Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Woman Who Bumped Her Head

So I was driving down the road the other day, and the sun is shining, and I’m thinking about lunch, and… 

Suddenly the car is moving sideways. I grip hard on the wheel as I hear the crunch of metal and I’m drifting up against the guardrail to a stop. This happens in a fraction of a second. The green smoke coming out of the dashboard and the airbags in the windshield make it hard to see. Whatever it was, I never saw it coming.

Luckily, I just scratched my leg. I've had worse cuts in the last year playing basketball. The other driver? She’s fine too. She bumped her head on the steering wheel, even though her car looked like it hit an oak tree. 

My car? The last time I saw it, the biggest forklift I've ever seen was carrying it away into a sea of broken vehicles. Two wrecks caused a scratch and a bump. That’s it. Surprisingly, at no point after my car was destroyed with me in it have I been angry. 

After being hit, my first thoughts had more to do with fear: “Did I just run a red light? Did I just kill somebody?” I think it was the sanest reaction I could have had, given I was totally clueless to what had just happened. 

But after kicking open my car door, and talking to two witnesses, turns out that I had just been driving down the road, legally, thinking about lunch. The woman in the other car ran a red light and t-boned me without so much as a tap of the brakes. I didn't know this when I was at her window seconds after the accident, asking if she was OK. 

After finding out what happened, you would think I could muster some anger toward her, but I can’t. None of it made me mad, even though she was driving illegally, with only a learner’s permit and no one else in the car. The single most important thing about her is that she isn't at the morgue, and that no one else is at the morgue because of me. I will remember her only as The Woman Who Bumped Her Head. 

For the few hours after the accident, I was at home, with lots of hugging and kissing, and thanking of God I wasn't hurt, and counting of blessings that it wasn't worse. Then, I talked to my insurance company. The woman assigned to my claim was very nice, totally on my side. She was trying to explain the process without confusing me too much. 

I was glad to talk to her, until she came to the part where she said "it was your fault, probably about 10-20% your fault, because you never saw the other vehicle." Huh? I’m partially to blame because I didn't see anything? It was in those moments spent on the phone, trying to comprehend, that I got defensive about my defensive driving. This is when I got angry. 

The reason it's my fault (at least partially) is a concept called comparative negligence, and even if you are dealing with the best employees of the best insurance company, willing to get you through an unpleasant process with a bare minimum of inconvenience, comparative negligence is one of the reasons why the insurance industry is so good at making people feel so bad. 

Comparative negligence is a way for the insurance companies to figure out who’s paying what when someone makes a claim. In certain situations, I can see its value. It likely wouldn't be on the books if the finest legal minds hadn't signed off on it. But there’s no way I could have avoided this accident, your honor.

Cars approach busy intersections all the time. That’s what makes them “busy.” Most of the cars stop, even though some of them are coming pretty fast. If I regularly drove as if every car that approached an intersection might run the light, I’d get hit by the cars behind me, regularly. 

Somebody told me that, under this statute, the only way I wouldn't be somewhat at fault in an accident is if I wasn't in my car at all, like a hit and run, or if the other party was an animal, like a deer. I guess the good news is I wasn't a deer running through that green light, or else it would have been 100 percent my fault. 

At the same time I’m wrapping my mind around that, I had to worry about the damage assessment dude giving me a fair actual value for my destroyed vehicle, or should I say, the value of the vehicle a split second before it became an $8,000 fixer-upper. I took the guy’s first settlement offer, and I picked up my check because I just wanted to move past it. 

What makes all of it so tiring is the process of assigning blame. I didn't want to blame anyone (least of all myself in this case). After tempting fate, the scratch on my leg and I wanted to go home and call it a day. Even if blame is parceled out in percentages, and recorded in legal documents, nobody ever wins. The blame game makes people feel bad, no matter which side you're on. 

Again, it’s all about moving past it. We all make mistakes, but the faster you can move past them, the better you feel, which might be the reason I’m not angry at The Woman Who Bumped Her Head. Would a psychiatrist come to this same conclusion, or would that person say I’m in denial, transferring my feelings of anger onto the insurance company? My wife’s theory is that I sustained an injury to the part of my brain that builds tolerance for corporate and legal bureaucracy. That lobe was weak and puny to begin with, so if it’s true, it wouldn't be any great loss. 

Will I ever be mad at the Woman Who Bumped Her Head? Even though I’m not a mental health professional, I’ll say it’s not likely. Will I ever stop being mad at the insurance company for telling me it was my fault? It will take some time, but probably. Will losing a car always feel exactly like the loss of my trusted blankie when I was five years old? I’ll leave that one to the shrink.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Don't Fear The Reader

I don’t read much. Not like I should. I’m not reading big, thick, heavy, complicated books of significance. I’m not reading the classics or the heady bestsellers, the books that make you feel like you've really accomplished something.

I read magazine articles – short magazine articles. I read snippets and sound bites and headlines and lead paragraphs. All this makes me interesting at parties, adept in short conversations, but if you corner me and ask about Russian literature, I may panic. I fear I lack depth. Is there a support group for this? Hello, my name is Jay, and I only read a book or two per year. 

I linger is what I do. I’m slow. I never have a bookmark and I overestimate my ability to remember what page I’m on. Losing my place means I lose interest and choose sleep instead. In contrast, my wife is a machine. She’s not a speed reader, but she chews through books, chapter after chapter. This is a smart woman with good habits I unfortunately don’t share. 

I use the party metaphor because I began worrying more about my literary deficiency after attending two parties. At party #1, at a friend’s place in St. Paul, I got into a discussion with a guy who was visiting from New York. He mentioned Isabelle Allende, and I naively asked, “Who’s Isabelle Allende?” He responded by telling me in a scolding tone that “Isabelle Allende is a VERY FAMOUS writer.” 

I responded with a silent, stern stare, but the little voice in my head said: "First of all, William Shakespeare is a VERY FAMOUS writer. Secondly, you’re pretty gutsy to be this insulting, with people you've never met before, on unfamiliar turf. If I were an obnoxious New Yorker, like yourself, I might have called you a &@!$% to your face, but I’m just a quiet Midwestern guy. Better I tell everyone at this party you have a communicable disease, and leave it at that. How ya like me now, Mr. Contagious?"

Isabelle Allende is a novelist from Chile, and the daughter of a former Chilean president, for all my fellow Midwestern hicks out there who wondered. 

At party #2, a guy I've known for years came up to me and asked me if I've read any good books. He talked at length about his reading list, and I scrambled to remember the last thing I read. While I managed to spit out something intelligible, I wondered why I was getting so irritated. Why on earth did this simple line of conversation make him appear so smart and make me feel so dumb? I’m sure he didn't mean it that way - the man was just looking for some reading recommendations. 

Clearly I have some issues that need attention, one of which may be that I should be reading more instead of going to all these parties. "If only I were a little smarter." How many times has that thought gone through our little heads? That’s what the desire to be better read is about for many of us, isn't it? 

Since we were kids, our parents and our teachers indoctrinated us with the belief that the smart kids were readers. Being told to read more was a warning meant to incite good behavior through fear, like "drink your milk," or "don’t crack your knuckles," or "stay away from those power tools." Not reading had harmful consequences. 

It’s undeniable that reading is a tremendous part of learning for children, but what about with adults well past their school years? Surely there isn't a direct correlation between adult reading and intelligence, no formula that states [(Reputable Novels – Romance Novels) x Age = IQ Score)]. 

Some people could read as a profession and not get any smarter or more interesting, and conversely, others don’t even read book covers and yet possess extraordinary minds. But, for many of us, that thought still lurks, "if only I were a little smarter."

Maybe that’s why there’s so much money being spent chasing the bigger, faster, smarter brain. Look at all the memory aids, omega-3 fish products and mental exercises on the market, all the speed-reading courses and supplements and snake oils exploiting our fears of dumbness…er, stupidity…whatever. 

The point is, there’s a lot of insecurity out there. I say let’s acknowledge it. Hello, my name is Jay, and I’m insecure! Let’s acknowledge it’s a competitive world out there, with a lot of pressure to be the best. But getting so worried leaves us vulnerable to exploitation. Remember that next time you watch an infomercial for Ginkgo Biloba Brain Enhancers on late-night TV. Instead of calling that number toll-free, tell yourself that a better financial position awaits, "if only I were a little smarter." 

This is the phrase that bears repeating – "smart is overrated." Those who went to college probably noticed that being smart helps you get by, but not as much as dedication or patience or doing something you love. Those who didn't go to college probably noticed the same thing in their chosen professions. 

Smart may be the necessary name of the game for students, when the GPA is the perceived yardstick of a young life, but it’s really not that important when compared to those other attributes. Past a certain age, smart will finish a crossword puzzle, and that’s about it. 

My wife and I have little readers now, and I hope lots of things for them. I hope they stay healthy, and I hope that they’re good to others. I hope they’re happy in the pursuit of their passions, I hope they work hard, and yes, I hope they’re smart as whips. 

But notice that smart isn't on the top of my list. Smart isn't the answer unto itself. Hey, I’m not saying don’t read more. Join the Book of the Month Club if it makes you feel better. Get ambitious and start your own book club. I’ll be right there with you, never completely comfortable that I’m reading enough books. 

But beware. John Milton (who wrote Paradise Lost, which I haven’t read) supposedly read so much he went blind. I can’t confirm that, but please read in moderation out there folks, just to be safe.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Serial Never Gets Stale

The week after our first child was born, my wife and I watched the entire first season of The West Wing on DVD. I tell myself we did it because our emotional vulnerability made us susceptible to a good drama. That, and newborns sleep a lot. Babies can, no lie, sleep 20 hours a day. Read Dr. Spock if you don’t believe me. 

We also have a son now, and I can’t remember if he was born during our viewing of The West Wing Season 4 or Season 5. After awhile, they all blend together and are hard to remember, aren't they? I’m talking about the TV shows, not the kids. 

The shock value of my son and daughter being born (nudity, bad language, adult situations, etc.) will not ever be forgotten. If we had it on home video, it would be rated NC-17. So why, when we admit with guilt what we were doing during those first precious days, are we not being chastised for our behavior? 

Instead of telling us we’re horrible people with out-of-whack priorities, people say things like, “Yeah, I've really been addicted to that new show Heroes,” or, “My son and I got caught up watching Prison Break last year,” and even, “I took time off work to finish watching the last two seasons of The Sopranos. Do you have coffee? Seems I forgot to sleep last night.” 

This collective insanity is the product of DVDs and Charles Dickens. Dickens, one of the most popular writers ever, released his stories in weekly or monthly serial form. The first installment of The Pickwick Papers was released in April of 1836, and the final installment of his last completed book, Our Mutual Friend, was released in November, 1865, 8 months before his death. 

It is said that American fans would stand on the docks in New York, waiting for his latest installments as they arrived by boat. Only after their serial release were Dickens’ stories compiled into books. 

Now, I’m not saying The West Wing is as good as Great Expectations, but doesn't this sound familiar? A very popular story is released weekly and is later compiled into a book. A very popular TV show is released weekly and later compiled on DVD. As a result, there are people waiting on front steps around the country for the mailmen to deliver the next Netflix, just like New Yorkers waiting for the boat to deliver the next chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Hollywood is the ultimate copycat. 

Let me confirm that my wife and I are not horrible people – we’re just like all the other sheep being sucked in by good shows in a really convenient format. People are suckers for a good story and always have been. The convenience factor makes it even harder to resist. There’s a lot of garbage on TV, but most of what’s being released on DVD is the best of the best. Notice the absence of any reality TV in box sets. 

I do worry that casual TV watching is dead. Unlike a basic sit-com, enjoying most of these new shows depends upon seeing the episode before it. The Sopranos, Oz, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Entourage, The Office, Prison Break, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Heroes; I've heard they’re great, but I can’t just randomly sit down and watch. I wouldn't have any idea what was going on. I might as well watch soap operas in Spanish, or worse, legislative committee hearings on C-SPAN. 

The categories are being redrawn. What kind of viewer are you? 

The Completely Obsessed Viewer - I watch when my shows air, rearranging my life to accommodate the schedule, never daring to break the routine. I camp out in front of Best Buy the night before any of the DVD box sets are released. I live for of the “bonus” or “extras” disks, and other than the trips to Best Buy, I don’t get out much. 

The Binge Viewer – I try to see the shows when they air, but I’m more focused on watching the DVDs in grueling marathon viewing sessions. I invite my friends, but most stop coming because they can’t endure it. Mail sits unopened. So do the window blinds. Appearance and personal hygiene during these sessions is a problem. 

The Casual Viewer – as stated before, moderation is no longer possible. 

The Non-Viewer - I give up completely because I have no idea what’s going on. I try occasionally to watch, but it is no use. I tell people that watching DVD box sets is a fad no different than collecting Beanie Babies, or following a low-carb diet, but people don’t listen. I live a normal, fulfilling life, and still, I feel left out. 

See? You’re either in or you’re out. You know or you don’t know. There is no in between. For us, I fear that our West Wing experience is a sign that our fate is sealed. Television has us in its clutches. 

Like the cast of Lost, we are in a strange world from which we cannot escape. Help us. We are afraid of what will happen if we don’t press the (play) button. We’re getting less and less interesting as people, less and less functional. Help us to live in the real world again. Help!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Collector

I sold my Smashing Pumpkins. You heard me right. This early-90’s, grunge-loving, 32-year-old music fan sold his Smashing Pumpkins, and I don’t even know for how much. I probably didn't get $2 for it.

This is no small change in direction for me. In the past, I've had a CD collection that fluctuated in number between 200 and 300. It might have been larger, but with the kind of college friends and acquaintances I had, the collection tended to shrink against my will. 

The difference now is that I want that collection to shrink. I want to sell, dump and give away. If I can't remember the last time I listened to an album, I don't want it around, and that is why 75 of my previously-precious CDs were recently converted to $90 in my pocket. 

As a collector, this is sacrilege. The collector always wants more. The collector finds comfort in thinking any item in the collection is accessible years or decades later, whether it will be or not. The collector finds peace in owning and having, storing and organizing. The collector becomes a connoisseur while the collection grows. 

And this isn't (completely) about showing off. Collectors loves to impress at parties, but those who are serious get off on admiring their collections in private. I was like that. I loved the fact that I had more CDs than my friends. I was more in the know. I had better taste in music. I liked to think I could listen to Smashing Pumpkins 20 years from the day I bought it, and that was appealing to me. 

Now, I couldn't care less. Time spent with others is now rarely time spent talking about music. Rolling Stone is no longer delivered to my house, and I rarely listen to the radio for music (even The Current gets only about 5 minutes of my time a day). It’s not a status thing for me anymore – it isn't socially important to like one band or another, or to like music my friends like. I’m only interested in listening as an enjoyable experience. That’s it. I’m totally in a vacuum, totally immune from outside influence. There is no “too popular,” or “overplayed.” If a song gets overplayed, it’s because I've kept it in the CD player too long. If I like the music, for whatever reason, that’s all that matters. 

I trace my new behavior back to the days when my Dad began building his monstrous VHS collection, which began the day he first visited Sam’s Club. He had never been a collector as far as I knew, unlike me, but there was something about those cheap movies on cassette that he could never pass up. 

My Dad must have over 500 movies now. 500! As a young movie buff, I loved it. But I remember when we were looking for something to watch on shelf after shelf of tapes, we spent a lot of time staring, trying to get excited about something we’d already seen. Even with all those movies, there really was NOTHING TO WATCH. 

I tried to think about how big the collection would have to be for us not to feel like that – was it 1000? – 2000? Eventually I realized it wouldn't matter. It would never be enough. Bruce Springsteen sang about “57 channels and nothing on.” He was right. It’s never enough. 

So maybe I realized it early on with movies, and it just hit me with music. It’s not the destination of having that perfect collection, it’s the journey of discovering music. No more looking back for me, only forward. I’ll listen to new things, develop my taste, and move on. I want to feel the rush of loving a new song more than I want to reminisce with something familiar. 

Maybe I’m just getting older, shifting into a new stage, and this is just an indicator of a new outlook. Maybe I’m having an early mid-life crisis. Maybe it’s about a lack of time, or lack of shelf-space. Maybe it’s about trying to break free from the material world. Maybe I just needed change for parking on a particular day. 

Whatever it is, I’m starting to get comfortable with the new philosophy. I’m now keeping an “active collection” of 75 CDs at any given time. When a new one comes in, the least desirable album gets the boot. Faced with tough choices, I will nonetheless travel light and gather no moss. I’m not going to refer to myself as a collector anymore. Now, I’m a recycler.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Personal Brand: Your Job-Hunting Method Du Jour

Looking for a job is a job. As someone in the market, I hear this all the time, and it’s 100 percent true. I get tired just thinking about looking for a job; the effort required in a place like the Twin Cities, among all the other smart, capable people, is backbreaking. Some say the economy is good, but I say it’s a battle out there. Even getting a graduate degree, like I just did, is no guarantee.

Too many companies have downsized too many times, and not only are people who lost their jobs looking for work, employees who stayed and had their responsibilities increased (with no increase in pay) are looking too. Absolutely everyone wants a new job. 

Well, have no fear, job seeker! The top employment authors and employment consultants have assured me that the latest key to job-hunter wealth and never-ending happiness is a Personal Brand. Yes, not just for multinational conglomerates anymore, brands are a way for smart and successful people like you and me to impress those who hire smart and successful people. 

To demonstrate how easy it is, I will create my own brand right on the spot. I am no longer Jay Kelly…I am now the physical manifestation of JK™. The authors and consultants don’t recommend you do this without their advice, so proceed with caution. 

Now that I’m a brand, I don’t feel that much different, but my first instinct is that if I saw someone else using the letters JK, I’d be well within my rights to sue them (Personal Brand Benefit #1 – The Threat of Litigation). 

Before we continue, I want to be clear that having a Personal Brand doesn't mean that you have to do any heavy reading on the concept of brand. I myself read a magazine article and a few short blog postings before writing this for you. Paris Hilton considers herself a brand, and I’m willing to bet she doesn't read at all. 

Even so, maybe we should define personal brands a little bit better first, just to maximize our Personal Brand success. To use the example of Nike, the international sporting goods giant, brand is what we think and feel about Nike, and what Nike does to influence those thoughts and feelings. 

So if we hear that a pair of Nike shoes cost about $1.23 to manufacture, and in response, Nike spends millions of dollars to make some really cool ads, and consequently, we get excited buying Nike shoes for $150/pair, that’s brand (Personal Brand Benefit #2 – Rational Decision Making is Irrelevant). 

So what is the first step to make Personal Branding work for you? Make a list, of course. Make a list of all your friends. Then make a list of the attributes that they could use to describe you. Then make a list of all the attributes that you want your Personal Brand to represent. The attributes I use to describe JK™ are: stylish, intelligent, witty, sarcastic, sassy. 

Do your friends identify you with Personal Brand attributes you chose? No? I want to emphasize that it does not matter. The fact that they didn't choose the right attributes doesn't mean you need to grow, improve or change – it means that you need to buy cooler stuff and hang out with cooler people. 

Personal Brand does have something to do with your personality, but it has more to do with your car and your clothes, your personal computer and your PDA. Buzzwords are good too, especially in job interviews. Definitely use more buzzwords. 

Personal Branding is all about boldly moving forward, not staying stagnant by living in the past (Personal Brand Benefit #3 – Create or Buy Your Own Reality). Yes, your head may hurt. Moving into the future, creating a new reality – Personal Branding can seem so daunting. In truth, it is not. The Internet, my new cooler friends, is the key. 

Your ticket to success will be punched by a personal Web site and/or blog (Personal Brand Benefit #4 – Staking Your Claim in Cyberspace). Most experts will talk about differentiation as the core concept of Personal Brand, but every last one of them also mentions starting a blog, and this is the real key. 

These days, you don’t have to be a Web designer or a writer to be on the Internet, all you need is the overwhelming desire to tell other people about YOU. Don’t worry about your Google rankings. The fact that your blog exists at all is most important, and having the URL on your resume is a real difference maker. 

The new reality in the 21st Century of work is that the experience of having done something is more important than having done it well (Personal Brand Benefit #5 – The Experts Are Those Who Say They’re Experts). You now have all the knowledge you need to go forth and burn your Personal Brand on the world. Make sure and bring the ointment. 

I only hope that your brands can be as successful as JK™, the only brand to blend style, intelligence, and wit with the splash of sarcastic sass we all know and love. If you keep working hard, you’ll get there. If you believe the hype, it’s probably true. 

Disclaimer: This article is the sole property of JK™. No copies or re-creations can be used without express written authorization of JK™ representatives. JK™ cannot be held responsible for actions taken after reading this article that result in personal bankruptcy or social isolation. Thank you for your consumption of JK™ intellectual property.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Your NBA Franchise, About To Blow

There’s a lot going on for the sports fan in the fall. Football, hockey, basketball; it could be a full-time job keeping up with it all as a fan, but before you get too excited, let me remind you what you already know - sports rank pretty low in life’s priorities.

We should be seeking out meaningful conversations with our significant others, getting ourselves some exercise, and especially this fall, we should have been following our county commissioners’ races or researching the independent candidate for city park board (Go, park board candidate, go!).

But conversations aren't meant to have winners and losers, the treadmill is a worthy but boring adversary, and a political horse race is not an actual horse race, no matter how mind-blowing the graphics are on television. The juice of real competition just isn't there.

For some of us, we need a game. I've spent a significant amount of my life either playing or watching basketball, and probably logged more hours on the courts playing pick-up in college than I spent earning my degree. I graduated, so I figure no harm, no foul. But back to low priorities.

I know some people love their pro teams so much they throw batteries at opposing players when they attend games, but these leagues, these teams, and these players are not even close to inspiring that kind of loyalty these days. Save your Duracells, people.

Case in point: Four NBA players recently had an altercation at a night club that ended in someone trying to drive over one of the players, and said player pulling out his gun and firing it in the air. These sorts of things have happened before, and everyone shakes their heads and bemoans the coddled pro athlete, but three weeks and a Time magazine cover later, everything is back to normal.

One little sentence at the end of an article I read about this really got to me though – of the four players involved, three were either carrying guns or had guns in their cars. Let me repeat that. THREE OF FOUR HAD GUNS. These physical specimens, these millionaires, these men who never ever carry their own luggage were carrying guns!

Now, I don’t want to even get into the socio-economic, psycho-social, or geo-political reasons why pro athletes think they need to be armed for a night on the town. I do want to talk about simple math. There are 15 guys on each NBA roster, and 30 NBA teams. That’s 450 guys. If our three of four ratio holds, could 338 of them be packing heat on a regular basis?

It looks like that’s actually happening to some extent. In a recent Star Tribune article, the T-Wolves Mark Madsen said there were quite a few players he knew who had carried guns. This is the NBA, the same league that made the Washington Bullets franchise change their name because it was too violent.

Has it occurred to anybody to work some anti-gun clauses into those multi-million dollar contracts? Many teams won’t let players drive snowmobiles or motorcycles because it would put their investment (the player) at risk. Call me cautious, but isn’t it risky to the league if a player shoots someone?

So, we already knew before that NBA guys like to go out partying, and we now know that many NBA guys possibly carry guns. The club-going public needs to know we’re due for a gun battle of OK Corral proportions at a night club in an NBA town near you. I’m surprised we haven’t seen it already. Party people everywhere have now been warned.

If you’re in an NBA city, know your team’s home schedule. The new season began November 1. On those game nights, those who drink and dance should stay in and find something less dangerous to do, like starting a fight with your sweetie, about politics, while exercising on the treadmill, which is set on SPRINT. Now that’s competitive!