off.

By the time I met Jacques, a homeless American street-artist who had been living and traveling in Europe for sixteen years, I identified myself as an Atheist. Not Agnostic. I was clear that the concept of God was a joke.

Jacques was an evangelist. He prosthelytized by telling the stories behind the Rennaissance paintings he was making oil pastel copies of on the streets. He lived off of the coins people threw into his basket. One of his best paintings was his copy of Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas.

I explained to Jacques my theological position, and he said, "Oh you're just being dealt with. God's dealing with you." This infuriated me. I was solid in my position, and I felt like Jacques was being both superstitious and condescending.

Jacques then gave me a piece of advice, that if it were a book, I'd go buy a hardback first edition copy of it on

Jacques told me he could tell I was genuinely seeking, and not to make up my mind too soon. He told me to go back to my apartment, close the door, draw the shades, and kneel down - he said I had to kneel - and say, out loud, "God, I don't believe in you, but I am open to your existence. If you exist, could you help me discover you? Thanks."

"Can't hurt, can it?" Jacques asked.

Sometime after that, I discovered Joseph Campbell.

As a boy growing up in New York City at the turn of the century, Campbell was fascinated by the Indians depicted in the dioramas at the Natural History Museum. He made his life's work the study of the stories told by different cultures. In 1949 he wrote the classic that is my Fave book #2.

In Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell identifies the thread that runs through all stories, in all cultures, in all times, the story that runs through our own lives. Knowing this story provides us a roadmap, clues, in Campbell's words, on how to live a human life under any circumstance.

George Lucas relied on Campbell heavily in constructing his Star Wars saga. You can identify the pattern in all sorts of stories, from The Wizard of Oz to The Godfather to the Matrix to Twilight.

We painted Campbell's diagram of the Hero's Adventure on the lodge wall in 12.

Campbell helped me reframe my life's work as a storyteller and teacher as well as rediscover and rebuild my faith life.

The book is pretty impenetrable as an introductory read. Better is the wonderful biography Fire in the Mind, a great I-dare-you for people who'd like their own lives to be more interesting and passionate.

The most enjoyable and digestible introduction to Campbell's ideas might be the interviews he conducted with Bill Moyers in the last year of his life. If any of this sounds remotely interesting, you'll love it.

Campbell's ideas are super relevant to what I see emerging in 2009: Connection, Humanity, Truth, Story.

Happy New Year.




markjacobs said...

It all sounds extraordinarily interesting. I enjoyed every moment of this. Thank you.

John Helm said...

Loved this one - lots of good insghts about you which I really enjoyed plus many good references. I agree - your Jordan ad gets better with repeated viewings - very funny and clever. Happy 2009

Anonymous said...


Dion Hughes said...

Jelly, i've really been enjoying your thoughts and stories and etc. Thanks for sharing. I may just be in the right place for a second shot at Campbell, too.

Erik said...

Thank you for this gift.

Ainara said...

Very interesting.
I think I'll read the book.

Hank Hosfield said...

Hey Jelly,

I've spent the day reading through your blog from the first post up to this one, so far. I've made some comments along the way, like the one about religion preceding this. It seems you and I may be traveling along a similar path after all. (I knew you'd hit on Joseph Campbell. I was introduced to him through the Moyers interviews with Campbell, The Power of Myth. By the way, if you know Gary Cox, perhaps he's shared with you some of his stories of time spent with Joseph Campbell in Hawaii.) Anyway, I'm really enjoying this blog journey with you, and I can't wait to see what comes next.