blue parrot thinking: the shared plight of churches and car dealers

Reflections on websites, damned websites and how analog and digital approaches are now one and the same.

Over the years here, I’ve shared at length (and perhaps lengths too far) of the brief life I once spent working in ministry. I haven’t spoken much about the life I spend now.

For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked in digital media: writing, editing and overseeing content for sports websites and support for and development of websites for the auto industry. I began the former with a background in journalism and WordPress; this very web presence, along with the work I did with a collegiate fishwrap, got me in the door there.

I began the latter with what could only be charitably described as rudimentary coding ability. I never studied anything more than QBasic in junior high and had a crude understanding of HTML. I would never consider myself a savant or expert developer, but I did find that I had a knack for this stuff, so I learned HTML, Bootstrap and CSS, can read and mostly interpret JavaScript but can’t seem to make the jump to writing it. I intuitively understood that if I didn’t swim, I’d sink and my family would starve. My understanding of ‘innovate or die’ is in many ways quite literal.

Over the last two-plus seasons in web support, development and a stint in account management for good measure, I’ve worked on a lot of projects and websites, which has allowed me to interact with a lot of people in the auto industry, from dealership proprietors from the used lot down the street to executives overseeing some of the largest auto groups regionally and nationally. By and large, my opinion of auto dealers remains healthily skeptical; I’ve been privileged to talk with really smart, savvy and collegial folks from every time zone.

I’ve talked to others, as well. (Haven’t we all?)

The interesting thing is how similarly those professionally part of American Evangelicalism and in your garden variety North American car dealership think.

Whilst perusing LinkedIn, I happened upon this meme:

As a rule, I don’t do much on LinkedIn. This, and the presuppositions behind it, moved me to violate my own principles. I couldn’t not act, and that was the moment that I realized that I was and am, indeed, a fully-fledged digital evangelist. Much like encountering someone upholding the principles of five-point Calvinism, the fire was trapped in my bones and I could not contain it.

Let’s talk about blue parrot thinking.

The world now exists as a singular duality: the material world (the booth I’m sitting in, the coffee I drink, the keyboard upon which I am relentlessly hammering right now) and the digital version (the website you’re reading [hi!], the memes you share, the snaps that were and are no longer save for the gutter of one’s mind.) There is no longer a difference between the two: your website, digital brand, social media footprint, all of them are viewed as equivalent to your actual self. A car dealership’s website is not a billboard or TV spot, it is the car dealership itself. People are window shopping (and, in a growing number of instances, getting financing and even desking deals in the virtual space.) A church’s website is not a tract, bulletin or radio spot, it is the vestibule (and in a growing number of instances, the sanctuary.)

My response to the meme: “Your dealership website IS your showroom. A poorly-functioning, design-blind website is the same as a dirty, dingy converted gas station used car lot. Not an extension of your brand, but your brand itself.”

You might own a converted gas station used car lot. There’s nothing wrong with a converted gas station used car lot, provided quality vehicles are marketed by quality people there and provided at mutually-beneficial value between buyer and seller. The point is that a poorly-developed website will undermine sales efforts and hamstring efforts to grow your business. A bad website is a loud fart during the exchange of wedding vows: the deed might get done, but the process in getting there is seriously disrupted.

The idea that businesses or organizations of any variety can and should be unapologetic in their digital crumminess isn’t just bad marketing, it’s bad business. There’s a reason this website exists and now in a semblance of ironic glory.

Be glad there isn’t an easily-accessible similar site for car dealers.

Examples of both of these are examples of selling blue parrots. They’re dead on arrival. Worse yet, no one’s even buying.

One can try to talk one’s way out of it; a bad website isn’t bad as long as people are coming in the door and we sell a car is philosophically identical thinking to the Machiavellian ‘even if one person comes to know Jesus, it will have all been worth it!’ gambit tossed out without a shred of self-awareness by Christian zealots who are content with alienating thousands so that they can hoist one on their shoulders in their deluded, bizarre tendencies toward self-congratulation.

In missiology, it is referred to as the ‘mission station’: an outpost people are expected to be drawn toward, as though it were a force of nature bringing them into the center (never mind that centrifugal force doesn’t actually exist.) The mission station, despite its obvious limitations and demonstrable, historic flaws as a strategy for proselytization, remains the preeminent method of ecclesiastical brand building in the world today.

The car dealership without a digital footprint and identity suffers from an identical problem and, without a way to interact with and get in front of others, others will remain staid or, worse, resort to their stereotypes. No one denies that the church and car dealership both suffer from historically poor optics. The fact that every church is stumbling over themselves to declare themselves real and authentic and relevant and that many car dealers talk up their hassle-free, stress-free, not-your-typical-dealership experience only underscores the point.

Churches and car dealerships have been offering the public blue parrots for so long that they only show up when they have to: when the car breaks down, or Christmas and Easter.

What it comes down to is integrity. If an entity wants to put its best foot forward, it’s going to do the best possible job in every possible way. That includes digital marketing, because digital presence is now actual presence, thus the same efforts put into a difference-making organization–be it of the religious or RPM variety–must be put into how that organization exists in the digital space. The same is also true in reverse: a great website or digital presence shouldn’t be papering over blatant flaws in the brick-and-mortar space. To wit, Wendy’s has a killer social media presence, but I’m not buying a Baconator.

We have to come to grips with the fact that it may be more expedient or more affordable to cut corners, but it isn’t right. We may not be turning back the odometer or putting floor mats over cigarette burns, or masking insecurities of conscience by using scare tactics to manipulate someone into a conversion.

It’s all selling dead blue parrots, and when confronted with the fact that the parrot has ceased to be, readying any number of excuses as to why the parrot is alive (or, more to the point, why we aren’t willing to provide a refund.) If either church or car dealer is interested in changing perception, they’re going to make sure their various forms of presence are aligned and consistent with one another, if for no other reason than there are no various forms of presence: either there is presence or there isn’t.

This is how the world is. In reality, this is how the world has always been. We’re just recognizing it anew via emerging technology…and a nearly 50-year-old comedy sketch.

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briefly, returning to milwaukee, a place that does not exist

Last month, I took my birthday off and made the short trek down to Milwaukee by myself, where I visited the hospital where I was born (hey, I hadn’t been back since!), went down to the lakefront and explored the Saarinen-designed War Memorial and, of course, went to Miller Park for the last Brewers home game of the season.

Milwaukee is where I was born, where my extended family was for many years and where I find myself existentially renewed. I love that area deeply, but it is not my own. I wasn’t raised there; my experience of Milwaukee is almost entirely as that of a tourist. It is no different than having affection for Disneyland by virtue of having been there many times, but having never worked there or even lived in Orange County. (And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love Disneyland.)

Though Milwaukee is imprinted on me, it is not mine. More to the point, my Milwaukee does not exist. It was never mine.

A return to Milwaukee is, for me, a return to innocence, to go back to a point in my life where I could hope and dream for anything. It is ultimately a negation of my self, or perhaps an exercise in self-pity. The siren song of escapism.

I was raised in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a mid-sized city almost directly in the middle of the state. My feelings toward it are mixed at best. Had I grown up in Milwaukee, my guess is that I would feel similarly toward it as I do my actual hometown. It’s easy to long for things as they exist in our minds as opposed to things as they are. We prefer the delusion of fantasy to the soul-crushing inevitabilities of the real. We prefer ideology to mutual understanding, selfish lust to selfless love. We prefer to escape the present for a romanticized nothing.

No one is innocent. Everyone has a Milwaukee, a Shell Beach, a Zion. And everyone has never actually been to those places, because the jurisdiction of those places end where the mind ends.

And within our own minds, lost and detached from real relationship with real people–fraught with love and loss and risk of both–is no place to be.

I love you, Milwaukee, but you are not mine.

briefly, the 25th hour of parenthood

The 25th Hour is a novel by David Benioff–later adapted by Spike Lee into a film starring Edward Norton–a vignette of a man’s final moments of freedom before reporting to prison for a seven-year sentence. In those ultimate hours, he spends the evening with two friends, contemplates the choices that brought him to this point.

Tomorrow, wife and I send the girls off for their first day of 4K. Granted, it’s only three-ish hours a day, but it’s their first first day of school and, after this, they won’t have a last first day of school for at least 14 years. I will be approaching 50 years old then.

We spent years trying and failing to have children, then we ended up with the beans, and things were good. They weren’t going to school for years. Then Don August showed up, which was cool. Not easy, not by a long shot, but cool. Well, time being what it is, slipped away and here we are, toddlers who don’t toddle, armed with backpacks and heading off to school tomorrow.

We knew it was coming. We tried to prepare for it. And then, I realized that their last first day of school will be at least 14 years from now, and I will be approaching 50 years old.

And that’s when I realized my life is over.

I’ve been having a hard time reconciling myself to that fact. From here, it’s parent-teacher conferences, something resembling organized sports, extracurricular activities: for the first time in my life, I told the girls, sans irony, to get ready for bed because it’s a school night.

IT’S A SCHOOL NIGHT.

How did I get here?

Our adventures seem like they were eons ago. Weren’t we just in Kansas City? Wasn’t I just in grad school? Didn’t I write that incendiary column at the Northern Light last semester?

The only semesters that matter anymore are at a grade school attended by my children. If it wasn’t about me before, it’s definitely not about me now.

This is where I’m at. I’m done, and I have to make my peace with it. Maybe I’ll do a Coffee With Dead People on myself! Or perhaps it’s epilogomena!

Maybe I’m just being melodramatic–particularly to those who aren’t here (or aren’t here yet)–or some wiseacre who has been here before just reads this smiling and nodding, but there is an eerie sense of finality here that I was not anticipating, and I didn’t even necessarily feel when I was first introduced to my offspring or even when I got married. This is weird!

So, I will go to bed (I’m really, really tired, can’t you tell?) and wake up tomorrow (I took the day off for the occasion) and we’ll take pictures of the girls with their sign and we’ll take them to their classroom.

After that, we’ll probably go grab some breakfast: two dead people–with a cute, mulleted mini-me in tow–wondering how it all came to this.

And life will keep marching on.

briefly, on being replaceable

As society further commodifies people, moving us from who toward what, it can readily be noticed that, while we lament how people have turned to cattle in so many ways in terms of the workforce, we have no apparent issue with turning people into hamburger in our personal lives.

Moo.

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briefly, an opening day devotional

I bared my soul yesterday to a co-worker I hardly know at all. I did not realize it at the time. It is wasted if left there. It is possibly less-wasted here and is presented unedited.

***

Apr-3 4:20 PM

For me, it’s love. I stopped playing baseball when my parents moved us from Plover to Stevens Point (and the uniforms in Point’s Little League were generic and lame, while Plover’s were actual kiddie ML kits, stirrups and all. I was stupid; some things never change.)

I lost interest in baseball, then went to college in Minnesota, where I lived about three blocks from the Metrodome. The Twins, who were execrable for years, started making the postseason (Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, before Mauer and Morneau.) October baseball, and living in that for a month one fall, made me swoon.

I started reading the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel daily, following the Brewers, who were in those years, charitably described, utter and complete butt. I write and occasionally turn a decent phrase, so I got suckered into the writers there (Haudricourt, Drew Olson, Dale Hoffmann, then Bob McGinn, Cliff Christl and the Packers writers.)

Baseball somehow tied itself into the deepest part of my soul. It’s love.

***
Whatever noun connects itself to the deepest part of your soul–your natural talent or gifting, a place that sinks deeply into your conscious, a person who makes you feel like half-person, half-chasm without them–that noun is only there because it is rooted in love.
Don’t ever risk those nouns.

coffee with dead people: chuck barris

Chuck Barris died Tuesday in, of all places, Palisades, NY. The songwriter, author, television producer/emcee and cultural lightning rod was 87.

Most may not know that he wrote the post-Golden Age of Radio single “Palisades Park”, or that he worked behind the scenes on American Bandstand and was in no small part influential in the rise of what we know as reality television. Most know him in one of two ways: One, as the central character in the 2002 film adaptation of his self-professed unauthorized autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; or two, not entirely removed from the first, as the cracked-out host of the cracked-out late 1970s *ahem* talent program The Gong Show. 

He gave us any number of pop cultural icons and curiosities, launching the immortal Bob Eubanks from radio disc jockey to near-ubiquitous television presence for the better part of twenty years, to early exposure for a very youthful Paul Reubens, to giving David Letterman some of his earliest appearances as a celebrity judge on The Gong Show. He might not have been a kingmaker per se, but his work shaped a lot of American television culture to the present day.

Barris showed the world what an introvert looked like when faced with success, a national audience and a multi-camera studio. Or, perhaps, he really was cracking under the pressure of being an international man of mystery and assassin. Or, perhaps, drugs (a claim Barris vehemently denied to his death.)

The Gong Show was an early part of the lineup back in the days when USA Network ran blocks of old game shows every weekday afternoon. We lived in the suburban Twin Cities before cable became commonplace; my father got one of those enormous satellite dishes so that he could watch the Packers out of market. So, my brother and I were exposed to far more of the 1970s than I probably should have been.

And yet there we would be, in that ebullience known only to the young, dancing along to Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Those memories are some of a scant few I have when my brother and I were both children. That joy still welled up when Central Wisconsin finally got Game Show Network and Gong was on every night at 10pm. That joy came back when I found Gene Gene compilations on YouTube last week.

Barris was also an accomplished author. Confessions is one of my favorite books (certainly not for the faint of heart), and The Game Show King is one of the better memoirs I’ve read. After Gong went off the air in 1980, he largely disappeared from public life, moving to France before returning to the States in his latter years. He never fully recovered from the loss of his daughter to a drug overdose, and four years of consistent on-screen delirium will suck the life out of anyone, much less someone who never wanted to be on that end of a television camera.

He might not have been a saint, he might not have been responsible for the downfall of Western Civilization (at least not entirely), but he gave me some of my earliest and most favorite memories, and now the coffin of my childhood is fast running out of space for the added nails.

The end of both the film and book is an uncomfortably apropos way to conclude:

I came up with a new game show idea recently. It’s called the old game. You got three old guys with loaded guns on stage. They look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished, how close they came to realizing their dreams. The winner is the one who doesn’t blow his brains out. He gets a refrigerator.

waging war on salary

Everything is rooted first in an idea. Seldom are things what they are–seriously, it is what it is is a phrase that needs to be obliterated outright–rather, they are anchored by presupposition, predicate events, definitions, etc.

The present is inextricably linked to the past. Nothing exists in a vacuum. (Come to think of it, isn’t that a brilliantly redundant sentence?)

With recent fiat regulatory changes to the nature of pay for exempt (read: salaried) work authorized by the erstwhile presidential administration, then stayed by a federal judge in Texas, the nature of exempt versus non-exempt work briefly became a point of conversation. In short, exempt workers earning less than $47,476 in salary were to be paid overtime as though they were non-exempt (read: wage-earning) workers.

The first glance take by many was, ‘Cool! MONEEZ!’ And that would make sense, since, hey, who doesn’t like more money? In a sustained economic climate of flat average wages and inflation, it could be seen as government throwing the gray collared class a bone.

A deeper look at the matter, though, showed the rule change for what it is: a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare for businesses and employees. Employees who were not adjusted to above-threshold pay levels would essentially lose their exempt status, the trade-off for more money being meticulously tracking time as though they were not salaried at all. Employers artificially bumped entire sectors of their business, creating a new, unintended impact to the bottom line, putting some employers in a position where they had to cut payroll to keep the books level.

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[Hmmm? Oh, I didn’t say anything. Sorry.]

***

These kinds of wholesale changes are almost unilaterally nothing more than cynical pandering. Attempts to jack the minimum wage don’t just cause headaches for small business owners, but they push entire segments of the workforce closer to poverty as the other mechanisms are triggered within the economy adjust to the new baseline. Flat wages lend themselves to flat revenues; starve someone long enough and they’ll eat anything that looks like food. (Hey, they’ll get your vote, too.)

And this is what happens when we fundamentally misunderstand wage and salary. This is neither an economic nor math problem: arbitrarily rewriting numbers higher–even for the most well-intentioned (assuming noble motivation) reasons–does nothing productive when we don’t even comprehend what it is being changed.

Salary and wage are ideas. Salary is more or less an allowance: rooted in the Roman military tradition of paying salt-money in exchange for continued service. It is a forward-thinking payment that sets out to make above and beyond work worth a person’s while. Wage, on the other hand, is a reward for work already done. It is recompense for the past.

Salary, in essence, buys off a person’s commitment to a standard schedule where it is made worth a person’s while to not be confined to a shift. Wage, in contrast, is offered with clearer baseline expectations. (Anyone else ever work in an environment where overtime was discouraged, if not penalized?)

Neither are necessarily bad: some people prefer income stability, while others prefer the budgeted schedule and the chance at making a little more here and there. Some employers prefer people to not worry about the clock, others need to maintain a bottom line. It depends on the business and type of activities within it.

The problem is that workers and managers alike also seem to misunderstand this as much as, if not more than, government bureaucrats and the wage-hike cheerleaders. Salary is not designed to be abused and make people work 50-70 hour work weeks; that is an abuse of workforce and bad faith. Similarly abusive are environs where workers are either subjected to repressed wages or otherwise obligated to work overtime on a regular basis.

Simply jacking salary or wage numbers doesn’t address the actual problems however far beneath the surface. Raising the exempt overtime threshold, or the minimum wage, does not reconcile anything.

If anything, it amplifies fundamental misunderstandings and makes bad situations worse: a jerk of an entrepreneur who expected 80 hours of work per week from an exempt employee for $40,000 will expect that much more from someone when they have been required a nearly 20% raise by bureaucratic decree. That same jerk will either cut working hours or workforce entirely when wage obligations reach an unsustainable level. These are not merely math problems: they’re philosophical problems.

The part about Smith’s Wealth of Nations that people seem to overlook is that the name of the book has nothing to do with capital or capitalism. He’s pretty clear on this point, before laying out–in most comprehensive detail–his capitalist treatise: the wealth of nations is in the goodness of its people. The title is an irony. And, while I quickly veer away from the partisanship and rancor and cause all gradation of grundy such as whenever terms like ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ are implied or invoked, the point I’m making is that if we understand what we’re dealing with, we stand a far better chance of actually solving problems, and doing so together. Further, I believe this is particularly true in matters of compensation.

A good and wise business owner will treat her employees with goodness and wisdom in all respects. Granted, this doesn’t happen much, but when the conditions are such that ownership is obligated to conform to a standard, the ability to demonstrate goodness or wisdom is also  necessarily restricted.

So, then, this is how we ought to interpret broad-stroke regulatory changes like the one currently stayed: as a capricious restriction on our ability to be better. The bigger check makes for stronger chains. The law brings death, and that which is dead is connected to nothing at all.

Graves have no roots. Those in them don’t get paid, either.