In Plain Sight

This photo shows a mountain along the Skogafoss river trail in southern Iceland

The soil is loose, and an unfamiliar metallic grey, as I proceed along the hiking trail. Although the sky is cloudless cerulean, the wind whips past, unfettered by trees or other vegetation. The glaciers loom in the distance, their snow-capped tops releasing a steady trail of vapor.

Like all of Iceland, the landscape we’re standing on is relatively young, featuring new mountains that volcanic explosions had formed pell mell. We’ve learned the country grows by two centimeters each year, as a result of the ever-shifting North American and European continental plates far below the country’s surface, and its active volcanoes above. The surrounding jagged skyline shows this tumultuous past, the mountains’ cliffs and peaks shaped by the uneven distribution of lava and ash, their crags further sculpted from the rushing water of glacier melt and glacier-fed rivers.

We continue along the trail. There is no tree line to surpass – no trees at all to speak of, actually. And while we can see for miles in any direction, the landscape, close up, changes as we walk, the terrain moving from gunmetal grey to brown to green to hay-yellow. The density changes, too – the grey soft and powdery, like talc; the brown muddy and suction-like in places, the green and yellow forgiving and firm. It does not occur to me, in the moment, that the grey “soil” is actually volcanic ash.

***

I was drawn to Iceland for its alien landscape, tales of fire and water and ancient explorations, and a sky that regularly put on shows of color and light. Its relative accessibility to my Boston hometown was an added bonus; I could be in Reykjavik faster than if I were to visit the West Coast. So, seeking the unfamiliar, my husband and I booked two tickets for a week in September, knowing that visiting late in the season would mean some compromises, weather-wise. Still, I am an optimist, and just the promise of visiting an entirely new-to-me place already gave me a thrill.

***

I’ve lost count of how many waterfalls we’ve passed along this trail, which follows the Skoga River in southwestern Iceland. Their roars are a constant companion as we proceed. We’re not sure how far we’ll go along the trail today – it’s the end of the hiking season, and while the day is picturesque, we’ve been warned the glaciers (and their effects) can change the atmosphere abruptly.

Planning for a day hike, my husband and I have only taken minor precautions – a few warm layers, a packed lunch with snacks, several liters of water for us to share throughout the afternoon. Our cell phones don’t work out here, or anywhere in Iceland at all, as we chose to forego an international plan in the spirit of a thorough unplugging and detaching while on vacation. As the terrain gets more remote, though, and we find ourselves alone for hour-plus stretches at a time, I wonder if that was the wisest decision.

The wind picks up, and I shiver in my fleece and thin hat. I still want to see more of what’s ahead, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I’ve prepped for a leisurely afternoon waterfall walk, not for a glacial trek. The fact that both trail options exist, though, as neighbors in the same place, still fosters a deep sense of awe. The contrast is as impressive as the glaciers are worrisome.

***

It is only later, after the hike, that I put two and two together – that I was walking in the direct shadow of Eyjafjallajökull, the notorious spewer of 2010, whose billowing ash cloud shut down Europe for weeks on end. Back in the rental car, I marvel at the view of the glaciers from the road, and ponder aloud over the notorious volcano’s exact location. My husband looks at me incredulously and points to where we had just been.

I’m genuinely stunned. “But that’s right there,” I sputter.

There were no signs at any point indicating this landmark; no danger or warning signs urging caution along the trail. Andy had told me we would be “in the vicinity” of Eyjafjallajökull; I took that to mean within a ten- to twenty-mile radius, and had not asked for clarification. Toward the end of our hike, we had been at most a mile away. Even without truly knowing what I was seeing, I had still been intimidated, even humbled.

I think of the old adage about the differing mindsets contrasting travelers and tourists: “A traveler doesn’t know where she’s going, and a tourist doesn’t know where she is.” I feel both mindsets coexisting in me, on this day, much like the waterfalls and glacial volcanoes, improbably sharing the same space.

Connection or Reflection?

Nearly 50 years ago, Simon and Garfunkel sang about isolation: the loneliness of feeling like a solo island in I Am a Rock. One wonders what the duo might think of Apple’s iPhone ad campaigns, where an underlying message of isolation seems to be up for sale.

The campaign’s two ads, Rock God and Road Trip, depict Siri, the iPhone feature that (in theory) responds intelligently to voice commands. This is an incredible feature, and one Apple could have showcased brilliantly through simple examples of universal needs or experiences, expressed through common or emergency requests to Siri, followed by Siri’s accurate replies. (“Siri, I need to find a plumber immediately!”/”Ok, dialing the nearest 24-hour plumber right now!” “Siri, my daughter is choking, how do I do the Heimlich Maneuver?”/”Here’s a YouTube video that shows you how to do the Heimlich.”)

Instead, the new ads send an unintentional message of self-absorption and isolation. As depicted, Siri acts as an echo chamber, a one-way communication tool, where the phone reflects only the self back to its user. I suppose this should not be a total surprise from a company that blatantly tacks an “i” onto its product names, but it still makes one wonder: Is this really progress?

In “Rock God”, a teenage boy uses his phone to locate a music store and purchase a guitar, take a few lessons to learn several songs, and invite friends to a show. And when he finishes his first show? Rather than engage with the audience or his bandmates, he whips out his phone and expresses his self-satisfaction, telling the phone to call him “Rock God”. Of course, the phone validates his request. Why wouldn’t it? We’ve seen no actual human-to-human interaction at any point in the ad, so what is Apple selling? An informational tool, taken to the height of convenience with its voice-command feature, or something a little more uneasy – an actual friend/companion?

One would think the introduction of another human would mitigate this issue, but with “Road Trip”, the second ad in this series from Apple, the problem deepens. Following a couple on a road trip from a snowy East Coast city to Santa Cruz, California, the ad shows the iPhone’s Siri function used for directions, entertainment listings, star maps, and as a personal assistant. It’s this last role, and the ad’s final shot, that’s most problematic. The couple stands out at a rocky, picturesque beach, both looking out to sea, the girl’s phone in hand. “Remind me to do this again,” she tells the phone. Not speaking to her companion; not telling the phone to remind “us” to do this again; not using the phone to reach out to friends or family and actually share the experiences of the road trip.

Remember the old ’80s telephone ads from AT&T, telling people to use their long-distance service to “reach out and touch someone”? Nowadays, our phones have greater computing power and communications capabilities than the NASA computers that powered the first space missions. And what do we use them for, if we believe what’s depicted in these television spots? Nothing as challenging or imaginative as space travel, it seems: Instead, the mirror function is all that’s needed. And in both ads, most screenshots are from the nose/mouth down, lending an air of anonymity or an “everyman” quality to the pieces. In short, if this isn’t quite you, it’s still close enough.

Of course, I may be being a little hard on Apple. Their products are beloved by millions, both for their outstanding functionality and sleek, creative design. Previous ad campaigns managed to bridge the gap between individual appeal (playing a game on an iPhone) and collective fun (syncing up said game with a bunch of your friends). Maybe this focus on the group, on community, is a relic of the past, a directive from Steve Jobs himself. With his passing, perhaps any remnant of that bridge between individual and collective has been demolished – and Apple is now only here to sell to you, reflect you, and validate you alone.

Because at the end of the day, Apple is banking on creating its most profitable relationship by appealing to what makes you tick, on a scale grander than any company has attempted before. Recent reports show that anxiety, frustration, and a sense of being lost are all common to those who have been separated from their smartphone, whether from it being stolen, broken, or just simply left at home for the day. This is big bucks stuff, this idea of phone as the essential, indispensible partner. Because once your phone is ingrained in your daily routine—once its apps replace the yellow pages, the atlas, the newspaper, the answering machine, the television, the desktop computer—it becomes an extension of you, and that’s a partnership primed for incredible longevity. And if these ads are any indication, Apple would like you to consider the partnership between individual and phone, ignoring its echo chamber faults, as one of the most important—if not the most important—relationship one can establish. If this is progress, it seems awfully cold.

One would be curious to hear an updated version of the Simon and Garfunkel classic, and how it would reflect this new normal, the zeitgeist of a half century later. “An island never cries,” they once sang, underscoring its primary message of sorrow. Without changing one lyric, the modern interpretation of the song now positions itself as a happy tune, a song of fulfillment. (“Hey, a rock feels no pain! An island NEVER cries!”) The listener takes it in, of course, via earbuds plugged into his iPhone, the music audible to him alone. Maybe the cover is performed by the Rock God himself, then uploaded to iTunes, ready to be discovered by countless other islands, each on their own.

“I Am a Rock” copyright Sony/Columbia 

“Rock God” and “Road Trip” copyright Apple

“Reach Out” copyright AT&T 

Perfected Imperfection

(Copyright Bethlehem Records)

“What moves us in music is the vital sign of a human hand, in all its unsteady and broken grace … The art is the perfected imperfection.” — Adam Gopnik, “Music to Your Ears”, The New Yorker, 28 January 2013

An admission: I may be responsible for a good chunk of the 26,000+ views of Nina Simone’s 1962 recording of “Strawberry Woman/They’s So Fresh and Fine/I Loves You, Porgy”. It’s far and away my favorite Simone recording, and my favorite arrangement of these three songs. These three pieces, once Simone unites them, go so well together, like tea and honey, coffee and chocolate, whiskey and ice. Like a comforting drink, the performance soothes my insides and quiets my chattering mind. It slips under my skin, the gentle thrums of bass and delicate piano managing to reach some previously untouchable place.

The performance, for me, reaches the point of “unsteady and broken grace” between the 1:53 and 2:28 mark, when Simone conducts a soft, vocal-less interlude at the piano. The minor note Simone strikes at 2:16 is, to my ear, almost unbearably beautiful. Set against the subsequent verse and Simone’s deep, smoky vocal delivery, the performance becomes a study in contrasts. The pretty piano and the gruff voice enhance each other, coming together as cleanly and in a fashion as complementary as the three individual songs themselves.

I also love Simone’s deliberateness with this medley, both in pace and pronunciation. She works on her own schedule, taking her time with a particular phrase or note if it pleases her. If there’s a word she’d like to accent (“devil cra-abs”, for example, at the 0:54 mark), she injects a little color — a squeak, a rasp that snaps the lulled ear to attention. With this technique, Simone doesn’t just play the piano — she also plays the audience, controlling their attention by her total preparation of mood and tone. In short, she presents herself as a master of the “perfected imperfection”, fifty-one years before Gopnik even articulated the idea.

This post originally appeared on the Good Taste and Sense of Humor blog.

Ode to Joy

(Video copyright Grub Street Productions, Paramount Network Television)

The trope of mistaken identity (and ensuing miscommunications) is a go-to for sitcom writers, easily played for laughs by appealing to the audience’s egos. The audience, always one step ahead of the actors, is always aware of the true identity (and what’s at stake), while the characters get clued in to the joke one by one. If it works, hilarity should ensue. If it doesn’t, the entire episode can come across as stale.

The “Frasier” episode above (season 2, episode 3) works, and primarily because of the terrific ensemble. Among the cast, though, one performer stands out: John Mahoney as Martin Crane. The setup: Frasier has invited his new boss, Tom, over to dinner as a potential suitor for Daphne, his father’s live-in physical therapist/housekeeper. Tom, as it turns out, is gay, and thinks he’s there on a date with Frasier. No one at the get-together knows this until Tom clues in Niles, Frasier’s brother, and thus the miscommunications get set straight (pun fully intended).

I have such affection for this episode, and it’s primarily because of Mahoney. The character of Martin has always been written as the average Joe in this ensemble — a working-class blue-collar retiree contrasted against his silver spoon sons, a beer-swilling guy-next-door among port-sipping prima donnas. The character could have been played as irascible, grumpy, mean-spirited — more than a few of his lines over the show’s run could have been delivered with a harsher tone, a gruffer interpretation. Mahoney, though, makes Martin not just likeable, but loveable — a grin always threatens to overtake his face, a bemused “can you believe these guys” gleam is ever-present in his eyes. His line delivery is often just a breath away from good-natured laughter. Despite Martin’s nature, he enjoys his sons, the push-and-pull dynamic of their opposite personalities, forced to coexist. And when Mahoney gets to put Martin’s true nature on display, it’s nearly always jubilant.

Mahoney was nominated for an Emmy just twice for his work on “Frasier”, and both times went home empty handed. While the Emmys are regularly bemoaned for getting it wrong, this oversight (and lack of subsequent nominations) seems particularly egregious. (Out of 11 seasons, the awards committee couldn’t find one year Mahoney deserved to win?!?)

But I digress. If you have time, watch the whole excerpt of the episode to see Mahoney’s glee build and build. If you don’t have 20+ minutes to spare, start the clock at the 15:30 mark and wrap up at 17:00. Mahoney’s burst of laughter is undeniably contagious, and the camera’s perspective of outside-looking-in makes the viewer want to run in and join him. I dare you to watch that scene and keep a straight face.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

Finding and Growing Your Online Audience

This photo shows Hannah Harlow and Sarah Pascarella, presenters at the Muse and the Marketplace 2015

Looking to increase your presence on social media? Here’s the presentation that Hannah Harlow and I put together for the 2015 Muse and the Marketplace:

FINDING AND GROWING YOUR ONLINE AUDIENCE

as well as the list of resources every writer should use when getting started online.

Have further questions? Tweet to me @PascarellaSarah or Hannah @hhharlow!