If you were to ask, “What is the perfect day?” For me it involves hopping on a bike and heading to a lake to pull out a paperback to pretend to read. For a time I found myself at the Lake Harriet Bandshell. With no concerts, there was plenty of room to slide into one of the empty benches and spread out, which I was doing until a fly took great interest in my right ankle.
It was a smart play. The fly was as far from my right hand as it could be. I had as much chance swatting it as a soccer player kicking the winning goal from the trainer’s table in the visiting locker room. Still, I kept trying for the fly would not stop biting me.
I put down my paperback and leaned forward. And as I raised my right hand into the air like the sword over Damocles, I thought about that first word.
Housefly: domestic, annoying, but nonetheless harmless. This fly was not domesticated. This fly was outside and trying to draw blood. The bites hurt but not nearly as much as those from a horsefly.
Horseflies biting humans are not common, but on the rare occasion when you are chosen, it will not feel irritating. It will feel like an insect pulled out a switchblade and stabbed you. MinnesotaSeasons.com describes the bite as “memorable” as if it were somehow an experience to look fondly upon. Memorable is not the right word. Neither is horse. Everybody loves horses. Why equate equine to such excruciating pain? Why not dragons? After all, they spew fire. But has anyone ever been bitten by a dragonfly? Has anyone even been close enough to a dragonfly to be bitten by one? I personally have never seen one up close; my only encounter came during a Disney cartoon.
Evinrude was a scout for a pair of mouse agents working a kidnapping case in the The Rescuers. Evinrude was a key member of the rescue operation. So why did he have to look like a burned-out Parisian waiter? Is this what a dragonfly really looks like up close? I grabbed my phone and pulled up this image.
This is actually a damselfly, which I didn’t know existed, because like its cousin it also does not stick around long enough for you to notice it. I like the first word, though. It makes the fly seem in need of my help. At least if I were in a fairy tale with dragons and knights and not presently trying to kill a pesky fly.
Damsel isn’t the only genial word you can place in front of an insect. After all, who doesn’t love butter? Butter is so universally loved we open our yards to the flies using its name. How could we even think of swatting an animal named after a dairy product? A margarinefly, perhaps, but how quickly we turn from aggressor to protector with a well-placed word.
One time I was outside the grocery store packing up when I stopped. Why? Well, a tiny red insect with small black dots was crawling along one of the seventy zippers attached to my backpack. Mind you, this was an insect, but I had no intention of smashing it. Instead I stepped back and waited for it to make its journey, as if I was a gentleman holding a door. Mi ladybug!
Placing the right word in front of another does not solely reside in the animal kingdom. It could be found a few feet away from me at the concession stand.
The real reason I came this spot was not to pretend to read, but to grab some popcorn. Besides the regular version, they have Red Stag truffle popcorn. I’m not sure why a red stag needs to be involved. I do know truffles are rare fungi famously found in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. They are sought after by epicureans and the Italian mafia alike. Still, I never tried the upgraded fare for I didn’t want to hear, “That will be $18.95.”
I also like to get an ice tea. They also have an array of hot teas like Aged Earl Grey. Is that a good thing to have in a tea? Is tea like wine, whiskey and municipal bonds, so much better when decades roll by? They also have Gunpowder Green, not green tea, but green tea with gunpowder, perhaps for those park goers in need of an extra kick? (Smoking not recommended.)
Interesting teas from a brand called Numi, which sounds like something you might say after drinking one of their teas with a mouth full of Novocain. The concession stand definitely has upscale fare, but the name fails to reveal it: Bread and Pickle, as if the manager forgot to place the weekly order and only had the basics. Still, a rare occasion when you can be at a city park and order a Chilean wine, a beet salad, smoked salmon and seared walleye.
Is that a good thing to do to walleye, sear it? I know when I make a searing comment, the recipient will not say, “Delicious!” Still, you can’t just order walleye. It needs to be beer-battered, pan-fried, flashed-baked, steam-grilled and now seared.
I’m not sure the best method. I do know walleye is to Minnesota what the truffle is to Northern Italy: prized, rare and sought after by fisherman and the Swedish Mafia alike. After all, walleye is not just a fish. When you see walleye on the menu, you know you are getting the best, unless…
Years ago an investigative team from a local news station went undercover to expose restaurants that were serving walleye that wasn’t. It seems some food venues took a creative license and supplemented what little walleye that was available on the market and replaced it with a European cousin.
Mind you, there is little difference between the two fish except the European counterpart is slightly larger and the walleye tends to shy away from public speaking engagements. But there’s the name, zander, which sounds like a guy selling counterfeit jeans from the trunk of his car. And that’s a problem for nobody is going to order zander in Minnesota. Nobody is going to say, “The aged-rosemary zander I had the other night was a revelation.” It didn’t matter that the investigative team could not tell by sight, taste or touch that they were eating zander. It didn’t matter that they had to smuggle out samples and submit them for laboratory testing to be sure. Words matter and nobody is going to eat a fish with a name that sounds like it has a thick Slavic accent tinged with Turkish cigarettes.
Finding the right words is crucial in any venture. That’s why I did a double-take the other day when, driving down the street, I saw this sign: NURA PERCISION PAIN CLINIC.
First, Nura, sounding like Numi if too much Novocain is used. But why the second word? And why place it in front of the third? It makes it sound like when you walk into the lobby the first question will be: “Where do you want it to hurt? And be specific.”
Further down the street in the next suburb over is SHADY VALLEY BUSINESS CENTER. Are shady (dark) and valley (low) really the right words for commerce? Is the business center only looking for tenants who pay by the month and will be gone before the Feds move in?
Placing words side-by-side should come with care. For example, take “Compassionate Conservatism.”
When George Bush the second ran for his first presidential term, he said he was a Compassionate Conservative, two words that are not cousins. Still, Bush believed they could work together. But what does it mean to be a compassionate person with conservative views? Well, let’s break it down and start with the prefix of the first word “com-” meaning:
And what are we jointly putting together for the purpose of mingling? It’s the root “passion” meaning:
- a powerful emotion
- a boundless enthusiasm
- the suffering of Jesus Christ
And once we add the suffix “-ate” meaning “to cause” or “to become” we have a word that means “the deep feeling or sharing of the suffering of others.”
That’s a heavy word. Maybe that is why a counter is needed. So let us start with the suffix of the second word “-ism” meaning:
- an ideal
- a conviction
- a belief to be held until a better one comes along
A belief in what? Well, it’s the root “serve” meaning:
- to act
- to work for
- to wait on a table in hopes of receiving a 20% tip
Having a belief in serving others is noble. But wait! There is the prefix “con-” meaning:
- to study
- to be against
- to dupe or swindle in hopes of making more than a 20% tip
Now “serve” turns into “conserve” meaning:
- to preserve
- to protect
- a jam made of two fruits stewed in sugar
So what do these two words mean when placed side-by-side? For example, if I accidentally fell into a giant vat of cooked fruit, what would a passing conservative with a compassionate heart do? Would I hear words of encouragement like:
It looks like you are in a jam. I can sympathize. No one wants to be covered in fruit. It’s a sticky situation. May I suggest stop swimming in your fruit cocktail of misery and instead work on creating low-tax, semi-regulated LLC to bring your current circumstance to market.
The phrase worked for Bush was elected. Finding the right words in a political campaign is crucial, and nobody knows this better than Frank Luntz.
Who is Frank Luntz? He is probably one of the more influential politicians of the last quarter century who wasn’t. But before we get to Frank, let’s talk about Clotaire.
The first time I saw Clotaire Rapaille was in the Frontline episode “The Persuaders.” Even though the episode aired in 2004 I still remember what he had to say about cheese:
In France the cheese is alive. You never put the cheese in the refrigerator because you don’t put your cat in the refrigerator. It’s the same – it’s alive. If I know that in America the cheese is dead and I’ve been studying cheeses in almost fifty states in America. I can tell you the cheese is dead everywhere. Then I have to put that up front. I have to say, “This cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped in plastic. I know the plastic is a body bag. You can put it in the fridge, and the fridge is the morgue. That’s where you put dead bodies. And so once you know that, this is how you market cheese in America.
Almost twenty years have gone by and I still see the crisper drawer in my fridge as a slab for my dead Havarti. All thanks to Clotaire. So who is he? Well, he was a young lad in France when the Americans liberated his country in World War II. The moment had such a profound impact he wanted to go to the United States, which he eventually did, moving from a career as a psychologist, working with autistic children, to a becoming a marketing guru helping some of the biggest corporations in the world.
Frontline interviewed Clotaire at his mansion in Tuxedo Park, NY. I’m not making this up. At that moment Clotaire was meeting Fortune 500 executives at an estate in a New York village called Tuxedo Park. And as they sat around drinking French (expensive) wine and eating French (not dead) cheese, Clotaire told them and Frontline that through his research he identified three parts of the brain that vie for our control.
- The cortex, the rational part that starts off the day with a hot bowl of muesli and green tea (no gunpowder).
- The limbic, the creative part that likes organic peanut butter corn puffs with locally sourced chocolate milk.
- The lizard, the part that wants Coco Puffs drowned in Bailey’s Irish Cream and IT WANTS IT NOW!!!
Clotaire believed that when it comes to making decisions on what car to buy or what tuxedo to wear the lizard always wins. And finding the right words to talk to this part of the brain can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, which corporations will pay to a former child psychologist so he can live like a railroad baron.
Frank Luntz was also interviewed by Frontline for the same episode. Frank is not a psychologist but a consultant and pollster. He believed in Clotaire’s lizard theory when he made statements to Frontline like: “Politics is gut. Commercials are gut.” But where Clotaire used the expertise of a trained psychologist to peel back the layers of a focus group, Frank had a dial.
Simple, but brilliant! Instead of questions to be asked and forms to be filled out, Frank put a dial in a volunteer’s hand. One end of the dial read “strongly agree” the other “strongly disagree.” No pen to paper. No words spoken in front of strangers. Instead commercials played and speeches read and the volunteers moved the dial back and forth, total anonymity; a secret highway to the reptilian lair.
Unlike a former child psychologist looking only for a giant payday, Frank believed in his work and found it beneficial to help his clients reach their customers. He even mentioned a few of the clients in the interview:
- “I believe in Merrill Lynch because I believe in the financial services and quality of the product.”
- “I believe in the people who work at the corporations that I work for, and the political people. The best example is Rudy Giuliani.”
- “I’m a supporter of a very famous medication right now, OxyCotin.”
I’m not making this up. Here is the interview. At that time Frank was working with a financial institution that would need government intervention; a politician who would go from becoming American’s Mayor to a full-time huckster, and a drug that would conservatively kill over a half million people and devastate the lives of many, many more. But that was yet to come. The dial in 2004 was new and shiny and it helped Frank find the right words to shape public opinion, words like the “Death Tax” instead of the “Estate Tax” and “Climate Change” instead of “Global Warming”.
I took another swat at the fly and wondered if it was a good idea to court our lizard brains over all these years. The reason I was sitting alone in a row of empty benches is because the concert season had been cancelled due to a pandemic. At the moment we were not only separated physically by Covid-19 but also ideologically as a nation. Anger had been seeping into our society for so long we hardly realized how negative our words have become. In Northeast Minneapolis there’s Surly Brewing, as if there’s never a day when the brewmeister might be in a good mood; down the street from where I live, the Angry Catfish, a cycle/coffee shop where you might be too afraid to step up to the counter:
CATFISH: What the hell do you want?
YOU: Do you really serve coffee in a bike shop?
CATFISH: What does it look like? Do you see me standing behind a counter? Do you see my fin on an espresso machine?
YOU: What can I get?
CATFISH: What can you get…? What can you get…? Can someone escort this idiot to the nearest exit?
YOU: Maybe I’ll go look at the bikes.
CATFISH: You do that. And figure out how to order coffee while you’re at it.
And if a grumpy brewer and an angry fish weren’t bad enough, murder hornets were now entering the country. That’s right, an insect no longer content with being annoying, irritating or inflicting excruciating pain, but an insect with mayhem in its heart.
Then there is “thundersnow”, “snowmaggedon” and “bomb cyclone”. Frank was only half right when he tweaked “global warming” to “climate change”. “Change” makes it seem so mild. It doesn’t fully capture what is happening to the planet.
I picked up my phone to see what Frank was currently up to. By chance he was again interviewed by Frontline. Honestly, he didn’t look good. He looked like a guy who came to realize that Oxy might not be the best thing in the world for you. He said he was no longer a Republican because of the actions of a former president. Still, he spent quite a bit of time finding fault with the Democrats. Frankly, he looked like a man conflicted, coming to terms with a crisis he didn’t fully understand.
The reason for the interview? Frontline wanted Frank’s insight on why a political rally turned into a home invasion. The interview was days after protesters stormed our nation’s capitol and sent public officials running for cover. Some called it a coup attempt. Others called it a self-guided tour. Any way you look at it, it seems like the culmination of some grand experiment.
For some time, marketers, consultants, executives and politicians have been searching for the right words to connect to our reptilian brains, but at what cost? What would have happened if they had instead courted our better angels?
Frank was in Washington on January 6th when people started to march towards the capitol. He was genuinely shocked by what happened. Even when reflecting on it in the interview, he found it difficult to believe what occurred. Then he said this:
We had been saying that we are divided. We had been communicating this for twenty years now. We’ve been saying that everyone is angry for ten years now. We’ve been saying that we could someday get to a point where our democracy could be destroyed. But they were just words.