Wednesday, May 29, 2013

When Dramatization Goes Too Far

I've been accused of being a storyteller. I wear that label proudly, thank you.

I like to consider this blog to be my version of storytelling while journaling my children's childhood. Neither of my kids know this site exists;  I suspect that some of my posts will be met with protests from my eldest and most logical of my two children. She would do what many of my friends and family members do when they read my posts, which is correct my facts, informing me that a particular trip I wrote about didn't happen in fall, it was winter, or that I was in 5th grade, not 6th, or what have you.

Others will just laugh at the story and take it for what it was meant to be -- entertaining, but not entirely factual.

That's what I think the best storytellers do -- they build stories around events without boring readers with unnecessary details that would take away from the entertainment. There is a fine line between storytelling and marketing, and in the world of nonprofits, there IS no line between storytelling and marketing. Telling compelling stories is how nonprofits get their audience to feel empathy for their mission and to give.

Recently, I've seen a few examples of storytelling through marketing that have made me raise an eyebrow.

For example, my mom and stepdad have vacationed in a retirement community called The Villages. It is more than just a community, it's a city with its own hospital and zip code. Golf carts are the preferred method of transportation and golf cart traffic jams after town square events are a part of the norm. One of their community centers is filled with black and white old-time photographs of farmers and families, with plaques telling stories about the families who used to live on the land where The Villages is now located. It made my folks feel good, knowing a little bit more about the history of the area before it became developed.

On their second-to-last day of their stay, they picked up a local newspaper that talked about The Villages' plans to expand and the amenities that would be built. One element talked about the planned decor and mentioned that fake families and stories would be created to give the place a history, like had been done the rest of the development.

You mean that Farmer Johnny, his wife and seven kids didn't really own this land in the 19th century? That warm, fuzzy feeling they had gotten from those stories was gone.

Last week, while munching on a box of fine fast-food cuisine, I began to read the story on the box that the food was in. It's a story about a little boy who used to visit a particular fast food restaurant on a daily basis, and how he became their unofficial mascot. Suddenly he stopped visiting. He finally showed up one day and told the workers that it wasn't as easy for him to get there anymore because someone had stolen his bike. On the other side of the box you read about how all the employees of the restaurant felt so badly that they pooled their money together and bought this little boy a bike, which made the store owner proud. His heart swelled three times its size that day.

The last line is "I just love telling this story." Followed by an asterisk.Which brought me to look for the disclaimer, on the bottom of the box.

The photos are of models, not the actual people in the story. I have no idea if the "dramatization" is a re-writing of an actual story that was related to the marketing staff at headquarters, or if it was generated at a brainstorming session. The fact that I have to question the story at all has my guard up and makes me believe that the story in its entirety was fabricated.

Warm fuzzy feeling? Gone.

Now I'm not accusing either of these companies of doing anything wrong. Neither of them misrepresented their product or services, nor did they have a have a lapse in quality. I give the fast food place kudos for printing an asterisk and a disclaimer, as opposed to The Villages, which allows residents and visitors to think that those stories are true.

I am questioning the storytelling.

If I were a fast food restaurant and was looking for warm, personal stories involving my brand, I would have a contest on my Facebook page eliciting the best story of a visit to a local restaurant from my followers. The stories their own audience members would deliver would probably be better than the one the marketing department created. And guess what: no little asterisk needed. Even better, how about if the asterisk said, "This is a summary of a story told to us by one of our Facebook followers and long-time customers. Like us on Facebook to read the original story and share your own."

I don't know what to tell The Villages except that when the fabrications are discovered by their audience, the emotions they were trying to create with those stories is immediately gone, replaced with a feeling of having been deceived. It's not a good feeling, let me tell you. I wouldn't recommend it.

When consumer trust is hard to earn and corporate missteps are immediately spread wide and far through social media, my advice to companies and nonprofits alike is to be on the up-and-up. Be a storyteller, yes, a fabricator, no.

*I remind readers that posts are a reflection of my personal opinions and do not reflect that of my employer or anyone else for that matter.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Boy Named Zach

On Monday Zach Sobiech, an 18-year-old boy from Stillwater, passed away after a long battle with osteosarcoma, or cancer of the bone.

Zach was a remarkable teenager who we all got to know through Children's Cancer Research Fund. CCRF had heard about Zach's story and diagnosis of terminal cancer and asked him to be a featured in the KS95 for Kids radiothon this past December. Turns out Zach has a talent for song writing, and he was saying good-bye to his family and friends through song. His song "Clouds" was played on the air as a part of the radiothon.

He signed a contract with BMI. He recorded more songs in a real recording studio with talented aritsts and producers surrounding him. He headlined at a concert at the Varsity Theatre in Minneapolis, with all funds going to the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund. Doors opened for him -- quickly, because everyone around him could see that time was running out for Zach.

And finally, the predicted happened. On May 20th, Zach died at home, surrounded by his siblings, parents and long-time girlfriend.

Zach's sister has written since her brother's passing about how his family struggled to find meaning in his death. She finally acquiesced to let God have him, hoping that Zach's passing would have meaning.

Zach's song "Clouds" hit Number 1 on iTunes two days after his death. Each purchase raises money for the Osteosarcoma Fund, which at last count has $250,000 in it, all thanks to Zach. According to one of the researchers at the University of Minnesota, the money raised is enough to begin genetic mapping to determine the root cause of osteosarcoma and find new ways to treat it.

I don't think Zach's sister has to wonder if his passing has meaning. The money he's raised and the research they'll accomplish will have meaning for thousands of cancer patients yet to be diagnosed.

It wasn't until after he had passed that the reality of his situation and its similarity with one of a boy I knew 21 years ago hit me.

Minus the media attention, the signing contract, the rock star status, the hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitible gifts.

I don't mean to take anything away from Zach, but it doesn't seem fair. There are thousands of children across the United States struggling with cancer, and many of them will lose their lives. Only a few get to make a difference the way Zach did.

Two decades later, I wonder who outside of Paul's immediate family and friends remember him, or if his life and death mean anything to anyone other than those he left behind.

And then I remember that he had participated in a clinical trial at the University of Wisconsin. He participated in a new chemotherapy protocol that at the time held promise for his kind of cancer. Unfortunately it was not successful in stopping his cancer, but at least researchers had the data to add to their learnings. I wish I knew what happened to that research, if it eventually resulted in new treatments or was abandoned as unsuccessful.

When the cancer returned after that chemo treatment, the University offered to try a radical new treatment. It had only been done a handful of times before with mixed results. (At least they were honest in their assessment).  It was called a bone marrow transplant. BMT's are done today with great regularlity and success. There are people living today who have had TWO bone marrow transplants and have lived to tell the tale. But when it was offered to Paul, it was in clinical trials and only a couple of people had survived the procedure.

His choices were: 1) undergo a painful and difficult procedure which had a 50% chance of killing him or 2) enjoy life, treasure every second of it knowing it will be over before any of us want it to be.

He chose option number 2. And I'll be honest, I'm glad he did. We had a wonderful summer together in 1992, taking trips to Great America, driving out to the lake and walking out to the lighthouse, going on bike rides through the countryside. He took a vacation to Mexico with his family, the only time he'd been to that country.  I foolishly returned to school in the fall and four weeks later, on September 29th, 1992, Paul died on a hospital bed in the middle of his living room, surrounded by his siblings and parents, but not his girlfriend. I wasn't there, and I regretted that decision to return to school for years.

My memories of him live on in journals, a scrapbook, a box of letters. I think of him at least once a day, usually with a smile and a nod to the stars.

Zach's passing has brought Paul's back to me like it was yesterday. I know the pain of the days to come that face his family, and I wish them peace and healing in the days and years ahead. They will be able to look back on his life and last days with gratitude for those experiences, and I hope they can smile.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

It Seems Impossible

It seems impossible that most mornings, we get up, get dressed, hug and kiss our kids and send them off to school in the care of others.

It seems impossible that they come back home safely, every day.

It seems impossible because less than six months ago, a madman killed an entire classroom of kindergartners. Earlier this week students whose parents hugged them and told them "have a good day" were buried under the rubble of their school after a mile-wide tornado swept through their town. And yesterday two 4th graders did not come home from a field trip to hunt for fossils at a local park when a rain-saturated gravel pile they were on collapsed under them, burying them in seconds.

I pray for those families. I pray for the parents who never got to say good-bye. I cannot imagine their pain.

And yet tomorrow, I will send my children off to school, give them hugs and kisses and tell them to "have a good day."

I take comfort in knowing that most days, all the children who go to school arrive safely back home. I need to remind myself that these horrific events are all jumbled on top of each other in my mind because of their proximity in time and the speed at which today's media cover such events, bringing them closer to home than ever. The fact that these things rarely happen is what makes them such grand news stories, so that they seem more common than they truly are.

I have to tell myself that or I would stay at home, curled up in a ball with my children under my arms, never stepping outside, never answering the door, never letting my children grow up and spread their wings, discover their talents.

It seems impossible, but I will do it. I will take that risk, because our kids deserve the opportunity to experience the world, in all its beauty and terribleness.

And I will appreciate every day that I have with them, and make the most of our time together.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Marathoner's Life

Sometimes I swear it's me who runs the marathons.

From tempo to interval runs, bonking, "junk" miles and negative splits, I'm all into the jargon.

I tell people that Wayne goes out to run a "quick" 7 or 8 miles. Because to him, that's a short run. Never mind the fact that I've never run anything over 4 miles, and that it took me nearly an hour to do. (That's practically walking, in case you were wondering.)

My perspective on running is a bit jaded, especially as a self-described non-runner.

So you probably can't understand why I was looking forward to getting up at 4 a.m. the Saturday before Mother's Day to drive to Brookings, SD, to watch Wayne run his 9th marathon. I have come to love spectating at these events. This one was no different. Actually, it was different, which is what made it all the more fun.

We arrived in Tracy, MN on Friday night and hit the road early the next morning to complete the trip to Brookings. It was 37 degrees out and as a seasoned marathon spectator, I knew to dress for the weather, since I probably wouldn't be hanging out in my car. Lined tights and four layers of shirts and fleeces did the trick. Wayne, on the other hand, donned a sleeveless shirt, arm warmers, and shorts. I got cold just looking at him.

I dropped him off at the start and went to McDonald's for my secret love: Egg McMuffin sandwiches. I haven't had one in years. And because I know my dad's an early bird, I called him and had a nice chat at 6:45 a.m., uninterrupted by kids and household chores. What a treat!

Pretty soon it was time to start spectating, so I grabbed the race map, my GPS and went on my way.

The Brookings marathon only allows 300 people to run the marathon distance, so it's a very small race. There is a half marathon and a 5k distance for a total of 1,000 runners, still small by comparison to others.

The course wound through town, and was well marked by volunteers with flags and orange cones. They didn't have to close any of the roads, so as a spectator it was easy to drive around to see Wayne run. I think I saw him 8 or 9 times along the route. I would park at an intersection, get out and watch him run and cheer him on. Then I would get back in my car, drive north five blocks, park and cheer him on as he ran the next mile. I may have only driven 5 blocks, but the race course had wound around a whole mile through city streets.

Drive park cheer. Drive park cheer. Get cold and go for coffee. Drive park cheer.

It never warmed up the entire race -- 37 degrees for 3+ hours. And because it's the plains the wind never let up, with gusts up to 30 mph. In May. Yeay for a northern climate!

It was so much fun. For me, that is. Wayne said the wind really sucked. Or at least, he used words that sounded like that, he may have said something else.

I could tell when he'd be coming because I would recognize the runners just ahead of him, who I would cheer on as well. But by mile 19 I could tell that the people who used to be ahead of him had faded and he was out in front of the majority.

Doesn't this look exciting?! Yep, it must've been pretty quiet out there for him, running by himself with no music for over 3 hours. Just the way he likes it.

He ended up finishing 12th overall and 2nd in his age group. His particular age group was incredibly fast -- the winner of the marathon was 52 and completed in a time of 2:38. The winner of the age group younger than Wayne's took 1st place for his division with a time a whole 15 minutes slower than Wayne's.

But still, he ran his 2nd fastest marathon in gusty, windy conditions. We celebrated by going out to a local place for a brew and a good meal before driving back to Tracy.

What a fun day. I must be a marathoner's wife since that's my idea of fun.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mother's Day At That Between Age

For years Mother's Day was about the only mother in the world who mattered to me -- my own. From homemade cards to crazily made breakfasts served in bed at 6 a.m. to my sleepy-headed mom, most of us have that shared experience of celebrating our moms on Mother Day.

Then my folks got divorced and I got a new mom in my life -- my stepmom. Shortly after, I got married and yet another mom entered my life -- my mother-in-law.

And then one year, I was the mom. And because it was my first Mother's Day, I focused less on what Mother's Day meant to my mom, mother-in-law and stepmom, and focused on what it meant to me.

Now after 10 years of parenthood, I've settled in to that in-between mom stage. I toggle between being the recipient of little love notes and childish crafts, to making sure my Mother's Day cards (all of them) are in the mail on time and that phone calls are made, wishing everyone happy days. It's a rather strange place to be. We happened to be at my in-laws over Mother's Day weekend. I made dinner for the group on Saturday night, and my mother-in-law made lunch for the group on Sunday, the day that I felt like I should be lightening her load.

We returned home from our trip and I was awarded with homemade cards and well wishes from my own children. The highlight had to be the Mother's Day tribute questions that Marissa had completed. My favorite answer:

My mom looks prettiest when _________________________ and Marissa had written "ever I look at her."

I also apparently have blue eyes, and the favorite thing that I cook that she likes to eat is brussel sprouts. (Not true for her, but true for me.)

I also got a nice note from Lindsey, who said she loves me even when she's mad at me, and she tells me everything...almost.
Guess I'll keep them another year, see what they say next Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

American Girl birthday

Lindsey's 10th birthday was yesterday. Her slumber party is tonight. Eight 10-year-olds for 18 hours, God help us. I think we're prepared -- at least the wine captain is filled.

Lindsey is having an American Girl doll kind of birthday. Ever since Marissa used her Christmas money to buy herself one in February, it's all Lindsey's talked about. She's a bit late to the American Girl party -- the average age of an American Girl doll buyer is six.

Let me back up a bit, for those who aren't familiar with the phenomenon which is American Girl.

For years I threw away every AG catalog that found its way into our mailbox. The dolls are expensive and the accessories even more insanely priced. I never wanted my girls to get into these, it seemed like such a waste. Finally one day when Lindsey was six or seven, she retrieved the mail and a catalog was in with the offerings. She came in to the house and started looking. And looking. And looking. And finally she brought the catalog over to me and said, "Mom! You wouldn't believe how expensive these dolls are!"

I thought we were safe.

But Marissa has friends who have American Girl dolls, and Marissa really wanted one so she could play with her doll with her friends. An American Girl doll entered our home in February.

There are books and movies about American Girl doll characters, some of which follow the characters through history, others of which are about building character, creating strong, confident selves. I have to admit, I agree with the sentiments.

The "Just Like Me" dolls -- of which there are around 60 varieties and girls can choose dolls that have similar features to themselves -- cost $110. The glasses that Lindsey's doll is wearing were $28. The outfits are $28 to $34. For a doll, mind you, a doll. I don't spend that much on my own kids' clothes, much less a doll's clothes. 

But when you enter the American Girl Doll two-story store at the Mall of America, the experience is magical. The display cases are beautiful, the props displayed in such a way that even adults think they're adorable. There is a beauty salon where you can take your doll to have her hair styled. If your doll's hair is matted and tangled, they'll fix it for you. If you'd like to get your doll's ears pierced, you can do that as well. There is an American Girl cafe where you can eat with your doll, actual food for you and pretend food for your doll. 

The experience is every little girl's dream. Lindsey couldn't wait to go shopping to pick out her doll, who she's named Paris. We agreed that her parents would buy her the doll, and accessories and other things would come out of her birthday money.

In speaking to other parents about Lindsey's excitement about her American Girl doll, some will admit  that their child has two or three American Girl dolls. And I say "admit" because they often will abashedly explain that Grandma had purchased one of them, another one came from an aunt, etc. We all know it's frivolous, expensive, and such an excessive purchase for our girls.

Yet a co-worker of mine reminisces with fondness about her daughter, now age 16, purchasing her first American Girl doll, buying matching outfits, and the joy it brought to her. They cared for the doll so that now that play time is done, the doll is carefully stored away in her original box, ready to hand down to the next generation.

What can I's more than a doll.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Expanding Vocabulary

"Mom, I want to tell you a secret," Marissa whispers to me.

"Okay...." I say questioningly.

"I know the 'd' word and the 's' word," she confides.

"Really," I say. "So what are they?"

"Well," she says looking around, as if she will get in trouble. "The 'd' word is 'damn.' and the 's' word is 'shit.'"

"You're right," I say, "Those are the words. And you know you can't say them to your friends, or teachers, or anybody, right? They are words you can only use when you're an adult in certain company."

She nods emphatically.

"And mom, there's one more, I know the 'c' word, too."

I raise my eyebrow. "And what word is that?"

She leans closer to me and says, "'Crap.'"

I smile. "Yep, you're right. Save that one for when you're older too, okay?"