I Remember the Miracle Strip

So what on earth would prompt me to actually write a personal blog post after about a six-month gap?

I suppose it’s a combination of things. My daughter just started her senior year of high school, which obviously brings some rumination along the lines of how the hell did that much time pass that fast. Plus it’s Labor Day weekend, which has several weighty too-large-for-carryon chunks of personal baggage for me. I won’t go into all that, but something I ran across earlier today seriously picked the lock on my memory-closet.

It was this picture, in the middle of a bunch of other pictures of abandoned amusement parks.

Abominable Snowman From flickr user stevesobczuk
Abominable Snowman – Flickr User stevesobczuk

See, when I was a kid growing up around Atlanta through the 70s and early 80s, my family would generally end up going to Panama City Beach for vacation — often around this time of year. I didn’t know it at the time, but I benefited from a unique period in that area’s history. It was in the midst of the first big boom in tourism there, which evidently had started in the early/mid-60s (my parents told me stories of sleeping on its nearly deserted beaches in the 50s, their Chevy parked beside them). But it was before PC Beach became synonymous with MTV-style spring breakers in the 80s and 90s, and before the real estate land-grab of the 2000s which razed almost everything left of the indigenous culture (such as it was) in favor of gigantic condo developments.

I wasn’t much of a beach person even as a kid. I mean, I had fun on the beach — digging for sand crabs, daring waves to knock me down, making sand castles, and getting seriously sunburned. But for me it was all prelude to visiting the amusement parks in the area at night. Especially the “Miracle Strip Amusement Park.”
This picture in particular was of the Abominable Snowman ride, where they basically had a classic Scrambler ride inside a big dome, with the snowman crouched over the door. The snowman dome wasn’t added until I was about 12, but I have vivid memories of waiting what seemed forever to get into the dome to get slung around in the dark with giant speakers pumping Van Halen and a light show timed to the music — and especially the air conditioning inside, which made the wait all the more worthwhile. Few things are so wrapped up with my visceral memories of early adolescence.

My favorite parts of the park were the scary ones, though; and those are the parts that tap into my very early memories of the sort of thing that still scares and thrills me the most. Miracle Strip had two “dark” attractions: one was a Haunted Castle, which had cars on tracks that would take you through jarring, loud haunted-funhouse moments, including a terrifically psychedelic twirling tunnel.
The other was a walk-through attraction called the Old House, complete with a hidden passage behind a fireplace, and a balcony that would drop at an angle suddenly and blow air up from its floor to feel as though you were about to fall to the ground two floors below.

An early publicity picture for the Old House attraction from Flickr user kingpowercinema
An early publicity picture for the Old House attraction from Flickr user kingpowercinema

Continue reading “I Remember the Miracle Strip”

Roughly Half Done

Yesterday I turned 45 years old. For some reason, as I got up this morning, it hit me more than it did the day before.

Here are a few thoughts about it.

I’m technically halfway to 90 years old. I hope to live even longer than that, even though it’s older than the current average age of departure. But assuming the next 45 years will result in even better technologies for keeping us alive, I’m being optimistic. Still, there’s no denying this is, officially, “middle age.”

I don’t feel middle aged though. At least not emotionally. I’m starting to learn from others that this is not unusual. We all evidently wrestle with how we perceive our relationship with “time” — which is such a reified, non-thing to begin with.

Part of me would love to feel what I assume is a level of authority and confidence that comes with hitting time-based number that most would agree is undeniably “adult.” That’s the insecure part of me, though. The one that depends on something outside of me to tell me what and who I am. On a daily basis, I have to put that part of me in “time out.” It speaks out of turn and still isn’t quite housebroken.

Nowadays I have to work harder to catch myself resting on laurels or assumptions from prior experience. My eye-roll reflex is now nimbler and quicker on the draw than when I was younger. And that’s a dangerous reflex to exercise. When I notice myself being unthinkingly dismissive of a new idea, or an old idea revived in a new situation, I feel a little like Roy Batty in Bladerunner, catching his limbs in the first stages of rigor mortis, willing them to keep moving. Luckily I don’t have to stab myself with a nail. I just have to breathe, and remember to listen more closely. (Not that I find either of those things easy; some days I’d rather stick myself with a nail.)

I’m glad I’m working in a job where the company is still finding itself, watching itself evolve. It feels more like the old meaning of “company” — a group of companions, compatriots, fellow travelers.

I’m glad I’m working on this crazy book about stuff that I still wonder if I fully understand. I’m having to learn things in order to write it, and I’m never sure if I’m fully grasping and articulating the material; but I suppose that’s better than the comfortable stasis of writing only certainties. Even though I have weekly battles of self-doubt, I’m learning so much, and accomplishing something I never thought I’d have the wherewithal to do.

My wife and I are moving again, back to Philadelphia. We’ve been wanting to finally end up someplace where we could say “this is where we live” and put down some roots, at least for a while. So we’re going back to the place where we met, and where, when we feel homesick, it’s for that place. Is this going backward? Maybe. But only if we expect to be the same people we were when we lived there before. We’re not. We’ve grown a lot in four years; changed. Plus, now we have a dog. So we’ll see.

And watching my daughter become who she is becoming. Almost 17 now. Kind, intelligent, curious, good. Her mother has worked miracles in raising her. My daughter, who has to learn her own lessons, find her own way, no matter how much her parents would like to carve a safe, happy path in front of her. What a bracing, beautiful paradox it is, to have the power to bring a human being into the world, but be so utterly powerless in the face of their own story that only they can make.

So. Halfway. Even this far into my own story, I’m still a rough draft. I suppose I’ve always felt “half done” about most things, even the ones I’ve technically finished. I’ve always felt suspended between the poles of “making” and “unmaking.” There are more days, now, when I feel at peace with that unmoored oscillation. Not many, but more.


French Toast

I’m using this post to give a home to a video clip from the show M*A*S*H. I sometimes use the clip in presentations, but it doesn’t seem to be compatible with YouTube, so I’m putting it here instead. QuickTime m4v format; just click the link to view:  French Toast

Two Fixes for Twitter

There are two things in particular that everyone struggles with on Twitter. Here are my humble suggestions as to how Twitter can do something about it.

1. The Asymmetrical Direct-Message Conundrum

What it is: User A is following user B, but User B is not following User A. User B direct-messages User A, and when User A tries to reply to that direct message, they cannot, because User B is not following them.

Fix: Give User B a way to set a message that will DM User A with some contact info automatically. Something like “Unfortunately I can’t receive direct messages from you, but please contact me at blahblah@domain.blah.” A more complicated fix that might help would be to allow User B to set an optional exception for receiving direct messages for anyone User B has direct-messaged (but whom User B is not following), for a given amount of time or a number of messages. It’s not perfect, but it will handle the majority of these occurrences.

2. The “DM FAIL”

What it is: User A means to send a direct message to User B, but accidentally tweets it to the whole wide world.

There are a couple of variations:
a) The SMS Reflex Response: User A gets a text from Twitter with a direct message from User B; User A types a reply and hits “send” before realizing it’s from Twitter and should’ve had “d username” (or now “m username” ?!?) typed before it.

b) The Prefix Fumble: User A is in same situation as above, but does realize it’s a text from Twitter — however, since they’re so used to thinking of Twitter usernames in the form of “@username” they type that out, forgetting they should be using the other prefix instead.

Fix: allow me to turn *off* the ability to create a tweet via SMS; and reply to my SMS text with a “hey you can’t do that” reminder if I forget I have it turned off and try doing it anyway. Let me turn it on and off via SMS text with commands, so if I’m stuck on a phone where I need to tweet that way, I can still do it. But so many people have smart-phones with Twitter apps, there’s no reason why I can’t receive SMS from Twitter without being able to create via SMS as well.

There you go, Twitter! My gift to you 🙂

(By the by, I have no illusions that I’m the only one thinking about how to solve for these problems, and the bright designers at Twitter probably already have better solutions. But … you know, I thought I’d share, just in case … )

Message isn't just message anymore

I remember back in 1999 working in a web shop that was a sibling company with a traditional ad firm, and thinking “do they realize that digital means more than just packaging copy & images for a new medium?”

Then over the years since, I’ve continually been amazed that most advertising & marketing pros still don’t seem to get the difference between “attention” and actual “engagement” — between momentary desire and actual usefulness.

Then I read this quote from a veteran advertising creative officer:

Instead of building digital things that had utility, we approached it from a messaging mind-set and put messaging into the space. It took us a while to realize … the digital space is completely different.

via The Future of Advertising | Page 4 | Fast Company.

I guess better late than never …

I actually love advertising at its best. Products and brands need to be able to tell great stories about themselves, and engage people’s emotions & aspirations. It’s easy to dump on advertising & marketing as out of touch and wrong-headed — but that’s lazy, it seems to me.

I appreciated the point Bill Buxton made in a talk I saw online a while back about how important the advertising for the iPod was … that it wasn’t just an added-on way to talk about the product; it was part of the whole product experience, driving much of how people felt about purchasing, using and especially *wearing* an iPod and its distinctive white earphones.

But this distinction between utility and pure message is an important one to understand, partly so we can understand how blurred the line has become between them. Back when the only way to interact with a brand was either to receive its advertising message passively, or to purchase and touch/experience its product or service — and there was precious little between — the lines were pretty clear between the message-maker and the product-creator.

These days, however, there are so many opportunities for engagement through interaction, conversation, utility and actual *use* between the initial message and the product itself.

Look at automobiles, for example: once upon a time, there were ads about cars, and then there were the actual cars … and that was pretty much it. But now we get a chance to build the car online, read about it, imagine ourselves in it with various options, look for reviews about it, research prices … all of that before we actually touch the car itself. By the time you touch the car, so much physical engagement has happened on your way to the actual object that your experience is largely shaped already — the car is going to feel different to you if that experience was positive rather than if it was negative (assuming a negative experience didn’t dissuade you from going for a test drive at all).

Granted to some degree that’s always been the case. The advertising acts like the label on a bottle of wine — shaping the expectation of the experience inside the bottle, which we know can make a huge difference.  But the utility experience brings a whole new, physical dimension that affects perception even more: the ability to engage the car interactively rather than passively receiving “messaging” alone. Now it’s even harder to answer the question “where does the messaging end and the car begin?”