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 abebooks.com 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 Retrojunk.com. 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 abebooks.com.

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.

Love,

Jelly

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Freedom & Religion

Today, while sitting in the drive-thru of the Taco Bell on Sandy Blvd, I looked up and saw a giant billboard that read FREEDOM FROM RELIGION, illustrated in stained glass. Something about our right to have a religion-free holiday.

Man, I need more religion, not less. I miss the absence of myth and ritual and God in our secular culture. Tolerance and religious freedom has cost us our shared spiritual identity. I miss sharing a What for.

Tonight was nice. We celebrated Hanukkah at a friend's house. There was a blend of people from different religious backgrounds. The hosting couple are Jews who hang buddhist prayer flags in their bedroom.

I was feeling socially awkward, so while people ate and drank I hung out with my sons and a handful of other boys, all under 10, building legos in the son's bedroom. Sam, our friends' seven-year-old, ran up after a while and shouted "we're lighting the candles!"

We all went downstairs and crowded into the living room and dining room, maybe 50 of us, and listened as Sam told us about the lighting of the menorah. He showed us the menorah his family made from the branch of the 50 year-old cherry tree they had to cut down in their backyard. Each candle holder was bolted through pieces of pottery - from King David's time - that they had excavated on their trip to Israel this summer.

Then Sam's dad told us about Hanukkah's connection with the Maccabees and the battle with the Romans and was corrected by Sam.

Sam's dad explained that Hanukkah is not the most significant Jewish holiday, but given its timing with Christmas, it has taken on increased importance.

"The simplest way to think about Hanukkah is that it is a solstice feast, celebrating more light entering into the darkest time of the year."


Then all the kids crowded around and each lit a candle. The third or so in the room who knew the words sang a song in Hebrew and everyone else swayed along. Celebrating the return of the light. Yes it's dark, but everything's going to be okay.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

It's not the tool, it's the caveman


I'm re-posting this reader comment as a blawg entry for a few reasons: out of respect for Dave Allen - I was barely cool enough to have friends who listened to Gang of Four! - an excuse to share the photos I took during our recent lunch, because I have not been feeling very blawgy during the holidays, or at least clear enough to write, and because I thought Dave's anthropological view of technology worth sharing.


To understand and embrace social networking is to place the idea that says “technology makes this possible” to one side and embrace the idea of the basic human need to stay in touch with other like-minded people at all times. As Clay Shirky says “The desire to be part of a group that shares, cooperates, or acts in concert is a basic human instinct.” Think about rock concerts for a minute…..

Most people that take a position on social networking and advertising come at it from a technological point of view, as in “technology has created the means for everyone to be connected and to stay in touch.” I disagree with that statement because it removes nature from the game. It is entirely natural for humans to want to interact as often as possible as we are all social animals. Cities are no more artificial (technological) than the hives of bees. Therefore the Internet is as natural as a spider’s web. People who believe that technology is driving our interactions are missing the point - we ourselves are technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as a means of genetic survival. Bottom line - social media is as natural as apple pie as we all want to be as connected as possible - we can’t help it.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter solstice



Interesting and timely website that gets me thinking about the nature of forgiveness.

Things getting brighter from here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mail day!

I checked my mailbox for the first time in a month or two, and I hit the jackpot: new issue of Portland Spaces magazine, reimbursement form for $250 coming my way,

an Obama shirt from Jimm Lasser,

a timely new book on the philosophy of improv by Rob Poynton and Gary Hirsch, called Everything's An Offer: How to do more with less,

and this PEZ dispenser, which had a message rolled up on the inside.

A backlog of things to write about, but it'll have to wait. There's Santa work to be done.

Hope all of you guys have a peaceful weekend.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thursday grab bag


A sign Stacy spotted in Cleveland while on location.


Leo's cool idea for a plane.


Hand-lettered sign in the downtown post office. Maybe 50 years old?


Photo Stacy took of an extra while on location at the Village Vanguard.


'50s-era Jacket designed for the food vendors in Yankee Stadium by Lou Dorfsman. Bid quick! 4 hours to go!

Oh yeah, and the earth is growing.

Do not try this


I took this with my iPhone out the window of my car while driving across the Burnside Bridge and talking to my brother. Not safe!

That's the building that the University of Oregon took over and rehabbed. They want to change the sign to read "University of Oregon." Dumb. It already says University of Oregon.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Reader response

This from a reader whose writing and thinking I have long admired.

So I've been reading your blog for a while, and thinking about the questions you ask there for even longer. I don't have any answers for you, sorry.

I do have the gnawing fear, from time to time, that the entire universe is the exact size and shape of the inside of my skull. Thinking about existence and meaning and purpose is all I can do about it, but I haven't found it particularly helpful because then I'm just employing my mind to explore my mind, and knowing the floorplan of the prison isn't the same as being free.

I'd like to say that connections like those you mention on your blog offer a path out of ourselves, and maybe they do, for a moment. So do literature and cinema and booze and fornicating and improv. And, yeah, advertising. They're all emancipating and exhilarating and inadequate. Because, and I'm really not trying to be morose or emo or whatever here, because it seems like behind all of those attempts to connect, even the ones motivated by joy and virtue and the better things that fill our hearts, behind all of those attempts to connect is the desperate need to connect, the urge, and it seems like that urge can never be truly discharged. And even diagnosing that urge in yourself and sympathizing with it in others doesn't really close the gap. We can't even connect about our need to connect.



Here's a photo of the reader from W+K's 25th Anniversary book.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thoughts from reader "David"


I always wanted to be in your class. This is better. I get to hear your thoughts without doing any work.


No you can’t not work, David! Do your homework! Read! Think! Read about spiral dynamics and Bucky and Bill and Bukowski and Bern! Organize a discussion group! Make something! Chop chop!

Is that what I want? I don’t know. If you’ve the read the posts, you know I frequently struggle with the purpose of all this. I have 193 facebook friends, 69 people are following me on Twitter, my blog is viewed by 100+ regular readers and I am not sure I know what it adds up to?

Something to do with connection. It’s why I asked you what you cared about, to get a sense of who you are, so this can feel like a conversation and not like I am just typing into the ether.

Connection feels great. I’ve flashed my headlights to let a trucker pass in front of me and gotten goosebumps when he flashed his brake lights to say thanks. It’s a reason I love my work - creating things and sharing it with other people – making connections.

But what sort of connections? Connections with whom? Connections for what purpose? Connection for the sake of connection? My facebook is an odd assortment of intimate friends, strangers, people I never knew at work and a few I didn’t like. Old students, but some of the students I was closest to are not there, and some who rarely wanted to talk to me at the time are. It’s all so random? What does it mean? What does it add up to?

Is it appropriate to talk about sharing a purpose? We are so tolerant and diverse as a culture that it feels oppressive to suggest that there might be some Idea that we all share, some idea that trumps everything else.

That’s what I have been thinking about a lot lately. Purpose. What is our shared purpose? What is our individual purpose?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Freestyle poetry from Tucky



1.
A bird sits in a nest

Has a wonderful world to be in

2.
Frogs hop that you don’t like

They always are liked by another person

3.
A snake going along always finds a mice to eat


4.
A pig in the mud puddle really loves a bath


5.
Sky is all blue and forest all green

Make this world part of this land
All these animals have their nests

Make the world a part of ours

Deer are playing and birds are singing

And pigs are in their mud puddles
And blue whales are floating

And seals are swimming

Make the world part of our peace


6.
Deer pull our sled

And santa claus gives toys

We love Christmas

7.
Winter has polar bears

And penguins

Until it’s summer

Start winter again

Start summer again

Like this peace
We love


8.
Wars are coming

We don’t like
They are bad

We get food

We need it
And our water
Keeps us safe

Because we might die without it

9.
Part of this world
has the war
We have to stop
Go away of here
And stop that war
Don’t just not protect your food
Go away
Food can help the war


[Transcription by K.L.]

Reader/seeker comments

Got a lot of responses to a recent post from people who were part of SEEKING, an experimental recruiting effort we launched last year at W+K.

We ended up getting over two thousand submissions, from all over the world, and with help from the creative directors at Wieden, narrowed them down to forty people who we invited to Portland for a weekend.

On the first evening everyone met over drinks and food. We spent the next morning at the Living Room Theaters, as each finalist presented what he or she submitted to get invited.

It was an amazing group of people - writers, illustrators, designers, editors, filmmakers, strategists, dreamers. They came from London, Tokyo, Sweden, Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, Australia and all over the United States. Several from Portland.

We didn't have a specific outcome in mind other than making a connection with 40 talented, interesting people, though several were hired for fulltime, part-time, freelance and internships at W+K offices all over the world. Robin stays in touch with many of the finalists, and they stay in touch with each other. I enjoy hearing about what they're up to.

Anrick, one of the finalists, sent me a few film recommendations, and I thought I'd pass them along.

'The Northeners' by Alex van Warmerdam is my all-time favorite film, a surreal and very human look at small communities in Holland. I found out a few years ago my mum is an extra in this film. It was apparently one of the worst days in her life.

'The Werckmeister Harmonies' by Bela Tarr. A very strange and harsh Hungarian film featuring a whale.

'Aaltra' by two Belgian directors. Its black humor, and not very pc. But in its hardness and occasionally distasteful humor there is a heart and a soul to be found.

'Father and daughter' by Michael Dudok de Wit. Its a short dutch animated film which is both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the very same time which has the capacity to bring me to tears even when I'm watching it on youtube, at the office. If you like the film you should also check out 'The Monk and the Fish'.



Thanks Anrick!

Readers speak!

Thanks to a recent post, I received some reader feedback.

I heard something different from every single person, with the exception of one piece of advice that I heard twice: Don't focus group/write what you want.

Okay then.

It snowed this weekend.

I took the Max downtown to meet Ronny Northrop, a student of mine many years ago at VCU. He is doing well for himself - a funny, principled, grounded, hard-working dude.

I rode an empty bus home.

Found snow bunnies in the backyard.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It all has to add up to something


A couple of years ago, we worked with Jesse Dylan on a pro-safe sex commercial for MTV. Jesse shoots music videos, commercials and movies. He shot the will.i.am Obama video. His dad is Bob Dylan, which isn't mentioned on the wikipedia page. Jesse is a nice guy, very likable.

MTV needed messaging to encourage women to take responsibility for condom use. The idea of our commercial was simple: associate condoms with hot sex and not with being a bummer, as it is in most PSAs - make sure you always wear a condom.

We planned on shooting a series of women seductively looking into camera while opening condoms. The shoot was not awesome. The women looked too skinny and fashiony and I hated the styling - sent them back more than once to remove makeup and was told "you have to put on makeup to make it look they're not wearing makeup." Um, yeah.

There ended up being one take of one girl that we used 60 seconds of with no cuts, and I think it worked okay.

The best part of the shoot was hanging out with Jesse talking about movies. He found out I had never seen Kurosawa's Ikiru, and a few days later he sent me a copy of the Criterion version.

It is one of those movies I can watch four times a year. It stars Takashi Shimura - who played the leader of Kurisawa's Seven Samurai - as a career bureaucrat who gets untreatable stomach cancer late in his life. He begins to live, as the title of the film translates to, for the first time in the last month of his life.

That's the first half of the movie. The rest takes place at his memorial service and shows people completely misunderstanding everything this man had done in his life, including the end.

Anyway, great movie. I call Jesse and thank him, tell him it changed my life, that I had listened to all the commentary tracks and watched all the extra features, and he says, "If you liked Ikiru, you're going to love Andrei Rublev."

Andrei Rublev was a 15th-century Russian icon painter. Tarkovsky uses this dark and violent and bleak life to tell a story about faith and the creative act.

Tonight, I am watching it for maybe the third time.

The movie is made up of eight chapters and an epilogue. I'm watching the last chapter now. In it, a kid, the survivor of a village, talks his way into a community by telling them he is the son of the deceased bellmaker, the only person alive who knows how to cast a bell.

Here, after months of work, he leans against his bell after it is fired. Tomorrow it will be hung in the tower and struck. People have come to believe this boy is a fraud, and few expect the bell to ring.

When the bell is struck and makes a dull thud, this boy will be hanged. But he is calm. He has worked hard and had faith.

You should know: this boy, like Andrei Rublev, is an archetypal character, representing a creative person - me, and maybe you? - and that bell is a symbol.

Will the bell ring? Let's see.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bombing all lines: 2 requests for readers


Thanks to Google Analytics, I can see where my traffic comes from. With your help today, I can expand my audience as well as improve the quality of This is Jelly's blog.

Could you please forward This is Jelly's blog to any friends who you think might enjoy reading it who happen to live in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Indiana, Michigan, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico or Hawaii? I'm going for the 50 state strategy.

My international support is also growing, with strong followings in Belgium (19 visits) and Ireland (9). Also gaining traction in Asia, with repeated viewings in Singapore (2) and Malaysia (2). India is rising (2), with equally strong interest in Italy (2), Sweden (2), Spain (2) and Mexico (2). Could you help build this wave, and share This is Jelly's blog with your friends living in other countries, too? Thank you.

I'd like to better understand the tastes and interests of my audience in an effort to provide a better blawg. That's why I ask every repeat reader to send in your comment on why you read This is Jelly's blog.

Is it the leaf photos, the movie/book discussion, the flavors of Chinatown/Portland, the observations about advertising and post-consumer what not, the mundane comings-and-goings of an ad man on sabbatical, the quest to work for Obama, the F/art jokes? Are you my brother? What keeps you coming back?

Comment here or send a note to me@jellyhelm.com.

Crowsenberg's Half & Half

A few years ago Matt Stein and I used Half & Half, then Crowsenberg's Half & Half, as the location for a campaign we created for the AOL pitch. We wanted to show a cool local business that had incorporated AOL into their business.



We shot photos of this awesome little cafe, of Keith and Robin - the co-owners - and their customers. Here's Jona Bechtolt as a spammer. Jona applied to 12.2.

Robin had great visual taste and was connected to some of the most interesting people in Portland. She introduced me to at least three eventual 12 students. When W+K lost our creative recruiter, we took a chance and hired Robin. She had zero experience but I felt sure with her taste and skills at making connections she would be a real asset.

Inspiration from Frederik Averin


Walked to Half & Half to have coffee with Fred Averin, a thoughtful designer and human being. We had first met at Half & Half several years ago.

Fred suggested an assignment for our coffee: we each bring three favorite books.

I didn't take the assignment seriously enough and brought some okay books.

Fred brought incredible books.

Here's Fred's criteria for choosing a book, grabbed off his website.


All the books Fred brought were new to me. He brought a number of things by the concrete poets, writers/artists from the 1950s who treated words and letters as objects. The books are equally interesting as writing and design.

Jean-Francois Bory is obscure enough not to earn a wikipedia entry, yet look at this great piece of conceptual writing from 1968.

I can't believe I have never heard of Bern Porter. He was an early publisher of Henry Miller and Anais Nin. He was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project without his own knowledge, and upon realizing it, spent two years in Japan to atone. Later he became an artist and poet himself. I couldn't believe I hadn't seen his work before.

When I got back to my studio I went to abebooks.com and bought some of these wonderful books.

Next time I will take the assignment more seriously.

Do you have books/artists I should know about?