Before there were Brands

I may have written about this before, but there was a time when there weren’t brands.  Well, OK, brands have been around for a while–much longer than me–but there was a time when I was growing up when what something was was more important than what name was on it.

I was reminded of this recently when my boss (who is about the same age as me) received a scan of an old black and white photo from a friend and sent it around the office for amusement.  It showed a bunch of 18-year-olds sitting around near a monument, all dressed in windbreakers.

See, that’s the trick.  They were dressed in windbreakers.  Not Columbia, North Face, or any other brand.  Windbreakers.

If you’re my age (or about my age) you’ll remember these.  Flannel-lined nylon shells with two slash pockets on the outside, done up with snaps that were usually painted to match the nylon color, which was usually dark blue, but sometimes black or green.  They must have been manufactured or or imported by the millions, because every teenage male I knew in high school (it seemed) owned one. 

They probably had some maker’s label inside, but none of us paid any attention to those.  We wore those with shirts, jeans, boots the brand of which largely didn’t matter.  I have a vague notion of brand consciousness emerging around that time with Levi’s “501″ campaign, but other than that, the only thing I really remember being branded was “pocket” calculators, and that was because we all knew that TI SR-10s were the best.  :-)

Branding is pervasive.  I noticed when my kids started to attend high school that it had become fashionable not to remove the cloth band from a suit’s sleeve–the band that had the maker’s name and logo attached to it.  To me, having that band looked gauche.  To them, it was an announcement about the suit.  Hmmm.

A few years ago, I took my daughter to visit a Midwestern college she was thinking of attending.  After lunch, we wandered around the student center (why do no colleges have student unions any more?) and looked at the poster vendors, books, t-shirt sellers, etc.  My daughter found a shirt she wanted, so I pulled out my purple wallet and immediately the vendor (a student herself) started to “ooh” and “ahh” at my North Face wallet.

At this point, I can only think of this image:


What is it about brands?  What does it matter?

I’ve written before about the importance of brand and identity.  And I’m subject to it as well.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t become a little brand-agnostic.  Or nostalgic for a time when brands were considerably less important.

OK, brain fart.  I was about to write about how cool it is to shop at Goodwill and how that frees me from brand consciousness.  After all, I’m wearing stuff from Goodwill right now.  Then I realized something.  I’m not just wearing stuff from Goodwill.  I’m wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt that I bought at Goodwill.  When I pick out clothing like shirts, pants, ties at a thrift store, I’m still very conscious of branding.  It’s not “look at this cool thing I got for $5!”  It’s “look at this cool brandname thing I got for $5!”t

Ugh.  What to do?

What to do is this.  Remember the True Purpose of Branding.  That True Purpose is just to distinguish what you’re selling from what someone else is selling.  But distinction is not necessarily about being better.  Sometimes, it’s just about being different.  And that’s fine.

But look at things for what they are, their functionality.  Prestige is for suckers.

Now hand me my windbreaker.  I’ve got to go outside.


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What’s it got in its pocketses?

It’s been a while since I’ve done anything along the “almost perfect” sort of line that I used to jump-start myself back into blogging.  So I thought it was time.

Those who have been with me from the beginning, or perhaps visited once in a blue moon, are aware of my obsession with bags.  I’m still very happy with my Europa.  It’s done everything I wanted it to do.  But.

I have been unhappy with my wallet.  Men tend to form long-term relationships with wallets, and mine was rocky.  Let me clarify.  When I was in high school, I bought a wallet.  I liked it–it had no name (as far as I know), folded nicely and closed with velcro.  It had a coin pocket and held all the cards I needed.  Then.  I kept that wallet for something like fifteen years, then–on its death–went through a series of flirtations with similar (but not as nice) wallets until 1999, when I found an inexpensive North Face bifold wallet.  It was purple, but it was good.  And I kept using that wallet until about a year ago, when it started to be “insecure” with my cards (now I have a ton of those!).  So I bought a replacement and I hated it.  I tried another replacement–leather this time–and I hated it too.

These wallets were bulky and unpleasant.  Lots of pockets for cards, and a flip-out panel for a driver’s license.  Etc.

Several weeks ago, I saw a photo that intrigued me of something called an Elephant Wallet.  I thought about it, then bit down and ordered one.  Here it is:

ImageThe Elephant Wallet, which is made in Poland, consists of two thin pieces of aluminum and an elastic strip.  You stuff your cards into it, along with any folded bills.  To get something out, you shove the cards to one end and either fan them out or squeeze the tabs at the opposite end.  I usually keep my license tucked under the band on one side, two or three business cards tucked under on the other.

It’s tiny.  Barely bigger than its contents, and adds virtually no weight.  You wouldn’t want to carry it in the traditional position–the back pocket.  It’s a front pocket wallet.

Interestingly, when people see it, they say something like “But it’s so small–won’t you lose it?”

Nope.  I don’t lose things from my pockets.  I’ve never lost a set of keys, and I’ve never lost a wallet.  But more importantly, I’ve been diabetic for 43 years, and I have spent almost all that time carrying some form of glucose.  An insulin reaction is not something to trifle with.  So, I keep things in my pocket.

I think this is one of the things I’m going to be keeping.

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When I was in Love

A song came through my head this morning, When I was in Love, by Stephen Bishop.  In case the link dumps you at the start of the video, go to 1:05:50 (yes, it’s a long video, and it’s the last song) and wait for a moment.  It’s a lovely, sad song, and it reminded me in some respects of my life between, say, the ages of 14 and 26.

During that period, I dated a number of girls and women.  Some of the relationships were fun, some were strange, some were difficult.  Some were short and some were long, and in some the other person invested far more than I did.  And in some, I invested far more.

For the heck of it, I sat down about a year ago, looked through old journals, and made a list of the people I had actually been in a relationship with.  I dated others, but these were the ones I worked at.  There are 17 names on the list, so most of the relationships were not terribly long, as you can see.  Out of those 17, thinking back over more than 40 years, I can say that I was actually in love perhaps four times.

I had the enormous fortune to fall in love, the last time and quite permanently, with a woman who loved and loves me, too.  This year marks our 30th year together, the 28th since we married–in fact, we met in April of 1984, in a classroom at the University of Chicago, and started going out in May.

What is it about being in love?  Some loves are triumphant, and some are tragic.

Stephen Bishop is singing about love lost–the tragic–and I remember that feeling.  Sitting in my studio apartment on Blackstone one rainy Valentine’s Day in 1983, all alone, my heart breaking from the months-long loss of a woman I considered, at that point, to have been the Great Love of my life.  Some friends anonymously dropped off Valentine cookies,  They meant well, but when I rushed to the door to find nobody there, only a plate with cookies, I cried.  I was a wreck, and so, so, so terribly alone.  Perhaps the only feeling worse than being alone like that is the awful realization that comes when you confess your love to someone who does not love you back.

And yet there is that lyric: “at least once in my life it turned out alright.”

A year and a bit after that Valentine’s Day, still living in that same studio apartment, I met T.  We had lunch together, went for a couple of afternoon walks, and then one day I invited her over and made dinner for her.  I still remember afterward, sitting on the couch together, learning about each other.  I dragged out a stack of Doonsbury and Bloom County books, and we laughed together, and then we kissed for the first time.  It was gentle, and I remember my hear pounding–taking the chance on a beginning.  It was (and is) a great and terrifying feeling.

She was headed out West to stay with family for the Summer, but that Spring we spent a great deal of time together.  I suspect one of my attractions was that in 1984, I owned a computer, and T used it to write end of term papers.  I remember one hot and humid Chicago evening running to the Short Stop Coop convenience store to grab ginger ale while she wrote.  It was warm, so I tossed it into the freezer and went to nap while she wrote.  I woke up to find the cans had exploded in the freezer!

All that summer, we wrote letters back and forth (I remember telling her what a great movie Ghost Busters was, and how it was destined to become a phenomenon).  I was careful never to use the word “love.”  The risk was too great.

When she came back in the fall, though, I met her at the airport, and there was no question.  I was in love, and it turned out alright.

We went to movies, danced, took silly photographs of each other, met a huge black poodle named Toby and his owner (his owner said Toby was a Jewish dog) under the trees of Hyde Park, sang together, walked all over the North Side, had dinner at Anne Sather’s, picnicked on bread, cheese and apples on some city explorations, went to the Great ACE (a hardware store) and Divine Idea (a retro used clothing store), walked under bare trees through a parking lot filled with leaves, and that’s when I knew that I was not only in love with, but that I could not live without T.

It’s been nearly thirty years now–a bit more than half my lifetime. We don’t look the same anymore.  We have four kids and two grandchildren; T’s gained some weight and I’ve gained some weight. We both have gray in our hair.  We’ve been employed and unemployed, we’ve taken chances and bought and sold houses.  We’ve moved around the country a lot.  We’ve had sickness and health.  Joy and sorrow, but mostly joy.

She’s flying back this afternoon from a conference in Chicago, and I can still feel my heart pounding.

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Nothing to see here…!

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A Rant (sort of) About Food


Early in the 1971 film “Silent Running”, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) walks into the kitchen of the spaceship Valley Forge.  His is carrying some plants that he has harvested from one of the domes that Valley Forge is carrying, protecting the last terrestrial forests from the pollution that has blanketed Earth by the end of the 20th Century. The following dialog ensues between Lowell (FL) and his crewmates (CMn) after one of them objects to the smell of the plants:

CM1: Lowell, do you have to eat that stuff? It stinks!
FL: You never let up, do you?
CM2: Well–Oh, now you hurt his feelings.
FL: I’d like to know what any one of you knows about real food.
CM1: What do you mean “real food”? What, out of the dirt? That’s real food?
FL: That’s right. This happens to be nature’s greatest gift.
CM3: – To a celibate, maybe.
CM2: Come on, you guys. Maybe he knows something we don’t. Hmm?
CM3: Lowell, give me a slice of that cantaloupe.
CM1: Don’t ask Lowell.
FL:  I’d be delighted to give you a slice of that cantaloupe. Just sit down and shut up. Sit down, sit down, sit down! Shut up and leave me alone, all of you! Let me eat!
CM1: What’s the big deal? I can’t see the difference between that and this.
FL: You don’t see the difference? The difference is I grew it! That’s what the difference is. That I picked it and I fixed it. It has a taste, and it has some color! And it has a smell! It calls back a time when there
were flowers all over the Earth! And there were valleys! And there were plains of tall, green grass that
you could lie down in, that you could go to sleep in! And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air!
And there were things growing all over the place, not just in domed enclosures blasted some millions
of miles out into space!
FL: Look at that stuff. How can you guys sit there and really say anything to me about this. Look at this crap!  Look at that! Dried, synthetic crap! And you’ve become so dependent on it that I bet you can’t live without it.

Freeman Lowell is right.  And in a very real sense, 43 years after “Silent Running” was made, we are eating the dried synthetic crap he warned us against.  Only we think it’s just fine.  So much of what we eat comes out of plastic packages that it’s sick.  Even our salads come pre-made—tear open a bag and there it is.

I’m not naïve.  I realize that when I was a little kid, we were already well into the age of industrial petroleum-driven agriculture and corn-fed beef.  And I know there are still places you can pick your own apples and corn.  We recycle more now, and you see less trash on the roads.

But for all that, we continue to move away from nature.  We ride down ever-increasing strips of asphalt in our sealed metal and glass cubicles, cut off from smells that once told us what the planet is like, how things are doing.  The weather gets stranger, and we shrug it off.  Just use a more efficient furnace.

I’m rambling, as I often do.

The point is that we haven’t changed from the future that Freeman Lowell told us about.  The planet may not be a uniform 75 degrees year-round, but we accept that food comes in packages.  We have come to expect everything to be processed.  We have forgotten to taste.

Stop and smell the flowers.  Stop and taste the food.  Take a look, and listen, and smell of the world around you.  It’s trying to tell you something.


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Here’s something I just posted on Facebook; it’s a short blog post here:


I’m seeing a lot of talk right now about hate and discrimination. Let’s be clear on one thing. You don’t have to hate someone to discriminate against them. You don’t have to discriminate against someone to hate them. Two different things.

Hate is an emotion, a feeling of animus toward someone else. And you can hate someone without ever letting them know that, though it’s difficult.

To “discriminate,” all you have to do is to treat someone differently. To “discriminate against” someone, you have to treat them in a way that affords them lesser treatment than you would afford someone else. It’s not the reason that makes an act discriminatory, it’s the act itself.

So (for example) if you treat someone who is [gay] less well than you do someone who is [straight] BECAUSE THEY ARE [GAY] (for instance, if you refuse to sell to someone who is [gay] a wedding cake, but you would sell it to someone who is [straight]) you are discriminating against them. The fact that you’re doing it out of religious conviction rather than hatred is immaterial; your motivation may be important to you, but it is not important to them. They just want a cake.

Whether that discrimination rises to the level of being legally actionable is another matter–one that isn’t important to what I’m saying here.

The point is, it’s the actus, not the mens, that matters. The act, and not the intent.

Two things to take away from this:

(1) When you discriminate against someone, all they see is the discrimination, not your reason. They may well conclude that you hate them;

(2) On the other hand, when someone discriminates against you, you may infer that they hate you, but that may not be the case, and without more than the act of discrimination, you don’t really know their reason.

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According to NPR this morning, only a single shot–and that a warning shot–has been fired, and Russia has backed off somewhat.

I should comment on my previous post:  Why such a reaction to one more invasion when there’s war all over the place?

A couple of things, I guess.

There was war all over the place when I was growing up.  I suppose some of my reader(s) may be a little too young to recall Viet Nam, (or as we said in those days, Vietnam or ‘Nam).  That was a constant background.  To illustrate, Sunday mornings my parents would often take my brother and I to open skating at Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota.  They would play the local “beautiful music” station (I think it was WAYL), which broke every 15 minutes or so for news.  In those days, the top of the news was a report listing the number of American, Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese killed in the past 24 hours.  We called it “skating to body counts.”

Not all that different from today, except today we have body armor and YouTube and drones.

Anyway, the other thing in the “couple of things” I mentioned above.  Nuclear war.

Not “nuclear terrorism” or “limited nuclear war.”  Global nuclear war.

My childhood was spent with the United States and the Soviet Union (aka “Russia”) toe to toe.  Fields of missiles; bombers in the air at their fail-safe points.  Tactical nuclear weapons in (West) Germany.  We had “tornado drills” at school that involved us moving to the central hallway, and tucking our heads between our knees.  Nobody was fooled about what these were.  Malls had fallout shelter signs.

So when one of the nations in the world that holds massive numbers of nuclear weapons gets into an argument with another nation that has massive numbers of nuclear weapons over a region in which both have interests, it’s damned scary.

I recognize the suffering in the other wars; I do my best to act as a peacemaker where I can; but in the face of the nuclear djinn, I find myself paralyzed–feeling somewhat, as Tom Lehrer once put it, rather like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis.

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