Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Why Cookies By George Will Always Remind Me of Joseph Stalin

Before I begin, I should preface that this post is neither a foaming-at-the-mouth anti-capitalist rant, nor is it a glowing product or brand endorsement. I've gone both ways on this blog, but this is neither. This is simply a meditation on the strange permutations of brand association and the weirdness of nostalgia.

When Edmonton International Airport (my workplace since the end of July) opened a Cookies by George outlet a couple of months ago, I was utterly delighted. Cookies By George, for those of you yet unfamiliar with it, is one of the world's few food outlet chains about which I will readily wax poetic. Its much vaunted made-from-scratch gourmet cookies are without fail the baked good equivalent of a Tangerine Dream album - complete and total taste bud candy, or, to put it more crassly, food porn. My only fear is that I will be busting out of my pants in short order working in such close proximity with it.

In Soviet Russia, the cookie eats you!
There is, though, a dark side to my attachment to Cookies by George - one that causes me a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. As a history major at the University of Alberta in the late 1990s, Cookies by George was a weekly treat that preceeded an 8:30 am seminar class on 'Topics in Soviet History' led by Dr. David Marples, a man well known as one of the world's leading experts on the political convections of modern-day Ukraine and Belarus. Every morning I had this class (I think it was a Wednesday), I would grab a coffee and a couple of cookies from CBG in HUB Mall at the U of A and then settle in for three solid hours of discussion about the Gulags, the Purges, the Ukrainian Famine and Stalin's cult of personality with the caffeine and sugar spike helping to keep me wired and attentive.

The upshot of this is that since that time, everytime I've walked past a Cookies by George outlet, I've instantly been reminded of the 20th century's most murderous dictator. It's an unfortunate association, but I guess an inevitable one. Fortunately, for the sake of my own intellectual and moral clarity, the reverse does not seem to be the case and I seem to still be perfectly capable of reading a book or an essay on Stalin and being suitably repulsed by his reign of terror and carnage without starting to salivate with visions of milk chocolate chunk cookies in my head. Were this the case, I might consider therapy.

If any communications people from Cookies by George are reading this post, I don't really think this unfortunate product association is widespread. In fact I would be willing to bet that I'm the only person on earth who associates your company's products with Joseph Stalin. But it does make me wonder about the power of unintended brand associations. Much has been written about the potential hazards of juxtaposed images, such as the use of celebrity endorsements. This works very well if you're Rolex and you have Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in your corner, but less well when you have Bruce Willis endorsing Seagram's Golden Wine Coolers, as he did shortly before entering rehab in the late 1980s.

Sometimes brands come under siege when they get caught up in major news events, as happened to both Adi­das and Dolce & Gabbana in 2009 when the former became associated with anti-government vio­lence in Iran and the latter with the notorious Australian crime matriarch Judy Moran. And then there's the case of Japan Airlines in the aftermath of the horrific 1985 crash of JAL Flight 123, which I discuss in my March 12 post on the communications consequences of the 3.11 disaster. In this case, the disaster triggered the slow decline of one of Japan's most iconic corporate brands in spite of the fact that it was shown to be in no way responsible for the disaster. In fact, with the Boeing company's faulty repairs to the 747 in question and the Japanese government's botched rescue efforts, it was undoubtedly the least culpable stakeholder - and yet it bore the brunt of reputational damage.

"Talk to the cookie 'cuz AHS ain't listening!"
By contrast, a strange association can sometimes do wonders for a brand or company. Returning to the subject of Edmonton-based cookie purveyors, Paradise Cafe and Bakery was a little-known baked good provider in Edmonton's downtown core before its profile was raised by a spectacular on-air kamikaze act by former Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett in late 2010 when he refused to speak to the press on the grounds that he was 'eating a cookie' in a display that was caught on video and quickly went viral. The Edmonton press were quick to find out where Mr. Duckett has purchased the oatmeal and raisin cookie in question, and Paradise did very brisk business for a while thereafter. Sometimes one person's triumph is more often than not someone else's triumph, but not always in the way you'd expect.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy Cookies by George's fine cookies, even at the risk of being reminded of one of histories worst villains. I wonder, too, if anybody else has any personal stories of strange product associations along these lines. I'd love to hear about them.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

6 PR Lessons from the Golden Age of Piracy


Yarrrrrr!!! On the occasion of International Talk Like A Pirate Day I would like to share with you some of the most important communications lessons from age of Calico Jack, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and other such scallywags.

The Golden Age of Piracy lasted roughly between the mid-17th to the mid-18th century, a time characterized by intense jockeying for imperial possessions in the New World between the leading Old World powers of the time - the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese and the English. The looting and plundering of the New World by these avaricious European monarchies meant that there was a great deal of gold and other loot in circulation, while the thin law enforcement capabilities of said powers meant a world of opportunity for skilled seafarers with a capacity for outside-the-box thinking and a taste for danger.

History also tells us that while a few of these pirates were indeed brutal sadists, the most successful tended to be canny communicators and concensus builders. John Rackham, better known as Calico Jack, owed much of his success to his ability to persuade captives to join his crew and more often than not let those who declined the privilege go free (after of course being relieved of their booty). Even the notorious Blackbeard (born Edward Teach), the epoch's most feared pirate, was known as an even-keeled buccanneer who never harmed captives as well as a shrewd negotiator who even managed to win himself a royal pardon - not long before he was killed by an anti-piracy mission led by Lt. Robert Maynard.

What, then, can be learned from these famous scoundrels within the domain of public relations? Here are six lessons on how to communicate, pirate-style.

1) Communicate your brand identity loud and clear.

While the Jolly Roger flag consisting of a skull and crossbones is today the universal symbol of piracy, during the Golden Age any pirate worth his salt had his own variation of the Jolly Roger flag. Calico Jack's flag consisted of a skull and two crossed swords. The classic Jolly Roger was flown by 'Black Sam' Bellamy, while Blackbeard flew a black flag with a devil-type figure spearing a red heart. Identifying yourself as a 'pirate' wasn't sufficient. It made a difference which pirate you were - and your flag was your brand identity. A distinctive name also helps.

File:Flag of Edward England.svgFile:Pirate Flag of Blackbeard (Edward Teach).svg
File:Pirate Flag of Jack Rackham.svgFile:Flag of Henry Every red.svg

2) Be forceful - but not needlessly so.

While the epic pirate battles of the silver screen occasionally happened, these were the exception rather than the rule during the Golden Age of Piracy. Piracy was so common at this time that ship captains were generally insured against it, meaning that they would generally surrender immediately upon being attacked rather than risk loss of life and vessel. As such, the most successful pirates were those who could skillfully commandeer a ship, strip it of its valuables and disappear with minimal disturbance. As a PR practitioner, you want to do the same - make your appearance, transmit your message and ensure that the emphasis is on the message, not the messenger.

3) Do your research.

As many of the great pirates of yesteryear were Crown-sponsored privateers gone rogue, these guys generally had an excellent knowledge of the various captains and crews that plied the territories in which they did their work. For example, they would know who the truly sadistic captains were (and there were many in those days), the ones who made liberal use of the cat-o-nine-tails to instill fear among their underlings. In such cases, a pirate might make a more forceful play for the captured crew to jump ship and join the pirate crew - and probably string up their hated captain from the riggings for good measure. Similarly, a good PR pro should gain an intimate knowledge of a particular domain before 'sailing in'.

4) Don't neglect your internal publics.

For pirates of yesteryear, external stakeholders included the large commercial interests of the day, merchant captains with ships to be plundered and local governors and monarchs whose political and diplomatic largesse had the potential to make or break a pirate's career. But the more successful pirates also paid close attention to internal communication with their own crews. It was common among pirate crews of yesteryear to have bonuses and insurance policies against loss of limbs and other hazards of the job, and as such a pirate who had successfully avoided the hangman's noose could look forward to retirement on a Carribbean island someplace. As a professional communicator, much like as a pirate captain, your job involves good communication with staff so as to ensure 'smooth sailing' through potentially stormy waters.

5) Make sure you safeguard your information.

Contrary to what Hollywood films would have you believe, pirates very rarely - if ever - buried treasure on desert islands, nor did they make elaborate treasure maps. This myth stems primarily from the legend of Captain Kidd (who was in fact an amazingly incompetant pirate) and his supposedly buried treasure, and probably has no basis in reality. Plundered loot was typically safeguarded by pirate crews and banked with the assistance of pliant local officials. Making a treasure map that could easily disappear from a ship's maproom would be the equivalent of leaving computer passwords and other vital information out in the open for anybody to swipe. Not a good plan if you're looking to thrive in the piracy and/or communications business.

6) Be ready to fight when you have to.

Sometimes things do get ugly - and you need your tools at your side to fend off an attacker. In piratical terms, this means having a 48-gun sloop at your disposal, as 'Black Sam' Bellamy did, or expert swordsmanship and marksmanship, for which Blackbeard was famous. And as a professional communicator, this means being proactive and anticipatory with a veritable artillery of key messages and communications tools at the ready.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Neologism of the Week - Hyphoon

What's with the random comma in there? Unless you're going for Shatnerian inflection.

Back in January of this year I wrote a post on portmanteaus in which I highlighted ten of my favourite compound neologisms. These included such gems as 'momniscience', 'floordrobe' and 'botax', as well as my personal favourite - 'pornado' (the frenzied whirlwind of activity of a person desperately trying to cover up their Internet porn use upon being walked in on). Occasionally, however, I come up with my own gem, one of which I would like to share with you today.

One of my biggest pet peeves as a writer and editor is the misuse of hyphens. Hyphens are a useful form of punctuation, and indeed one that I employ fairly liberally in my own writing. However, they often employed wrongly and excessively, such as in the phrase 'thank-you', 'South-American' and 'badly-punctuated'. I personally think Marvel Comics is at least in part to blame for hyphen overuse. Why exactly does Spider-Man have a hyphen in it when Batman, Superman, Aquaman and Iron Man don't? Never made any sense to me.

Sometimes, however, hyphen misuse goes beyond an inappropriate one here and there are goes to crazytown. Case in point the photo hereabove, taken at one of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. There is so much wrong with the punctuation on this sign that it's hard to know where to begin, but certainly the most striking feature of it is the crazed explosion of unnecessary hyphens. Granted American liberalism has a prediliction for hyphen-based inclusivity (i.e. _______-American), but at leasy 'Arab-American' and 'Chinese-American' are correct usages. This, however, is bizarre and perplexing.

Which brings me to my neologism of the week, which is hyphoon. I think this requires little explanation. Moreover, as my good friend Yair Linn pointed out, this also works in French as tirade d'union, which, for the benefit of non-French speakers, is an amalgam of tirade (same as in English) and trait d'union, which means hyphen. Perfect!

I'm always on the lookout for new and interesting phraseologies and neologisms, and cool portmanteaus in particular. Please let me know if you come across any - or come up with a gem of your own.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

6 Reasons Why Everybody Thinks They're A Writer

Writers are an oft-depressed lot. Not only do they tend to spend a lot of time in isolation staring at a screen (and getting little physical activity), but they also have to contend with a world that by and large considers 'writing talent' to be about as rare and prized as right-handedness or an extensive knowledge of Internet porn. Writing, we are told, is not like, say, proficiency in graphic design, cardiology or jazz piano. In other words, it's something that given a high school education we can all do reasonably well.

As a professional writer and editor who has worked as a wordsmith of one sort or another for nearly a decade,I have always resented the notion that writing is somehow less skill-bound than other creative domains. While it is rarely spelled out to me so matter-of-factly as "Oh, anybody can write!" and indeed the praises of 'good writers' are often extolled, when it comes down to meeting production deadlines and cranking out copy, I have more than occasionally found my services bypassed on the pretext that "Well, we needed it done so we got Bob to do it, and you seemed busy. And Bob can do it just fine."

The problem with this rationale, of course, is that often Bob can't do it 'just fine'. Not that Bob is an idiot, or even a bad writer per se, but after eight years of wordcrafting and word-nerdery I am exactly the person you want to get those critical messages fine-tuned and positioned in exactly the right spots in the text, while ensuring that there are no awkward sentences, misplaced commas or references to 'pubic service'. (Trust me - I've seen it happen more than once.) Moreover, as a staff 'writer', it's my job to do this sort of thing, and the fact that I am appearing busy is not a reason to bypass me. After eight years as a professional writer, I work fast - and can get assignments done very quickly.

This is not to say that I'm the king of the written word, nor that I don't make mistakes. I've made more than my fair share in my writing career. I've committed egregious typos and acts of grammatical terrorism that have made it to print and still make me cringe today. (I won't give you specific examples because I hope to continue getting work with the publications in question, who I think haven't noticed yet.) I do go back and correct my blog posts, sometimes on numerous occasions. And even beyond this, I frequently think of better ways I could have phrased something after it's too late. (When it's too late? After it's too late sounds redundant doesn't it?) But I continue to get better with every year I spend doing this. As it is with brain surgery or plumbing, the more mistakes I make, the better I get at avoiding them.

But to return to the original topic, it is true that 'good' writing is often seen as something of a extra - not a frivolity exactly but a bonus that, while desirable, isn't of life-or-death importance. Which, to be fair, I suppose it is. After all, having a burst water main or a listeria outbreak at your airport is significantly worse than having a misplaced semicolon or a dangling modifier on the airport's web copy on shopping and dining offerings. And even if you're sticking to the creative professions, hideous graphic design on a pamphlet is invariably worse than convoluted syntax within the copy, as the graphic design in question will likely prevent readers from picking it up in the first place.

Nevertheless, poorly constructed writing will derail your communications, make your social media communication less effective and generally make your brand less good. And while I'm not saying that writing 'talent' is the exclusive purview of a certain noble breed of elected ones, it is the purview of people who have spent many years playing with words, sweating over syntax and generally fretting over crap that most people rarely think about. Us word people are not normal. Take one of us to a rock concert and our first reaction to the exultation "Rock on!" is to ask "On what?" Yep, we're freaks, but we're the freaks who keep your web and brochure content from going south,

Still, though, everybody on one level or another thinks they're a writer. Here is my personal theory on why that is.

1) We all do it in one form or another.

We write every day. We write grocery lists. We write angry letters to our neighbours for blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd out the window at 11:00 pm on a Tuesday. We help our children with their writing homework. And some of us write obnoxious blog posts purporting to explain why everybody thinks they're a writer. Not everybody fixes their car transmission on their own or designs a book cover. But everyone with a baseline level of literacy writes - and all the more so in the era of social media.

2) It's not generally taught on an extracurricular basis.

Writing isn't seen in the same light as, say, playing the violin or slam-dunking a basketball. And one important reason for this, I believe, is that with the exception of certain really nerdy kids, hardly anybody studies writing as an extracurricular activity - it's seen much more as a core subject that everybody learns. And the kids in writing clubs are probably mostly there to escape bullies; the writing is just a pretext.

3) Bad writing is often less immediately apparent than, say, bad music or bad drawing.

When a singer is hideously off-key or mangling the lyrics to the national anthem or something to that effect, it's generally quite apparent, as is egregiously bad visual design. Bad writing doesn't generally have the same effect. I suspect the reason for this is that at first glance writing on a page simply looks like writing on a page, and any badness therein does not become immediately apparent until you really, really read it. Which brings me to my fourth point, which is....

4) Most people don't really do that much reading.

Now before you protest, let me ask you this question. When was the last time you picked up a travel brochure at a tourist infocentre or on the brochure rack on a ferryboat and actually read the thing from start to finish - or even the lion's share of it? Unless we're actually sitting down to read a novel, most of us (and I don't necessarily exclude myself from this) are terribly lazy when it comes to actually reading and digesting the vast amount of content out there. This, I believe, leads to a devaluing - on some level - of the skills of the people who produce such content. But the fact of the matter is that without good copywriters, the key messages in boldface that you do actually pay attention to won't pop up, much to the detriment of the company in question.

5) Schools reinforce bad writing habits.

 PR Daily ran a great article recently on how schools inculcate really terrible writing habits among pupils. Such habits include shooting for length rather than conciseness, adherence to arcane grammatical rules like not starting sentences with the word 'and' (something I do all the time), and an unhealthy fixation on the introduction-thesis statement-body-conclusion structure. While these quirks in writing education don't necessarily undermine professional writers' respect out in the world, it does contribute to a general overconfidence in regards to writing know-how. "Oh, I know what the rules are." No, you probably don't.

6) Nowadays, everybody truly can be a writer - with a readership.

Thanks to Blogspost and other free blogging programs, anybody can start a blog. And many, many people do - including many who really shouldn't. No....I don't really mean that. In fact I think everybody should blog, because blogging on a regular basis is a great way to build up your writing chops and become the writer you know in your heart you could be. Because anyone can be a good writer. You just have to start out as a mediocre one and plod ahead.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Yes We Can ≠ We Built It - Two Slogans Poles Apart

The terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' are bandied about with such gleeful abandon in US political life that they've largely been gutted of meaning. On the political right, the term 'liberal' has since the Clinton administration been employed as a slur, often prefaced by adjectives ranging from 'godless' to 'tax-and-spent' to 'freedom-hating'. Meanwhile, on the leftward end of the spectrum, many erstwhile 'liberals' now eschew the term in favour of 'progressive', while deploying the term 'conservative' in adjectival form accompanied by nouns such as 'theocrat', 'windbag', 'nutjob' and so on.

Given the ubiquitous nature of these terms (and their seemingly arbitrary use), it's worth consulting a dictionary. The term 'conservative' derives from the Latin conservare, which means 'to retain'. Wikipedia defines conservatism as "a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions" whose advocates tend  to either emphasize stability and continuity or oppose modernism and seek a return to 'the way things were'. Liberalism, on the other hand, is defined as "a political ideology or worldview founded on the ideas of liberty and equality" while progressivism is defined as "a political philosophy advocating or favouring social, political and economic reform."

This guy would have loved the
Romney/Ryan slogan.
While it's debatable how accurately these views characterize the leaders of the US Republican and Democratic Parties respectively, there's no denying than from a branding perspective, these characterizations are bang on. At last week's Republican National Convention in Tampa, the Romney/Ryan team unveiled its official campaign slogan, 'We Built It'. The open-endedness and punchy trisyllabic format of this now-viral catchphrase invariably draws comparisons to Obama's 2008 campaign slogan, 'Yes We Can'. While on the surface these catchphrases are essentially meaningless, these superficially similar campaign slogans both speak volumes to promises espoused by their respective candidates - and the political ideologies they represent.

While the Obama presidency's 'liberalism' or 'progressivism' remains a matter for debate, there's no denying that his 2008 election campaign was rooted in the dictionary definition of progressivism. Not liberalism, but progressivism. (Obama's stance on social issues, particularly LGBT rights, does however fit perfectly with the aforementioned definition of 'liberalism'.) The Obama campaign was all about change, and the catchphrase 'Yes We Can' is perhaps the perfect linguistic distillation of the progressive ethos. It's positive (yes); it's inclusive (we) and it highlights potential (can). It's a slogan that appealed to a belief in a positive future, a future alive with possibility. Nothing short of a call-to-arms for progressives.

The Romney/Ryan slogan, by contrast, is tautologically, even classically conservative. Not conservative in the modern-day neo-conservative sense or even really in a socially conservative or Tea Party sense. Conservative in the original sense as espoused by the likes of Edmund Burke in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Like the Obama slogan, it the inclusive 'We'. But thereon in it immediately hearkens to the past with the past-tense 'Built'. The nebulous 'It' is the word that has caused much consternation in cyberspace. While Romney and Ryan's business-fixated rhetoric makes the slogan's intended meaning clear (Yes, you the average American voter built this country, not that nasty narcissistic big government that wants to steal your lunch money and take credit for your homework!), some have also suggested that 'it' could refer to a national debt that looks to hit the $16.4 trillion borrowing limit by the end of this year.

Photo: Fellow word geeks: I invite you to deconstruct the slogan in the background. Not only does the 'did' in "We did build it!" seem really awkward, but they've underlined it for what appears to be a strange extra emphasis. With one word and a line they've rendered a meaningless slogan even more meaningless. Your thoughts?
Is that the Nike swoosh under the 'did'?
Ambiguity notwithstanding, though, the 'We Built It' slogan is arguably the most perfect conservative slogan ever devised. It's a slogan that says, "We've built these institutions, and we should keep them in place." Whether true-blue Burkean conservatism will register with the American voting public remains to be seen, but if nothing else it makes for a refreshing departure from the amphetamine-crazed neo-Conservatism of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld or the cartoonish Tea Party conservatism espoused by the likes of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin - neither of which fit with the encyclopedic definition of the term. As for the Obama team, progressivism continues to define Democratic sloganeering with the party adopting one-word catchphrase 'Forward' for 2012. 'Forward' is a tad more muscular and perhaps even militant sounding than 'Yes We Can', but it's still textbook progressivism.

Which ideology will win the day? While it's still too early to say, the recent appearance of a campaign banner with the curiously overemphatic 'We Did Build It' (with the 'did' underlined no less) suggests that the Romney team is feeling a tad desperate. "No really, we DID build it!! Honest!" I guess we'll see on November 6.

And then there's the issue of the band Jefferson Starship. While the veteran San Francisco psychedelic rock group has yet to weigh in on the issue of the Romney/Ryan campaign slogan, one can't help but wonder if they lifted it from the group's iconic 1985 hit. Then again, at the time when We Built This City hit the airwaves, the group existed only in the form of the Mickey Thomas-led spinoff simply called 'Starship'. Which is fitting given that the current crop of Republicans are not particularly, er, Jeffersonian (sorry).

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Ways of Remembering - 9/11 and the Unfolding of Historical Memory

On September 11, 2001, 19 extremists affiliated with the terrorist organization al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial jetliners and conducted a coordinated attack on New York City and Washington, D.C. The attacks resulted in nearly 3,000 immediate deaths, including 246 passengers and crew on the four planes, 2,606 in New York City (in the Twin Towers and on the ground) and 125 at the Pentagon in Washington. In the years following this horrible tragedy, we have all been urged remember 9/11 upon each successive September 11. But as time goes by and historical memory continually twists and turns, it's equally important to reflect on how passage of time has changed our view of the calamity while enriching our 'memories' with additional viewpoints and information unavailable to us at the time.

United Airlines Flight 175 approaches the south tower of the World Trade Center tower in New York after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower some twenty minutes earlier.
Not the sort of thing one simply forgets.
It is said that everybody old enough to be aware of world events on September 11, 2001 (and presumably living in a connected part of the world) remembers exactly where they were when the earth-shattering events of that day took place. In my case, I not only remember the day as vividly as it were yesterday,  but I can also trace much of my current passion for writing and communication back to that dark morning in September. September 11 changed everybody in some way. In my case, it heightened my awareness of the dangers of ideological inflexibility, the value of clear and concise communication and the importance of lucid, informed and self-aware historical remembrance.

The week before September 11, 2001 was the start of my first semester of graduate studies at the University of British Columbia. I had returned home after two years of teaching English in Japan and was about to embark on an MA in Japanese History. On Friday, September 7 I taught my first seminar classes as a TA for a first-year course on Twentieth Century World History. For the following Friday's classes I was to give the students their first assignment for the term, which was to write a paper on the way in which the telling of a historical event has evolved over time, from the day of its occurrence to the present.

On the Tuesday morning when the planes hit the Twin Towers, my clock radio snapped on at 6:00 am (Pacific Time) - just as the second plane hit the South Tower. Like probably many others at that time in the morning, my first dazed thought was that I was dreaming, that this couldn't possibly be really happening. But it quickly became clear that it had to be real. I quickly went upstairs to the communal TV room at the St. John's College dorm at UBC, where at least half the residents were glued to the monitor in stunned silence. Nobody uttered a word other than a solemn 'hi' as I entered the room. Complete silence.

I may have been in one of the few job whose life was made easier by 9/11. After a few days of coming to grips with what had just happened, I was as well equipped as anyone could possibly be to lead a seminar on historical memory - and how that memory evolves over time. My work that Friday was easy. Everyone in that classroom was cognizent of having just experienced a historical event every bit as consequential as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the dropping of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 or the moon landing. I went on to frame their assignment along the lines of "Think about how we're talking about the Twin Tower attacks now - and how the media is talking about it. Now imagine how people will talk about it in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years - 100 years."

In retrospect, I was understating the matter considerably. I had no concept at the time of what the permutations of the 9/11 narrative even within the first decade thereafter would look like. In popular parlance, the Twin Tower Attacks became simply September 11, which in turn became 9/11, a epithet that has proved enduring thus far. What began with profound grief and an outpouring of international sympathy quickly distilled into unadulterated anger in the US - and a growing nervousness overseas as to what had been unleashed. The widely supported military overthrow of the Taliban led to the Bush administration's agonizingly long pep-rally for war in Iraq, which succeeded in evaporating much of the international goodwill the US had engendered in a space of under two years. Iraq quickly became a 'Vietnam-lite' quagmire and Bush became only slightly less loathed than Osama bin Laden. In the meantime, the biggest All-American conspiracy fest since the Kennedy assassination rose and thankfully subsided, give or take the occasional reappearance here and there.

The global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the inglorious conclusion of the George W. Bush presidency saw yet another change in the zeitgeist. American and international pundits alike began speaking of 9/11 as the beginning of the end of Pax Americana, as heralded by the fallout on Wall Street and the ascendency of China and the other BRICS. Such talk has continued to characterize much of the discussion around 9/11 under the Obama administration, albeit with brief reprieves from the gloom such as that permitted by the killing of the 9/11 mastermind in May of 2011. But on the whole, since those six or seven frenzied years following the attacks, the tone of discussion about 9/11 has remained remarkably consistent - that of a tragic event that shook a nation to the core and, perhaps, triggered a slow unravelling of its once-unmatched superpower status. For the time being at least, our collective memory seems to have reached a plateau of sorts. But suffice it to say, this too will change.

How will the tone of 9/11 discussions evolve from now? It's tempting to say that the date September 11 will eventually take its place among the 'big dates' in world history like August 6, November 11 and December 7 - dates which correspond with events known to everybody but are not necessarily dates that everyone knows off by heart. Then again, the bombing of Hiroshima, the end of World War I and the bombing of Pearl Harbor all took place in a pre-Internet, pre-social media world (even 9/11 was slightly ahead of Web 2.0), meaning that 9/11 has from the very beginning been discussed in very different way from these aforementioned historical events. On August 6, 1945, the only tools available to the Japanese public was a Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper that had been reduced over the course of the war to a skeleton service (about four pages in all) and an obliterated telephone service. Compare that to the mass-tweeting in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 tsunami and you have quite the contrast. Can digital media do for the communication of historical memory what it has done for communication as a whole? On the one hand it can vastly improve our capacity for remembrance, while on the other it can simply accelerate forgetfulness and distortion.

As a newly minted communications advisor for a major North American international airport (which 11 years ago was among those in Canada that served as a safe harbour for various stranded US-bound aircraft), this September 11 feels all the more significant. The significance of the tragedy to the airline industry was made particularly apparent during a recent conversation with my communications counterparts from Boston-Logan International Airport, the airport from which both of the World Trade Center-bound 767s departed on that fateful morning. I encourage you all to visit the airport's Facebook page, which features a 9/11 tribute every year on the day in question, which simply reads 'Boston Logan International Airport: Remembers'. The digital tools we now have at our disposal allow us to view events like 9/11 from a wide range of perspective, allowing us to enrich our personal memories of disasters with a those of others. In other words, in the age of social media, you don't have to work within an industry to look through the lens with which it sees the world. But we do often need a reminder to look in these places.

In today's connected world, we have unprecedented access to a wide range of perspectives on events like this. We have access, for example, to the social media outlets of institutions like Boston-Logan International Airport and the New York City Fire Department, which were directly impacted by the attacks. We have access to online voices for 9/11 victims and their families. We have access to religious organizations, including Islamic organizations offering their perspectives on the attacks and the forces that may have motivated the 19 extremists at the centre of the plot, as well as access to anti-religious organizations that rail against religion as being a harbinger of extremism and barbarism. And yes, we also have access to the lunatic fringe, from conspiracy theory crackpots to religious zealots of Islamic and other persuasions who remain convinced that the acts were the product of divine will. We can do more than remember. We can enrich our memories with broader knowledge.

Gone but far from forgotten.
And as we remember, it's also well worth reflecting on how the world has changed since the attacks. While the dark side of the 9/11 legacy is well known, ranging from increase in anti-Arab and Islamophobic racism the western world to a convoluted and for the most part poorly executed war in Iraq, the world is - in a number of important respects - a safer place as a result of the tragedy. The post-9/11 changes to airport and on-board security have made airline hijackings much rarer. In the 11 years following the attacks, there have only been 11 attempted hijackings of civil aircraft, of which most were quickly thwarted, with exactly zero fatalities. And while the War on Terror has had its fair share of critics, the fact that the United States has not had a single terrorist act committed on its soil since September 11, 2001 is well worth noting. And while religious extremism continues to poison life in many parts of the world, the high watermark of fundamentalist belief represented by 9/11 has been followed by a slow but palpable ebb. Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda's ideology has been largely discredited and the threat of another 9/11 appears less likely than it has been in a long time. And for this we can all be extremely thankful.

On 9/11, we remember. We remember the sudden anihilation of 3,000 lives and the suffering endured by those left behind in the tragedy's wake. We remember the incredible show of courage put forth by the NYC and Washington firefighters and other emergency personnel. We remember how for a brief instant all nations save a few rogue states joined hands in solidarity with the victims and the victimized country. We remember how in an instant the world was awakened to the scale of the threat posed by international terrorist organizations. We remember all this. But as we do so, we should remember to reflect on how our views of the attacks have been influenced by the passage of time and strive to remember a bit better. Our memories may be notoriously unreliable tools, but with a bit of effort on our part we can all be a bit more expansive and reflective in our remembrance.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How To Write Gooder - 3 Pages of Longhand At An Ungodly Hour

A number of years ago, my wife introduced me to The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron - the mother of all creative self-help books. To this day it remains the only self-help book I routinely recommend to others and continue to employ myself.

Those of you who read my blog know how much of a fierce skeptic I am, be it about religion, new age trends, politics, marketing or anything else that has yet to prove its mettle in the face of cold, hard investigation. I also tend to be a knee-jerk skeptic when it comes to self-help manuals. I try to keep an open mind about them but I invariably end up getting irritated and putting them back on the shelf, opting instead for one of my usual nerdy history books, an angry screed by Christopher Hitchens or some ridiculous mashup of Jane Austen and zombie apocalyptica.

But not The Artist's Way. This is a book I routinely go back to for inspiration when my creative ideas dry up or I'm otherwise feeling stuck. When I first picked up the book I had just left graduate school with a vague notion of pursuing a career in writing/communications but no real clue what I was doing. Julia Cameron's elegant stepladder-type creative exercises coupled with down-to-earth creative advice not only expanded my notions of what was possible but sharpening my writing skills like nothing else. It got me writing in a far more focused and serious manner, which in turn led to a career as a freelance writer, a sharpshooter editor and a professional communicator. I give Cameron a lot of credit for this.

While this and her follow-up books (which I confess I have yet to work my way through) are replete with excellent advice, her one main tool has done more to hone my writing skills than any other - the 'Morning Pages'. It's very simple really. You get up, you make a pot of tea or coffee or whatever, you sit down and you crank out three pages of longhand. And then you carry on with your day. Not enough time in the morning? Set your alarm 30 minutes earlier than you otherwise would. Distracted by the computer? Turn it off. No distractions. Just you, a caffeinated beverages, a pen and a notebook.

Granted, I would be lying if I said I'd been completely consistent with the Morning Pages over the years. In fact I really fell out of the habit upon moving back to Canada. Since then it's been hit and miss, but in recent months I've put forth a major effort to make sure those pages get done in the morning. And if I don't manage them in the morning, I do three pages in the evening - although 'Evening Pages' really don't pack the same processing punch.

So what, exactly, do the Morning Pages do for you? I can only tell you what they do for me, and why I currently feel compelled to get up at 5:30 in morning to do them.

1) My writing chops improve markedly when I do them.

Not that my mornings scribblings are ever poetic. Far from it - it's pure brain-dump, and brain-dump while my brain is still waking up and often mad at being up at all. I rarely read my old Morning Page notebooks after the fact, and when I do the content is often embarrassing. But being a writer is like being a musician. If you want to get good at it, you have to practice every day.

2) I feel much more organized when I do them.

For me, Morning Pages are more than a writing tool. They're an organizational tool. I have a pretty good memory when it comes to things I have to get done on any given day, but rehashing them in prose form while I'm still waking up tends to make for much more efficient, smoothly flowing workdays. And when you're trying to juggle a full-time job, a part-time study program and other extra-curriculars, this really helps.

3) Writing longhand is a refreshing departure from my usual activities.

Like most 21st-century workers, I spend most of my working life glued to a PC, and the vast majority of the writing I do is on a computer. Putting pen to paper is not only a refreshing departure from having my retinas abused by a flickering monitor but also gives me a fresh perspective on words, how they look, which ones might fit interestingly together and so on.

4) It's a great place to brainstorm.

Remember when your junior high English teacher asked you to write quietly on your own in a notebook for maybe five minutes at the beginning of class as a brainstorming exercise? I always enjoyed that. As a blogger, my best ideas for topics have generally come from three sources: sitting on the toilet, running and doing Morning Pages. And as I'm generally not on the toilet for long enough to fully flesh out an idea, it's mostly the latter two - and more Morning Pages than anywhere else.

5) It helps me wake up.

I've never been a morning person. My Morning Pages sort of act as an extra spike of caffeine in my, er, caffeine. Like a shot of whisky dropped in a pint of beer - except with the reverse effect.

6) It's a very appealing ritual.

If there's one thing I envy about people with religious faith, it's the comfort to be found in ritual - be it the flicking of rosary beads, the unrolling of the prayer mat, the donning of the turban and kirpan at the gurdwara or the waft of incense that greets you at a Buddhist temple. These days the closest I get to religious practice is writing, but I find the same kind of comfort in the laying out of my favourite rollerball pens, my notebook and a piping hot pot of Japanese tea. Granted, there's usually nothing saintly about the contents of my Morning Pages, which are often rife with expletives, but it's a daily ritual that invariably sets me off on the right foot - even when I'm dealing with all kinds of crap in my life.

For more on Julia Cameron and the power of Morning Pages, visit this site.