Heaven and Earth
Thoughts on Baseball, Art, and Other Altered States

Tobacco Road
Tom Rogers and the Philip Morris Tollway

Coyote Waits
Native American folklore says that Coyote will outlive us all and be the last survivor on earth

Hallucination Engine Revisited
The Psycho-dynamic Obsolescence of General Motors

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The Big Reason: Legends, Mantras, Battle Cries & Truth in Advertising
As my grandmother Elizabeth aged, nearly all her statements became mottoes or slogans or platitudes. “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” she said right after we sang her birthday song.

Granny was 100 and we commemorated the event with 100 candles that, by the time she inhaled, formed a single immense flame on her cake. On that day, her age, our enthusiasm and the physics of dentistry created a momentous occasion.

When Elizabeth let loose, exhaling mightily toward the 100 candles, she propelled her upper dentures out of her mouth, over the table and onto the floor, where they skidded across the room clanging against the baseboard.

It is legend in my family.

If you can reduce a reason to live down to a simple phrase, you’ve got yourself a motto. If you can shoot your teeth across the floor with impeccable timing, you become a mythological figure.

When the Celts went to battle, they synchronized their war cries. These unifying hollers became known as “slogans.” Nowadays, slogans are phrases used repeatedly for promotion. The difference between a motto and a slogan is, after all, only in the value you put on the product. “Give me liberty or give me death” is closer to “Just do it” than we’d like to think.

The search for the right slogan may take years, but when your own special battle cry is heard you instinctively join in.

For those who don’t yet have a slogan, perhaps their Celtic ancestors screamed, “Still Looking” as they charged down grassy slopes, arrows whizzing by. Those who refuse to have a slogan might have had ancestors screaming,“So what.”

As a youngster, I spent a good deal of time committing television commercials to memory. That was when cigarette advertisements were still on TV. Size and length were a sales point. One popular brand kept reminding me “It’s not how long you make it, it’s how you make it long.” Truer, more inspirational words were never spoken.

My competition for TV viewing time was my mom. In her youth, she was fascinated by Aimee Semple McPherson — the prima Southern California evangelist of the twenties. In that tradition, Mom watched Billy Graham crusades and received blessing pacts from Oral Roberts and the Abundant Life Choir.

Because of this influence, I cut my teeth as a television cross-breed — part consumer pagan and part broadcast evangelical Christian. I wondered where the yellow went when I brushed my teeth with Pepsodent in a metaphysical kind of way — and surrendered my body to the Wonder Bread of salvation.

My first ad campaign — or branding experience — occured during ninth grade Social Studies where Mrs. Munroe, my teacher, gave the class two minutes to come up with a simply stated motivation for living.

“What is your life’s motto?”

Ray Snider who sat next to me answered “Have fun.” The class nodded in agreement. I was next.

“Strive,” I said. “Even after you fail, always try to move ahead.”

I was a earnest young man and figured that falling short and trying harder was standard operating procedure for the student-teacher environment, but on the heals of “Have fun” I had pretty much harshed the class buzz.

My primogenitors, the Celts, could have helped then. The myth of Tristan and Iseult was their gift to us — a formula for “words to live by.”

Tristan, the hero of this tale, spent his life in a struggle between the “ideal” and the “practical” — both of which were manifested in women. Both women had the same name.

Tristan marries a “Practical” Iseult, but is emotionally and physically driven by an “Ideal” Iseult. On his death bed he sends a secret message across the sea to the “Ideal” with a request: If the “Ideal” still loves him — still believes in him — she should send a ship with white sails…if not, black sails.

The "Practical" Iseult, however, learns of this secret plan. When Tristan’s dire condition prevents him from seeing the ship arrive, he must rely on her eyes to report. The ship appears decked in white, but when Tristan asks, “What color are the sails?” the “Practical” replies “black.” Tristan dies. End of story.

A motto, then, is a light — or a sail. It is “the real thing.” It is “true value.” It is bullshit. It is a plug; a soundbyte; a quick fix. It manipulates us; lies to us; gives us identity.

This is not the best of all possible worlds. This is the only possible world — both ideal and practical. In our gut we know it’s a great life if we don’t weaken.

— Nathan Callahan


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