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Wednesday
Jan222014

On Public Speaking

Presenting on power exchange at Hustler Hollywood.

I have an unprecedented number of speaking engagements lined up for the first three months of this year. I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at public speaking in the last few years, but I’m always looking for ways to kick my skills up a notch, so I’m currently in the process of doing research on being a better public speaker, and I thought I’d share for those who are interested.

On his blog, Tim Ferriss, author of the “The Four Hour Work Week,” suggests pre-speech caffeine dosing. He always drinks a 16 ounce Diet Coke 45 minutes before a speech and another 20 minutes before the speech, for energy. He also suggest peeing before taking the stage.

Perhaps more helpful, Ferriss takes the amount of time he is expected to present and allocates half of it for questions and answers with the audience. He divides the remaining time into five sections: A short opening, a short closing, and the remaining three sections are divided equally and allocated to introducing and explaining a single point each. I think that’s a pretty good format.

So, worried you might forget one of your three points or the order you want to introduce them in? Try building a Memory Palace. A Memory Palace is a series of highly visual and often ridiculous images in a highly visual and ridiculous sequence of events. Each image represents a point or concept you want to remember and the sequence of events represents the order you need to remember them in. This is how competitive memorizers (yes, that’s a thing) prepare for competition. There's a TED Talk on the subject: here.

Get nervous in front of crowds? Practice adopting confident body language for twenty minutes or so before giving your speech. Not only will you appear more confident to your audience, but you can actually trick yourself into feeling more confident. Here’s a TED Talk on that subject.

We’ve all heard the advice about about imagining your audience naked to feel more at ease in front of a crowd. In the book “Psycho Cybernetics” by Maxwell Maltz and Dan Kennedy, there’s a story of a woman who takes this concept to the next level. To get over being self conscious in front of an audience, she practiced her speeches completely naked while standing before a full length mirror. The logic being that when she could get through the entire speech, naked in front of a mirror, without feeling self conscious, being on stage fully dressed and unable to see herself would be a breeze. This technique could really come in handy for me, since it’s not rare for me to give presentations while almost naked.  Unfortunately, I don’t own a full length mirror, so I guess I’ll just have to invite some people over and practice my presentation in front of them in the nude. If anyone is interested in helping me out, just let me know.

Presenting on body image at Shameless Grounds.

Wednesday
Oct162013

R.I.P. Music Video

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” didn't kill music video, it just inspired this post mortem.

The strange relationship between art, commerce and technology is nothing new. Early burlesque performers probably had no idea what they were getting themselves into the first time someone asked to point one of those newfangled motion picture cameras at them. Then they discovered that men might not be willing to pay top dollar for a real, live woman when they could see the next best thing projected on a screen at the nickelodeon. Plus, film loops don’t require food or lodging and they never get tired so long as the sprocket holes last. When technology threatens a business, the business has to find a way of delivering something that technology can’t and so… the lap-dance was born.  

Early stand-ups comics learned the same lesson. There was a time when a comic could spend an entire career perfecting a tight fifteen minutes worth of material and put his kids through college in the process. Then, comedians started getting booked on television. Getting a spot on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” was many a comedian’s big break. It also meant that in one fell swoop, half the country knew all his best material. In the immortal words of Chris Rock, Sting can play the same songs in concert for twenty years. If fact, the audience will get mad at him if he doesn’t play those songs, but God forbid a comedian tell the same joke that was funny last year. Hence after Louis CK performs a joke in a televised special, he retires it. The artist has adapted to the technology.

Large corporations typically fear and resist the very technology they will soon come to embrace. The movies thought they’d be ruined by television. Nowadays, television (in the form of home video, video on demand and cable rights) is what makes most box office bombs ultimately profitable. Then the television networks went before congress to try to stop the mass marketing of Video Cassette Recorders, fearing that it would encourage piracy of their intellectual property. We can thank Fred Rogers of “Mister Rodgers Neighborhood” whose testimony before congress, about the benefits of parents recording a show like his to watch with their children, helped usher in the home video revolution which would ultimately begat the DVD player, Tivo, and the DVR.  Boxed sets of TV series became huge money makers, which would have been unheard of just a few years prior. The newfound permanence of the formerly ephemeral art form gave way to a need breed of television show that would stand up to and even reward repeated viewing. Hence shows like “Arrested Development” and “The Wire.”

Of course, the most technophobic industry has been the music. Dubbing an album from one analog cassette to another seems positively quaint in the iTunes era, but those of us old enough to remember when this was state of the art technology probably also remember when blank cassettes and dual cassette decks were the bane of record companies’ existence. So much so, they tried to get a tax applied to the sales of blank tapes that would kick back to them to offset the revenue they’d lose when people copied their music.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the subject of music video. When MTV debuted in the early 80s, people doubted that there was or would be enough visual content to justify a 24 hour music network. Within a few years, record companies were proving that content to the tune of hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars a pop. A new breed a visually savvy pop star emerged, bringing with them a new breed of young filmmaker. Perhaps no artist/director collaboration typified this more than the one between Madonna and a then unknown David Fincher.

But then the digital revolution happened. Songs could be downloaded for free from sites like Napster and its brethren. Kids who had once watched MTV for hours waiting for their favorite video to come on, could now get it at a moment’s notice on YouTube. MTV traded in music videos for whatever it is MTV plays now (I’m 40, so I have no idea). Record companies were tightening their belts due to lost revenue and at the same time they realized that they no longer had to make videos that looked good on a 27 inch TV screen, only videos that look good enough on a smart-phone or a widow within a window on a laptop.

That’s how we went from a multi-million dollar production of Michael and Janet Jackson recreating the Mikhail Baryshnikov / Gregory Hines dance-off from “White Nights” in a Kubrickian space station…

…to Beyoncé and a couple of back-up dancers in front of a white wall.

In a world where a cat riding a Roomba or a young woman sitting a toilet has just as good a chance of going viral as the products of most major record labels, artists have had to find new ways to cut through the clutter. OK Go cracked this nut with their intricately choreographed video for “Here it Goes Again,” but they also pigeonholed themselves as a band know for its intricately choreographed videos more than for its music.

This brings me (finally) to them man who, until this summer, I knew primarily as Alan Thicke’s son and Paula Patton’s husband. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is the first music video I was compelled to watch through word-of-mouth since Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” (still the greatest music video ever produced by the medium, in my humble opinion), but what Thicke discovered was that you don’t need a big budget, a dying music icon or an intricately choreographed stunt to get a buzz. All you need is the oldest special effect in the book: Hot Naked Ladies.

I’m not going to discuss the political ramifications of this video. The fact that it was directed by a woman, Dian Martin, who claims that her use of women’s bodies here is subtly subversive, and the fact that Thicke has claimed to enjoy “degrading” the models in the video, makes that subject worthy of its own conversation.

I’m simply pondering what “Blurred Lines” means for music video as an art form (and yes it IS an art form, or at least it was). For me, it symbolizes the end.

Of course there are hundreds of awful rap videos that are a thousand times worse than “Blurred Lines, but for reasons related to both race and musical genre, those videos never enter the mainstream consciousness  the way this video by a safe, white, pop-R&B artist has. (As an aside, though, I remain convinced that long after Nelly’s music has been forgotten, his enduring legacy will be the music video “Tip Drill” which will live on in Women’s Studies texts as the apex of misogyny in the music industry.)

“Blurred Lines” director, Martin, says she was inspired by the work of fashion photographer Helmut Newton, of whom I’m a big fan, but I think the video is much more evocative of Terry Richardson. For those who don’t know, Richardson is a hack photographer who took the magazine world by storm with his porn influenced, poorly composed, over exposed, harshly lit, snapshots of clothed men and naked women in front of bare white walls. Watching “Blurred Lines” for the first time, I actually thought he might have been the director. For my money, Richardson is to Helmut Newton what Robin Thicke is to Marvin Gaye.

At the end of the day, I don’t knock Robin Thicke’s hustle. His gambit was successful. The man I knew as Paula Patton’s husband is now a household name. So much so that it was my 61-year-old girlfriend who neither watches TV nor listens to pop radio, who convinced me to watch the video. Thicke is just another in a long line of artists adapting to technology’s effect on his market place, although probably more in the tradition of a stripper giving a lap-dance than Louis CK or the creators of “The Wire.”

Saturday
Aug032013

R.I.P. Bob Reuter

Photo by Sara A. Finke

I didn’t know Bob Reuter, but like so many other people, I was inspired by him.

I first became aware of him through his work as a photographer. His photographs of some of South City’s favorite denizens in South City’s favorite haunts were at once contemporary (especially if you knew his subjects) and yet seemed to come from a different time. In the era of digital cameras, Photoshop and its ubiquitous Unsharp Mask, Reuter’s grainy, high speed, low light, after hours portraits were decidedly analog, all the way down to the sprocket holes of the negatives showing in the prints. His work harkened back to the street reportage of Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks Sr. 


From Bob Reuter - St. Louis Photographer and Performing Songwriter on Facebook

One day, channel surfing on the radio, I heard what sounded like a lunatic screaming over a gospel record.  He was going on about what a glorious day it was and how he had been blessed by the healing powers of music! Halleluiah!  He sounded like Dr. Johnny Fever from “WKRP in Cincinnati.” At first I thought he was just doing an intro over an instrumental at the top of the song, but he kept going. It started to get annoying. I wanted to hear the song. As a student of communications, it was offending my delicate sensibilities; the DJ doesn’t talk over the record! Then I was charmed by his sheer audacity; he seemed determined to testify over the entire song. Then I realized that the things he was saying were beautiful, poetic and sometimes hilarious.  The song ended and in a voice both gruff and melodic, he said, “This is Bob Reuter… and you’re listening to Bob’s Scratchy Records.”  Hmm… so the photographer was a DJ too.

I started listening every week, both to hear what he would say and what he would play. At the time his show was aired back-to-back on Fridays with Sherri Danger’s “Dangerous Curves” on KDHX 88.1, the best hours of local radio ever produced in my humble opinion.

My Fridays went like this: Howard Stern on the drive to work, NPR until the end of “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross, and then I turned to 88.1 to get a musical education. I’d listen with a pad and paper beside me to jot down songs and artists I wanted to look up later. I signed up for Reuter’s weekly playlist newsletter. Most of the songs he played sounded familiar and yet I was unfamiliar with most of the songs and many of the artists. It sounded like rock & roll and soul hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s, but these songs were not hits. These almost classics had somehow fallen into the dust bin of music history for Bob Reuter, with this encyclopedic knowledge and impeccable taste, to unearth for a new generation of listeners.  I once commented on his Facebook page that I was a much cooler person for having discovered his show, to which he responded, “Hey man, you can’t blame that shit on me!”[Which, oddly enough, seemed to mirror a scene between John Cusack and The Swanky Modes in the 1988 film, “The Tape Heads.”]

One year, I was celebrating my birthday on the patio at Atomic Cowboy. There was great 70s funk and R&B playing. It reminded me of a tiny little hipster club I’d been to in San Francisco that played lots of Stevie Wonder and James Brown, but nothing popular, nothing that had been released as a single. I looked at the DJ booth and saw an old gray-haired white man and thought, as soon as he starts his set and whatever awesome Sirius Satellite radio channel this is gets turned off, I’ll go back inside the bar. Well, the music stayed good and with each new song I checked the DJ booth to see what was taking the old white guy so long to get started, until finally my ageism and racial prejudice gave way to the fact that it was the old white guy who was spinning all this good shit. Who was this dude? I took a good look and realized it was Bob Reuter. I had never seen him in person before. 

I met Bob Reuter only once, when my documentary “The Roof is on Fire” screened with a documentary about him called “Broken and Wonderful.” Mine was a feature and his was a short, which put me in the very unenviable position of having to follow Bob Reuter. After the screening, we shook hands in the lobby of The Tivoli and I congratulated him on the film. The film had been the first time I had heard his original music. Luckily, sometime after, a friend invited me for a drink at Mangia Italiano, neither of us knowing that Bob Reuter and Thee Dirty South had a gig there that night. Their set was everything I expected from Bob based on what I knew of him. It was broken and wonderful. But mostly wonderful. 

 

Alas, Howard Stern moved from terrestrial to satellite radio, KDHX moved Sherri Danger from Friday to Monday, KWMU (in the most bone-headed programming decision in the history of public radio) moved Terry Gross from noon to 9 p.m. and now with the untimely death of Bob Reuter, the Golden Age of my Friday morning/afternoon radio listening has officially come to an end.

I became familiar with Bob Reuter at a time in my life when my friends were starting to get married, have kids, buy houses and move out of the city; all the things I wasn’t doing. Perhaps it was a midlife crisis, but looking at Bob Reuter, more than 20 years my senior, still kicking ass as a photographer, musician, radio personality and club DJ, gave me hope. It meant that getting older didn’t have to mean becoming normal.  I once said that Bob Reuter was the best argument for living past 50.

His was a life well lived that ended too soon. Just in the few years I knew of him, he shared so much beauty with the world. He was a true inspiration. He will be missed. 

From Bob Reuter - St. Louis Photographer and Performing Songwriter on Facebook

Wednesday
Jul172013

Juror B37

Yet another post about Trayvon Martin. Add it to your collection. Amass the whole set.

Watching the L.A. riots, I was so sad I almost cried. I felt the same way watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It usually takes devastation on a pretty mass scale to move me even close to tears for people I don’t know. I wasn’t sad when I heard about the shooting of Trayvon Martin, I was angry. I wasn’t angry or sad when I heard about George Zimmerman’s acquittal; I was something more like… exhausted.

Knowing how flawed our judicial system is, I still try to have faith in it. I was never one of those people saying “Free Mumia!” I simply said, “Retry Mumia." I was not convinced of his innocence, I was convinced he never got a fair trial and I feel that everyone deserves one. I never wanted George Zimmerman dead, I didn’t want his head on a platter, I didn’t want them to lock him up and throw away the key without due process of law. I simply wanted him to be charged with a crime and after 45 days and massive public outcry, he was.

I told myself I had to accept the jury’s decision no matter what, because that’s how the system worked. I could not convict George Zimmerman from my living room, because like everyone else on the planet other than Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, I wasn’t there I and didn’t see what happened.

I mean, I know what I read: that Trayvon Martin had none of George Zimmerman’s DNA under his fingernails, that there was none of George Zimmerman’s blood on the sleeves of Martin’s now famous hoodie. I know what I saw: pictures of George Zimmerman’s face and head before and after the EMTs cleaned the blood off of him which seemed to show that the blood was the result of superficial cuts to his skin. I know what I didn’t see, any photos of bruises on George Zimmerman. All of which seems to me to be inconsistent with the beating the Zimmerman allegedly took at the hands of Trayvon Martin.

I was in fight with my brother, he punched me once and I looked worse than this for days afterward. Alas, I did not have a gun.

But again, that’s me trying to litigate the case from my living room. And I didn’t even watch the trial on TV. So when the jury handed down its not guilty verdict, I tried to accept it. Not because I thought George Zimmerman was innocent, but because I assumed that the laws in Florida, the instructions to the jurors and the high burden of proof put on the prosecution, left the jury no choice.

Then, juror B37 went on Anderson Cooper and fucked up my whole day.

I don’t watch cable news as a rule, so when something on cable news makes its way to my consciousness, it’s a bad sign.

There’s fact that she disregarded the judge’s instructions to not consider some of Detective Chris Serino's testimony, the fact that she cited the Stand Your Ground Laws, even though they weren’t used in Zimmerman’s defense, her descriptions of Rachel Jeantel which seemed to have everything to do with her own projections on to Jeantel personally and not on the substance of her testimony, her assertion that Trayvon Martin could have just “walked away,” when on the 911 tape Zimmerman says that Trayvon was running away and so he pursued him, her assertion that the possibility that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin was never discussed…

It was after listening to quotes from this interview on NPR, that the weight of the tragedy finally hit me. For the first time since hearing about Trayvon Martin’s death, I was not angry, but sad. I felt like I had been reminded once again that my life has less value; that the lives of my nieces, nephews and cousins have less value. I was reminded that as black man, everything I do is suspect, even walking in down the street. If I stand up to an assailant, he may kill me because he fears for his life, but if I flee, he may chase me because the act of fleeing is deemed suspicions and “these guys always get away.” I was reminded that as a black man, I am always armed, even when I’m unarmed. I am reminded that no matter whom I’m up against; a man with a gun or four police officers with guns, nightsticks and Tasers, that as long as I’m black and they are not, they will always be overmatched because my skin color  is a weapon in and of itself.  

For the first time since the shooting of Trayvon Martin, I am more sad than angry; sad for myself, sad for Trayvon Martin and his family, sad for Jordan Davis and his family, sad for Darius Simmons and his family, and yes, sad for juror B37. I’m not angry at juror B37. She didn’t invent injustice even if she is an unwitting participant in it. She is a product of her culture just like I am a product of mine. She can no sooner imagine what it’s like to be me or Trayvon Martin, or Rachel Jeantel, than I can imagine what it’s like to be her.

God help us all.

Friday
Jul122013

White People and O.J. Simpson, or, Why Ya’ll Bringing Up Old Shit? 

 

For better or for worse, my new hobby seems to be getting in online debates with white people about the Trayvon Martin case. Fact is, I’m not following the case very closely and the sad part is, to counter most of the arguments I’m hearing, I don’t need to. The thing that gets stuck in my craw most of the time is not racism. Truth be told, whether you’re Paul Deen or just some angry white guy on the internet, I don’t really care if you’re racist. It’s your right as an American to be racist, homophobic, sexist, whatever. My problem is not what people believe or why, so much as the lack of logic or a well thought out, coherent augment to support it.

Here’s the thing, if you are a minority, whatever conclusion you’ve come to, right or wrong, you’ve probably spent a decent about of time thinking about the issues that affect you personally, since you have to for your very survival. Most members of the privileged classes haven’t given it as much thought, simply because they don’t have to.

Case in point: I heard a story on the radio about a gay couple who will save about $96,000 a year in income taxes now that the federal government considers them legally married. My roommate and his girlfriend both said, “I never thought about that!” To which I said, “Of course we didn’t! Why would we? We’re all straight!”

But, I digress. So, I’m on Facebook discussing Trayvon Martin and a white guy brings up the OJ Simpson trial. Personally, I think it’s interesting that O.J.Simpson is still such a raw nerve for so many white people. To me, this fact is even more evidence of… wait for… it, wait for it…, you guessed it: WHITE PRIVILEGE! For many white people, O.J. Simpson represents the last time the justice system failed them. 20 years ago. Most black people can’t remember what racial injustice they were angry about 20 years ago. And we don’t have to, because it gets replaced regularly. Everything between Rodney King and Trayvon Martin is kind of a blur. When was Amadou Diallo shot?  How about the Jenna Six Scandal? Oscar Gant? Sean Bell? And before that?  Michael Stewart… Yusef Hawkins… Eleanor Bumpers. What were white people angry about before OJ? As my mom used to say, “The first nigga to get off scot-free was Super Fly,” and he was a fictional character.

I vividly remember the day that Johnnie Cochran died. Not because I was a huge Johnnie Cochran fan, but because I remember hearing the negative things my white co-workers said about him. I understand why white people hate O.J., in their minds he is a murderer (although, he got off because he was rich, not because he was black, so poor people and women of all races have more reason to hate him than white men).  But why hate on his lawyer? Last I checked, a defense attorney’s job was to get his client acquitted. If the sex offender up the street from me has a busted air condition, I’m not going to hate on the repair man who comes to fix it. He’s just doing his job.

Quick, name Robert Blake’s lawyer. Okay, that was a tough one, how about Phil Spector’s lawyer. Helen Mirren played her in a movie. Okay, I’ll give you an easy one, Claus von Bulow’s lawyer? C’mon that guy’s hella famous. He still gets booked on talk shows!

Okay to be fair, Claus von Bulow was not a celebrity and Phil Spector got convicted. But how come I never hear people talk about the Robert Blake case. Wasn’t he acquitted of killing his wife?  Was Nicole Brown Simpson’s life worth more than Bonny Lee Bakley’s? How come more white guys aren’t up in arms about her death? Has anyone in 20 years suggested that the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson were racially motivated? If O.J. Simpson had been acquitted of killing his black wife, would white America still be talking about it?