“Mad Men” and creativity

I’ve got a new piece up on the Globe business section about last night’s “Mad Men,” and the challenges of managing creative people. No, it’s not a challenge to manage creative people because artists are crazy, but because judging creative work is hard, and the relationship of quality to commercial success is anything but straightforward.

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Sunday column: What’s your story edition

Today’s column is online here, and I really liked both questions: one from someone wondering about thanking veterans, another from a person who does professional talks and is wondering what to say to the organizers who put her up at a really terrible hotel.

The woman who wrote the question about veterans was an older person who had recently read an articles about veterans not wanting to be thanked–this one, I suspect, although there have been many more. Rather than get into veteran-specific issues, I took a broader look at the question:

As a general rule, it’s bad manners to single people out for attention based on what they look like or are wearing. This principle applies not only to uniformed soldiers but also to pregnant women, people with assistive devices, hijabis, mixed-race families, and the like. Just because a person looks conspicuous doesn’t mean he or she wants to be the center of attention. Just because you think you can tell what another person’s story is doesn’t mean you can.

I have a sense that this is a somewhat recent etiquette belief, and one where you may see a gender difference. Among people who care about manners and ethics to begin with, my sense is that younger folks are more likely to agree with the sentiment above, and to believe that it’s a major point of etiquette not to make assumptions about people. Older people are more likely to believe that it’s an act of friendliness and human concern to respond to another person’s Navy uniform, leg cast, or pregnant belly with some words of thanks, condolences, congratulations, or so on.

Does this seem like a generational shift to you? Again, I’m talking about people who care about being socially correct in the first place (not just people who are looking for an excuse for their excessive nosiness or disinterest in their fellow humans).

(Incidentally, if any of today’s column looks familiar to you, that’s because it came out online earlier this week–the magazine puts out some features early when they have a big issue, which they have today. Nothing’s changed.)

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Joan & Ken & those binders full of women

It’s been a heck of a week for writing opportunities around here! In addition to the series I’ll be writing about “Mad Men” and organizational psychology for the Globe, I’m doing some pieces on the women of “Mad Men” for Dame. My first piece is on Joan Harris and Ken Cosgrove, and what the odd unacknowledged parallels between them say about the show’s vision of sexism:

Both Joan and Ken have had their bodies used as playthings by clients. Joan prostituted herself to land the Jaguar account (and her partnership); Ken was shot in the face by hard-partying Chevy executives. All their colleagues know. Their very bodies serve as constant reminders of their sacrifices.

Why don’t either of them ever acknowledge it? Why don’t they see each other as natural allies?

Ken and Joan both chafe against gender norms. Ken has no interest in examining his privilege–he accepts the existence of homosexuals and the Irish but would prefer not to work with them–but little interest in playing the alpha-male game, either. He wants a work-life balance and time with his family. He values his fiction writing and the bond it creates with his bookish wife. As a man, Ken doesn’t put his professional credibility at risk by talking about his son in the workplace. Joan doesn’t have that luxury–but let’s face it, she doesn’t seem to want it, either. Has Joan ever seemed more gloriously, triumphantly herself than in her Topaz strategy scene with Don, stealing his cigarettes and commiserating with him over the cluelessness of others? Profit-minded, workaholic Joan is, frankly, a far better fit for macho business culture than the nature-loving, tap-dancing Ken.

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Attention and immersion

Shortly before I went to the Stage the Future II conference, my boss at Harvard Business School sent me a link to this 2013 NPR Science Friday piece on “the myth of multitasking,” an interview with Stanford professor Clifford Nass (transcript here).

Nass passed away later that year, and Google Glass, which was the news hook for the NPR piece, never exactly got a chance to shatter our attention spans. Two years since the story, and do we not all know this by now? That multitasking isn’t as possible as our brains make us think it is? My sense is that we do. I hear people apologize for their multitasking with the same chagrined shame with which they speak of smoking or forgoing exercise or letting the television babysit their kid occasionally: Yes, I know it’s bad. I shouldn’t do this. I am a weak-willed organism.

What I found intriguing about the interview wasn’t the debunking of multitasking, but the design difficulties of getting people not to multitask. Nass explained:

The problem is, as people have become – love screens. So the more screens you put in the car, the more people want to look at the screen, and the basic problem is the windshield is just another screen, and as screens go, not all that an exciting one. So we have this true design challenge that we’ve never encountered before, which is the entire field of automotive design has to switch from how can I, the designer, stop distracting you because you really want to pay attention to the road, to a radically different world in which the driver says I don’t want to pay attention to the road, and the auto designer has to say how can I force you back onto paying attention to the road? It’s a really exciting challenge.

Now hold that thought. At Stage the Future II, everyone wanted to talk about “immersive theater.” Part of this is because of the phenomenal critical and commercial success of “Sleep No More,” but there seemed to be more to it than a mere desire to follow in the footsteps of a smash hit. “Immersive” theater, for those not in the know, is when you don’t just sit there and watch–you move around the space, you can interact with the performers and the set. Theater? You’re soaking in it!

And I wonder if part of the popularity of this artistic trend is because reality itself has ceased to be an immersive experience. We have so many devices to pull us out of whatever moment we’re in. If you want to be wholly caught up in one moment, body and mind and all, you almost have to design that moment, anymore. Or have a great artist design it for you.

Another quote from Nass that stuck with me:

Our brains are built to receive many stimuli at one time, but they’re related stimuli. The problem with multitasking is not that we’re writing a report of Abraham Lincoln and hear, see pictures of Abraham Lincoln and read words of Abraham Lincoln and see photos of Abraham… The problem is we’re doing a report on Abraham Lincoln and tweeting about last night and watching a YouTube video about cats playing the piano, et cetera. That’s where the detriment comes in. It’s extremely healthy for your brain to do integrative things. It’s extremely destructive for your brain to do non-integrative things.

Theater, it seems to me, is uniquely positioned among the arts to serve the emotional needs of multitasking people. Integrated multi-sensory stimuli? We invented that shit.

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“Better Call Saul” and the face of friendship

Check out my new piece on xoJane, about how “Better Call Saul” addresses the problem of unequal friendships–a topic that’s come up frequently in my column. Seven spoiler-free tips from Kim Wexler!

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“Mad Men” and the face of success

I’ll be doing a piece each Monday in the online Business section of the Globe, on the career-planning lessons in Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men.” This week I focused on the role of appearance in career success:

The word “stereotype” calls to mind the kind of crude sexist and ethnic categorization that the “Mad Men” crew indulge in with thrilling shamelessness. (Really, Ken Cosgrove? You didn’t fit in at McCann because “I’m not Irish. I’m not Catholic. And I can read”? Don’t be showing your face in Boston with an attitude like that!) One of the most innate and intransigent stereotypes, however–and one that has tremendous workplace impact–has to do with whether a person is baby-faced or mature-looking.

One of the major researchers in the field of faces and stereotyping is Brandeis’s Leslie Zebrowitz, who writes on her website that “[P]eople of all ages whose facial qualities resemble those of infants (e.g., large eyes, round faces, small chins) are perceived to have childlike traits and are treated differently from the mature-faced in real-world venues, such as employment and the justice system.” The baby-faced are believed to be more submissive, warm, and trustworthy, and also less competent, than their mature-faced peers. Within the advertising industry itself, this can create a paradox: Should a company’s message be delivered by the most expert and authoritative face available, or the most likeable and trustworthy one? (Answer: Maturity rules when times are good and the company is building on a base of strong customer relations. In the throes of a PR crisis, though? Cattle call for babyfaces!)

The whole piece is here.

Some other, non-career-planning-related thoughts:

* Meredith seems to have gained a dozen or so IQ points since last we saw her, no? Or is Don so painfully predictable even Meredith can stay one step ahead of him by now?

* That earring is the most we’re going to see of Megan from here on out.

* Ted literally brought Don a binder full of women.

* Has anyone noticed the thematic similarities of Joan and Ken in the past season and a half? They’ve become “company men” in exactly the way their season 1 selves predicted they never would. Both have had their bodies literally used as playthings by clients, and are constantly aware that this is what their colleagues see and think about in every interaction. And both chose to stay in the game, this week, even though–as Cindy and Peggy both point out, bitterly–they have the resources to leave whenever they want.

* Outstanding casting job on that waitress, who managed to look like a composite image of Midge, Rachel, and Linda Rosen.

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Sunday column: Maybe she should date Oliver Sacks edition

Today’s column is online here, from a young college woman whose mother thinks her boyfriend is abusive. Spoiler: He’s not, but the LW is so “clumsy” (her own distinctly non-pathologizing language) that she’s got three out of four limbs in a brace anyway.

I got this letter around the time “50 Shades” came out, and I’m sure that movie played into the mother’s worries. Here is my all-time favorite take on the franchise, by Amanda Taub at Vox:

The movie’s primary fantasy isn’t male control, it’s female laziness. It’s not a window into a world filled with kinky sex, of which there is shockingly little in the film. Rather, it’s an imagined universe in which women are free to resist all pressure to self-improve, need never worry that their professional mistakes might have negative consequences for their careers, and can reject every piece of sex and relationship advice a women’s magazine ever gave them, and have it work out great for them.

Now if this movie makes it look all glamorous and sexy to disregard advice columnists, I’m even more offended! But maybe today’s LW should watch it anyway, if Ms. Taub is right and “50 Shades” is a paean to women not doing anything. Because every time my LW does do something, she apparently sprains herself.

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Science Trivia Night at Ames Street Deli hosted by Miss Conduct!

Next Monday, April 6, I’ll be MC’ing a science trivia contest at Ames Street Deli in Kendall Square. The quiz starts at 7:30. I hope you’ll join! (Despite the “Deli” name they serve booze, so it is a proper pub quiz.) Here’s a fun story about the owners.

We’re planning to do Science Night on the first Monday of every month. We may also branch out into other kinds of contests and science/theater games. But for now, a pub quiz! I hope to see you there.

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Sunday column: The evil “should” edition

Sunday’s column is online here. It’s a short one because of advertising, this week–one question, from a man who doesn’t like his in-laws’ seders and would prefer not to go. Seeing as how he’s not even Jewish, Miss Conduct thinks that’s kosher.

Some folks have disagreed with me about that, and I think the root of the problem depends on how you interpret this line: “My wife says I should go.” I take that literally. He didn’t say his wife wants him to go, or asked him to go. He says she thinks he should go. “Should,” to me, implies obligation without personal desire or practical reason to give it muscle. “Should” has no place in a marriage. It’s hard enough to get your spouse to do the things you genuinely want them to do or have good reasons for them to do! Vague “shoulds” with no emotion or logic to back them up don’t–and shouldn’t–get much traction.

So, if an LW says that his or her spouse thinks they “should” do X that they don’t particularly want to do … I’m going to say it’s okay not to do it.

But this could be unfair of me. Maybe the LW’s seder-going spouse does in fact want him to go, and said so. Maybe “should” is his word, not hers. Maybe she does have a personal desire or a practical reason he should be at the seder. In that case, he should go.

This is the kind of thing I think it is easiest for an advice columnist to get wrong:

Of course, I don’t even know the worst advice I’ve given. I know the mistakes above are mistakes, because I’ve learned new and deeper things about prejudice and human nature and dog poo. But what do I still not know? What do I miss? What–and this is the one that keeps me up at night–do I misinterpret? When the only information you have about a person is a few lines they write to you. Have I been harsher than I should with L.W.s?

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Thoughts from “Stage the Future,” part II

One of my favorite presentations at Stage the Future was Carol Stewart‘s paper entitled “What’s My Motivation? Science Fiction Theater and the Constraints of Method Acting.”

This was right up my alley! Last fall I wound up assistant-directing the mini-opera for the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. I was primarily in charge of the chorus, who were playing microbes who lived in the guts of the two leads. (The entire ceremony is here and the final act of the opera–the Revolt of the Microbes–begins at one hour and 27 minutes.) Trying to figure out the motivations of gut microbes–Stanislavski doesn’t really have much to help with that. That’s not what he meant when he said “Find the part inside yourself.”

Much of Carol’s paper centered around the Method-trained Leonard Nimoy as an example of the unsuitability of the Stanislavski approach to SF acting. Carol argued that the Method could not have provided an adequate framework for the creation of Spock as a character; that Method teachers never understood or respected Nimoy’s accomplishment; and that maybe if the Method hadn’t messed with his head, the poor man wouldn’t have had to write back-to-back books titled I Am Spock and I Am Not Spock.

Carol had an anecdote I’d never heard before: that Stanislavski used to bring a dog to rehearsals, and that the dog knew when people were done “acting” and would go wait by the door as soon as the actors dropped character. “Stanislavski set out to fool the dog.”

To fool the dog. If I ever write a book about acting, there’s my title.

In grad school, I wrote a couple of papers on the intertwined histories of method acting and psychoanalysis. The Method, at its beginning, was heavily influenced by Pavlov and the emerging science of psychology. When the technique came to the United States, for a variety of reasons, it became entwined, both intellectually and socially, with Freudian psychoanalysis.

But that was 100 years ago! In 2015, the science of human understanding has gone so much further, in so many directions that neither the couch nor the maze could have predicted. Psychology is no longer defined by the twin doctrines of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. We’ve seen so many extraordinary advances and insights from cvolutionary psychology, the cognitive revolution, neurobiology, narrative and cross-cultural psychology, and more subfields and interdisciplinary crossroads. Stanislavski’s great breakthrough–and for all I may snark at the excesses of the American Method, Stanislavski was one of the artistic giants of his not-too-shabby age–was fueled by the breakthroughs in psychology that were happening in his time. Psychology is still having breakthroughs. But who are the Stanislavskis of our age who are bringing psychological science into the theater?

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Thoughts from “Stage the Future,” part I

Earlier this month, I attended the second annual Stage the Future Conference on Science Fiction Theater at Arizona State University.

Among the artists who showed their work, my favorite was Miwa Matreyek, who does beautiful multimedia animations about the natural world and the human body. And she’s coming to the ICA here in Boston in April:

A newcomer to Boston, LA-based multimedia artist Miwa Matreyek combines animation, video installation, and performance for one-of-a-kind experiences that have appeared at international art centers and festivals including Sundance Film Festival. These two pieces combine stunningly lovely imagery with inventive movement and shadow play for works that are, as she says, ?at once semi-scientific (like flipping through a children?s encyclopedia), emotional, and dream-like, rich in surrealism, metaphor, and fantasy.


I’m definitely going to try to see more of her work. Tickets here.

The keynote address was given by ASU’s Thomas P. Seager, an engineering professor who specializing in sustainability and resilience, aka surviving very bad things. We need theater to teach us the skills required to survive VBTs–improvisation, creativity within constraints, collaboration–and science fiction can help us imagine both VBTs and their solutions. Increasingly, Dr. Seager pointed out, “We cannot predict the future by extrapolating from the past.” Change across many dimensions–climate, social, technological–is too fast and complex for that. We need the discipline and imagination of both science and the arts to move into the future.

ASU is all about that kind of art-and-science integration, which is why the conference met there. Part of what we talked about was the split in SF between utopian and dystopian visions of the future (or, if you’re a Bostonian, of the recent past). Famously, within a rather narrow and geeky definition of “fame,” ASU is where university president Michael Crow challenged SF author Neal Stephenson and his SF kinfolk to come up with brighter visions of the future. The resulting anthology is Hieroglyph. (Here are some good articles about the project.)

More to come …

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Sunday column: Fear of a quack planet edition

Today’s column is online here, and it’s a great question: what to do when a friend or acquaintance espouses a belief in quack medicine? I wish I had better news than this to share:

People’s beliefs, correct or incorrect, aren’t discrete silos of opinion. Your entirely correct, rational approach to medicine is intimately entwined with your upbringing, your self-image, your other opinions about science and ethics, and your social network. Mr. Snakeoil’s wrongheaded approach to medicine is similarly embedded. Correcting that belief isn’t like replacing one dead bulb on a string of fairy lights, it’s more like pulling a block out of a Jenga tower. You say Mr. Snakeoil’s quackery is sponsored by his church, too–well, as they say in the movies, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” A couple of Snopes links posted on Facebook is not going to undo a belief that is an intimate part of a person’s religion and social support system. All you’ve done is given Mr. Snakeoil a thumbnail image of what an unenlightened heathen looks like. It’s possible you’ve strengthened his resolve.

But unfortunately, there’s too much evidence suggesting that, well, evidence isn’t all that convincing to many people much of the time.

Incidentally, I have only ever played one game of Jenga in my life, and yet I use it as a metaphor all the time.

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“From the Deep” & science-fiction theater

Sunday I saw “From the Deep,” a new play by Cassie M. Seinuk that’s being produced by Boston Public Works. It’s a vividly staged two-hander set not in any literal place or time but in the shared mental space of two different men being held captive for different reasons–an Israeli soldier held hostage by a Palestinian group, and a Boston college student kidnapped for reasons that aren’t made immediately clear. The captives’ situations are realistic–the Israeli, in fact, is based on Gilad Shalit–the only science-fictional element is the creation of the mental world shared by the two men.

Boston Spirit Magazine raved about the play:

Seldom has this reviewer seen a play set in a parallel universe, created entirely from the playwright?s imagination, transcend the genre of science fiction or the theater of the absurd. But like the best of Harold Pinter, that Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Seinuk and her cast and crew of this production have created a riveting theatrical experience. The audience not only clutches their seats to find out the final outcome of the two trapped men but also hangs onto their every sentence of dialog to learn how they come together to cope and hopefully overcome their similar yet totally different dilemmas.

… but dang, bro, can a reviewer ever mention science fiction (in any medium) without immediately disavowing it or explaining how the work under question “transcend(s) the genre”? “Transcend” is to art what “toleration” is to people. You don’t have to learn to “tolerate” a group if you really truly don’t think there’s anything wrong with them to begin with. An artist doesn’t have to “transcend” a genre if there’s nothing wrong with that genre to begin with.

But in the badly-remembered-by-me words of Kurt Vonnegut, “the science-fiction drawer is the drawer critics mistake for a urinal.”

Cassie’s review reminded me of something playwright Walt McGough wrote me when I contacted him about my presentation at Stage the Future. I was curious how audiences had responded to “Chalk,” a similar drama with two characters, a confining and obstacle-ridden set, and strong emotional content. Walt wrote:

One thing I definitely noticed, in the few reviews we got, was that all of the reviewers seemed to feel the need to lay the sci-fi side of things out up front, and take a stand on it, within the first few paragraphs. We got a lot of “I don’t usually like zombie stuff, but,” or “I’m not the audience for this because I don’t like sci-fi. That said…” So in a weird way, I felt like reviewers felt more of a need to apologize for the genre of the play than I (or the production team) ever did. Who knows if that’s just my biased perception, but it was definitely something present in all of the reviews.

SF! It stands for “science fiction,” not “sorry, folks.” It’s the 21st century and the geeks have inherited the earth. Let’s stop apologizing for it!

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“Grounded” and life on the screen

Last week I saw “Grounded” at Central Square Theater, which runs through this weekend. You should go! It’s a brilliant play, and the actress, Celeste Oliva, is a revelation.

Celeste Oliva. Photo by A. R. Sinclair Photography.

I might not have even gone myself if I hadn’t had season tickets. The plot–an Air Force fighter pilot is grounded because of her pregnancy and is put to work piloting drone strikes–didn’t grab me. But the script, by George Brant, transcends the topic. As I said on Twitter, whatever you think the play is about, it’s more than that.

One of the major themes was how much of our lives is under surveillance and/or on screen. The pilot’s targets are on screen, of course, close enough that she can see their identifying characteristics. Her husband, a blackjack dealer, works under cameras to ensure he doesn’t steal. She refers to their evening television as “another hour of screen.”

One of the conversations I had and heard a lot at the Stage the Future conference–and over the past year in general life–is why science fiction and science in pop culture? What’s with the current rise of these genres?

Because they reflect what modern life is, I suspect. We live on the screen. Often alone but with no privacy. The news gets more surreal every day. The lines between nations and peoples and corporations blur. The line between media and reality blurs. We don’t understand the future we are preparing our children for. How can we not be telling stories of science and science fiction?

“Grounded” isn’t science-fictional, or even especially technical. It’s a straightforward, ripped-from-the-headlines drama. But it still digs into the difficulty of making sense of reality when so much of it is spent in cubicles, staring at screens. Of the difficulty of knowing who to empathize with: Are you more like the people who believe what you do, or the people who do what you do? Do you have more in common with your colleagues or your spouse? What do you owe your child compared to what you owe the world’s children? Who is your tribe and why?

And can you fool your brain into thinking what’s on the screen is real only when you want it to be? That it’s people when you want to feel connected with people, and pixels when you don’t?

This is what I noticed, because I’m me. I saw the play with a friend of mine who is a mother and a lawyer, and she heard other notes, notes that resonated with her perspective and experience. The script was that good.

Buy tickets here.

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Sunday column: Complications edition

Today’s column is online here. Both questions were juicy ones: How can you tell when an adoptive family is isolating themselves, and is it okay to comment on strangers’ public posts on Facebook?

I get a lot of questions like these, where it’s not about right or wrong, or how to have a difficult conversation, but about being comprehensible to others. If I do X, how will people interpret it? If someone has done Y to me, should I take that as a compliment or an insult?

“Etiquette” is a polarizing word, I’ve found. There’s a faction who insist that the purpose of etiquette is exclusion and codifying class and gender roles, and there’s a faction who insist that etiquette is simply empathy and kindness. (I doubt people aren’t so simple as to think that etiquette is really, truly all one and not the other, but many folks feel in their bones that it is even if they rationally know better.) Both of those analyses have their share of truth, but I think the essential function of etiquette is communication technology: giving us a set of words and behaviors (handshakes, thank-you notes, hostess gifts, Facebook likes) to communicate our intent and desires to other people. To make ourselves comprehensible.

My editor usually writes a little tagline for the end of the column, urging readers to write in with problems of their own. This week, he wrote, “NEED HELP UNDERSTANDING SEEMINGLY ODD BEHAVIOR OF FRIENDS OR FAMILY? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com.” I can’t wait to see what’s in my inbox Monday!

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