Brian here… A few years ago, I wrote this essay about the two things that I believe have the most universal conversation appeal and how using them can help you connect with others and tell stories. I was reminded of this essay when talking with Murdock today about a mutual acquaintance who had tweets go viral and ended up on The Skimm and Time magazine this week. Guess what those tweets were about??? Enjoy my thoughts below on “dogs and babies, man.”
A decade ago, I was working professionally building web strategy for an entertainment brand. Looking back, the whole endeavor seems like it must have been so simple, compared to the here-and-now of social media sharing, algorithms and SEO. Back in 2007, all anyone wanted me to figure out was how to get people to visit the website – a lot.
Since Facebook was just getting its legs and the iPhone was in infancy, the idea of being flooded with photos from everyone you know still sounded novel. A popular strategy for folks in my situation became to implement photo contests.
These worked simply: people were encouraged to upload a type of picture featuring something personal. They then invited all their friends to vote for their shot in hopes of winning some nominal prize. The real winner would undoubtedly end up being the website owners because suddenly their pageviews would skyrocket and they would have inflated numbers to show the people spending advertising money.
During these days, we learned something valuable very quickly. Most of these photo contests could work to meet our basic need, but if we wanted ridiculous, ludicrous, eye-bulging results, all we had to do was incorporate one of two things into the theme of the contest: pets or kids. (Or if we REALLY wanted traffic, BOTH at the same time.)
If we asked people to show us their pooch in a costume or their babies looking like bumblebees, not only would the number of photos we received for entries skyrocket, the number of votes that would be cast would often be ten or twenty times that of another type of competition.
And not only would more people take part – the stakes suddenly seemed so much higher to these contestants. There were angry emails if a photo failed to appear properly or a barrage of phone calls from various members of the same family if anyone appeared to be cheating in a way that might endanger their chosen entry. It became overwhelming quickly and we swiftly developed a shorthand to describe this phenomenon around the office:
“Dogs and babies, man,” you’d often hear me mutter under my breath while struggling to keep up with the contest inbox on a random afternoon. “Dogs and babies.”
That phrase has matured for me now a decade later into a mantra that signifies a whole lot more when it comes to connecting with people.
To the introverted or unsure, instruction to get intimate in conversation can seem terrifying, but I whittle it back down to the same thing that drove pageviews all those years ago (and STILL drives pageviews – have you looked at your Facebook feed recently?) – Dogs and babies.
No matter where you are or who you are trying to talk to, try stripping the conversation all the way down to the studs. Find the place where the floor and the wall come together between yourself and that other person. It may be a phrase on a t-shirt. It could be a style or glance or immediately shared moment (This is why so many people rely on talking about the weather.)
But there is a good chance that if you really want to resonate, the quickest path to that point may involve my favorite mantra.
That grumpy guy at the grocery? He has a toddler at home that keeps him up late, but steals his heart every morning with a toothy smile.
That woman swerving around you in traffic? She is worried about getting home to let LeRoy out. He is getting older and has bladder issues. And he gets lonely. (And so does she).
Your boss who seems unreasonable this week? He just sent his youngest off to college and is terrified to find his room empty tonight when he gets home.
“Dogs and babies, man.”
Dogs and babies.
What are you FOR?
Episode 11 is all about the power of the grandparent. Brian told a story about his paternal Grandma Kate, but a few years ago, he wrote this piece about his maternal Grandma Opal. Opal passed away back in December of 2018, making for a weird Christmas season for Brian and family, but her legendary quips and quotes live on daily and below. Enjoy.
A few nights ago my wife went to bed early so I did some dishes and called another woman.
Grandma Opal is 93-years-old and lives in a retirement community in Denver.
While her body is giving her fits, she still has the stories and jokes of a stand-up comedian.
She regularly harasses a woman in her home who constantly complains about the air conditioning being too cold.
She has it out for the lady who once tried to tell HER (the mother of four, grandmother of 8) how to hold a baby.
She told me that the guy my mom almost married before she met my dad was so worrisome that the thought of him “gave me a rash.”
(“Do you often get a rash when you are upset?” I asked Grandma.
“No. That should tell you something about how bad this boy was.”)
After several of these stories, conversation turned a bit more serious. Grandma asked me for a few thoughts on the current political climate.
I would assume that it is rare for grandmothers and grandsons with a 58-year age difference to agree on much when it comes to the happenings in Washington DC. so I was careful in my response.
I said a few things about history and the future and perspective and fear and Grandma listened.
And then she said this:
“Yeah. Often people are quick to tell you what they are against – but they never figure out what they are for!”
This is a beautiful observation – one I am assuming comes with a lot of perspective. And in all honesty, I felt a little convicted.
Grandma is right. (“Like usual,” she’d say.) It’s easy to yell. There is little challenging about feigning indignation. We read half an article and pour kerosene on our status updates, throw a match and hide behind the keyboard. But it takes a real courage to stand up and say what you actively want. There is risk in that. There is actual accountability and potential for disappointment.
But I am up for the challenge.
So I have started making a list of some things I am “for.” (It’s a work in progress.)
I am for magic, the impossible, the improbable and the hard-to-believe.
I am for singing along (even if you don’t know the words).
I am for laughing so hard it hurts.
I am for crying at the movies.
I am for working hard.
I am for risking a little a whole lot of the time.
I am for learning by reading, learning by trying and learning by listening.
I am for kindness.
I am for second and third chances.
I am for finally getting it right.
I am for texts that say “I love you” or “I miss you” or “We should hang out”
I am for getting up early and staying up late.
I am for actively participating.
I am for little reminders.
I am for smiling at strangers.
I am for assuming the best possible scenario.
I am for coffee and conversation.
I am for breakfast for dinner.
I am for twilight runs.
I am for smiling for no reason.
Now it is your turn. Add to the list. What are you “for”?
Dr. Sign Heist (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Coldplay)
The below is from a series of essays Brian published in late 2017 called Mixtape – a set of personal stories about the pop music that made a positive change in his life. The Guys briefly reference this same story about Coldplay/the sign heist on Episode 7 of Story Guys.
As an adult, I realize now I was being an accessory to vandalism and theft. But at the time, the crime we felt being committed against us was boredom. It was a rainy Saturday night in small town Arkansas and we’d been driving around aimlessly.
Small towns have a way of inventing an adolescent subculture around cars as a stand-in for the illusion of freedom. There may be nothing to really accomplish, but we were determined to use every nondescript weekend evening as an opportunity to flaunt the little autonomy we’d been granted. Driving without real purpose seemed to do at least that.
Piled into secondhand cars, we’d circle each other outside of a non-descript gas station a few miles from the high school and then either decide to take the long way to a house with an empty basement or to head to the tourist-centered downtown for a drive by well-lit marquees and storefronts.
But on this particular night, someone knew of a new addendum to one of the nice neighborhoods. The roads had been poured, the street signs were planted. But there were no houses yet.
I ended up in the car with a kid we all called “Shep” – a moniker used to lessen confusion in a group that held too many boys with the same first name. He always wore ballcaps and had big opinions and an early curfew.
I am not sure how I ended up with him that night. Our pairing wasn’t a regular occurrence. We orbited the same group of friends and were fond enough of each other, but our times together outside of a bigger mass of people were few and far between.
The caravan journey to the subdivision must have been his idea for as we pulled away from the gas station, he revealed true intentions.
“There is a street sign with my first name on it out there,” he said, meaning the deserted map of blacktop we were headed towards. “I think I’d like to have it.”
He led the rest of the group to the ultimate destination and then veered another direction, deeper into the development.
I never wanted to be in trouble as a teenager, but I was okay with being somewhat close to danger. Saturday nights like this one were often only exercises in me rationalizing the questionable groupthink to which I would succumb. I knew that taking a street sign was not a good idea. It also sounded difficult.
Shep pulled into an abandoned cul-de-sac in what felt like the woods and pointed at the sign he wanted. Then he backed the car up and positioned the vehicle at an angle against the pole, creating a makeshift lift so that he could climb on the roof to claim his prize.
As he went to get out of the car, he leaned back and grabbed for a CD somewhere in the car’s interior.
“Oh! You have to hear this!” he said excitedly. “There is this new British band…” The words trailed off as he jabbed at the car stereo. He inserted the found disc, rolled his driver’s side window down so he could hear the music on the roof and then exited and climbed atop the car.
The calm acoustic guitar strum of “Yellow,” a song by that “new British band” Coldplay, that in the next year would become an international mega-hit – began. So did a hackneyed thievery.
I now sit at a desk most days that features behind it a large framed photo of Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. In the shot he is suspended in the air, amid a jump that happened onstage during a show I attended last summer. A photographer friend of mine captured the moment from the foot of the stage and I begged for a copy to enlarge and frame.
Since my very first encounter with the music of Coldplay during that rain-soaked pilfering, they’ve become a weird part of my musical make-up. I didn’t mean for it to happen. In many ways, their music is amalgamation – equal parts Radiohead, U2, Supertramp, Jeff Buckley and hopeful, good intention. But I tell myself that most music is this way. While band members tote their idealism and name their kids after fruit, I remain still enthralled and inspired almost every time I hear them playing.
“Clocks” was the soundtrack to parties at my first apartment. “Speed of Sound” takes me back to the radio studio where I began my career. My friend Shack (not to be confused with the aforementioned Shep…) drove across the country to go with me to watch them play “Viva La Vida” on a crowded lawn in Cincinnati.
But Parachutes still holds the most magic for me.
Maybe they’ve just always symbolized stolen moments. Maybe they just remind me of that guarded hopefulness you start to lose as you age. Maybe I just like the feeling that you may just get away with it – street sign and all.
Below is an essay Brian published in 2017 about trying to track down his old boss from when he worked fast food during high school. Brian and Murdock mentioned this essay (and more characters Brian remembers meeting from his fast food slinging days) in Episode 6 of Story Guys (“Take This Job…) ENJOY!
The internet makes it hard to be anonymous. I have dug up details about out-of-print records and found photos from magazines that have been totally forgotten. I’ve identified bit actors and replacement bass players and found the fifth verse to an obscure Christmas carol. All it takes in most cases is a few keystrokes. The challenge is now less in finding information than it is in identifying information that can’t be found.
But there are a few things that still elude me:
The name of that book about the guy who thinks his girlfriend was kidnapped from a gas station but – it turns out (spoiler alert!)– the guy himself is actually dead.
Gary’s last name
Number one is a real mystery. I have spent multiple evenings (and an entire one of my daughter’s cross country practice sessions) Googling some variation of the above description and turned up no satisfying results. I have even combed the section of the downtown public library from where I borrowed the book close to a decade ago to see if I might just recognize the cover. I can’t say I even liked the book – the “he is dead!” thing seemed like a real cop out. But the fact that I am still this obsessed about figuring out what it was and who wrote it means it made some kind of impact.
Gary is a different story. Gary made a HUGE impact.
My family moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas when I was 16. I knew no one and was initially mistaken for a Swedish exchange student at my new high school. Let’s just say I was a little lonely. But I was able to parlay three months of experience I had gotten working the drive-thru at a Dairy Queen in my previous town into a gig at a Sonic Drive-In and this meant I didn’t have to stay home all of the time.
In my three years at that fast food restaurant, I met enough quirky fry cooks, delusional car-hops and creepy customers to fill a large book of stories. But it was the man managing that circus who really made a difference.
Gary was probably close to 40. He had a wife and kids he clearly adored, a big sense of humor and a direct way of getting things done that was effective without being insulting. Gary wouldn’t let guys take smoke breaks – he said a bad habit shouldn’t give you extra time off the clock – so he instituted banana breaks. We were all welcome to grab a banana from the sundae station and hang out in the shed behind the restaurant for a few precious minutes if things ever got too stressful.
I specifically remember Gary bringing in a photo album one day and showing us pictures of the first house he and his wife had lived in together. It had a dirt floor. He showed this off proudly because he had just built his family a new place on the edge of town. He wanted every single one of us part-time cashiers and burger-flippers to know that we could make a way for ourselves because he had done it for himself.
When I finally quit the restaurant to head to college, Gary insisted on taking me out for a “proper” meal to celebrate. We hit up a Mexican place a few streets over and he told me his methodology for leaving a tip and gave me a gift card to the mall as an extra token of his gratitude. (I bought – and still have – a copy of my second favorite Our Lady Peace album on CD). During my last shift, he handed me an envelope emblazoned with the restaurant logo which inside contained an unsolicited letter of recommendation, extoling my virtues of hard work, honesty and smiling.
When I think of the people who probably had an actual life-changing effect on helping me grow from boy to man, Gary is on that list. But shamefully, I can’t remember his last name. I have never been able to tell him this.
So take this as an open letter. Gary – if you’re out there – thanks for teaching me to be fair, to work hard and take pride in what I have. I hope you own ten franchises now.
And Gary, one more thing…
Have you ever read a book about this guy who thinks his girlfriend has been kidnapped?…