You Need More Than a Town Crier

Tony Appleton. Photo: AFP/Getty Image

Tony Appleton. Photo: AFP/Getty Image

No matter how much you know about advertising and marketing, there are some basic principles that I am sure we all can agree are common knowledge - the more you advertise, the more attention your brand gets, and the more attention your brand gets, the more your brand should succeed.  That’s right, I said, “should.”  Though a lot of people believe that grabbing a consumer’s attention always equals success, this is simply not true.  Just getting people’s attention (being “loud”) has never really guaranteed long-term success and today, a lot of times it doesn’t even guarantee short-term success.  Today’s consumer is a very educated consumer, and they can see through your tricks and gimmicks faster than ever.

Many businesses today believe that you simply need to hire an advertising agency that will put you everywhere - make you a LOUD voice in the marketplace.  The problem with this (what I call the Town Crier Mentality) is that there are tons of businesses that are "noisy" today, and the consumer is so inundated with all of this noise that they choose to simply ignore it and in turn, your brand.  What many advertising agencies and companies overlook today is that even in ye days as olde as time (old British man accent implied), people understood the basic principle of getting the word out (advertising/marketing) to help their brand/cause (royal proclamation, local bylaws, market days, adverts, selling loaves of sugar, etc.) wasn’t always about being the loudest voice. When you look deeper at what the most successful town criers really did, you see that even back then being “loud” wasn’t enough to equal brand success.  With all this in mind, here are three reasons why your brand needs more than just a town crier:

1) YOUR BUSINESS NEEDS CHAMPIONS

No, I’m not telling you to go hire Rocky Balboa to hold a box of Wheaties and sing Queen’s “We Are the Champions” in front of your business.  Though, if you have the marketing budget for such a stunt, I think it would get you a lot of initial attention, but saying a stunt like this alone would drive success is like saying the elaborate attire of the town crier (town criers wore red and gold coat, black boots, a tricorne hat, and white breeches – trust me, anything with the word breeches in it is elaborate) was enough to equal success.  The town crier had to be memorable with his words, because a lot of people weren't around to hear his proclamations.  Therefore, he would have to rely on others to spread the news (champion his advertising).    

What this means to you is that it is one thing if you are telling people how terrific your business is, but it is completely different and more beneficial thing for others to comment about how great your business is.  Call them referrals, endorsements, or just good word of mouth, what matters is that these people are acting as a champion for your business, and you need them to grow your brand.  These champions are taking your theoretical banner and proudly waving it to the masses.  The great thing about this is that the more people who are championing your business, the more people pay attention to the work you are doing (long-term brand success).  That’s why shares and likes are so important on social media, because not only does it reach more people, but it shows others that people are enjoying your brand and your brand’s offerings. 

Recruiting and winning over champions for your brand is where advertising and marketing come into play.  We work as a paid champion of your business, your product, or your individual talent.  Our job is to not only be “loud” but to do so in such an effective way that people have no other option than to pay attention.  We achieve this today, not by ringing a large bell and screaming, “Hear ye!  Hear ye!” into people’s ears, but by engaging the audience on as many platforms as possible (television, radio, social media, print advertising, etc.).  We invent interesting, creative content that in turn sells your product, and then we figure out the best way to deliver that content to the masses.    

2) IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DELIVERY

No matter how loud a town crier was, eventually people would tune them out if they weren't interesting.  When this point was reached, the town crier wasn’t effectively doing his job and was relieved of his duties.  The way that a good town crier would keep his position was that he would deliver his updates in an interesting and informative way.  This is no different today.  Captivating people with the delivery of creative advertising content is even more crucial today than it has ever been, because people can tune you out a lot easier than in times past (DVR, mute button, change the channel, click on a different webpage, etc.).  That is why when you are looking to hire an advertising agency, don’t just look for one who can throw together a marketing plan, look for one that is firmly entrenched in solid creative strategy and has the creative minds to back-up this strategy.  The best agencies are the ones that can tell interesting stories, and their work not only informs but entertains the audience. 

To further clarify this strategy, when I was a school teacher, I always tried to make my students laugh as we were talking about the scholastic subjects at hand.  People would often ask me why I did this, and my response was always, “When a student goes home and their parent asks them what they learned about in school today, they will almost always say, ‘I don’t know.’  However, when a parent asks if anything interesting happened at school today, they will automatically think of the things they laughed about in my class.  When this laughter is pasted together with learning, they have no other option than to discuss what they learned."  Think of it as "accidental, comedic osmosis.”  This same accidental osmosis works in the world of advertising.  You can’t have too much comedy or drama in your advertising, people forget about your product, and you can’t have too much product, people get too bored.  So, when finding an advertising agency, look for one that is able to balance the two in an effective manner.  In today’s market, without that balance, you are just wasting your marketing budget.

3) BE DIFFERENT

Being different is possibly the hardest thing for companies to achieve today, but when done correctly, it is so instrumental to an effective advertising campaign.  Now, when I say to be different, I’m not just talking about being different for being different’s sake.  I’m talking about using your company’s uniqueness to your advantage.  For instance, why do you think the town crier dressed the elaborate way that he did?  Because they liked looking like the love child of George Washington and Jack Nicholson in The Shining?  No, they needed to stand out in the crowd to signify the importance of the information they were about to deliver in quick and effective manner.  The same thing happens today, :15 or :30 seconds isn’t very long to have someone’s attention, but if what you are saying in that :15 or 30 seconds gets the consumer’s brains working then you have captured their attention and most likely their business.

When working with an advertising agency, you need to work with an agency that will help you stand out in what is a very, very crowded advertising market (imagine 20 elaborately dressed town criers all reading at the same time – that’s the noise you are competing with).  It is not hard to see that almost every single second of every single day, people are overwhelmed with buy, buy, BUY!  What are you doing to be different?  Are you just screaming in people’s ears hoping that they will listen, or are you using your marketing dollars to create meaningful advertising that lasts in people’s minds long after the noise has died down? 

If you are ready to move past this Town Crier Mentality and advertise effectively, intelligently, and creatively, then it is time to contact our company.  Still, don’t just take my word for it.  Here are some of the kind words I have received from people who are proudly championing the Nathan Marshall banner:

"Have a conversation with Nathan. It's seriously an eye opening experience. He talked, acted and worked as a professional with years of experience. He doesn't brag so you probably wouldn't know that he's an accomplished comedian, actor, and teacher. It shows in his work and his range. It was awesome seeing his mind work. And the work speaks for itself." - Morgan Copeland, Content Strategist, BRUNNER

"This guy. He does/has done everything. From a creative perspective, I'm not sure there's much more you ask for - he's directed films, recorded an album, does standup and improv comedy, and is a SAG-certified actor. He was a teacher, a playwright, and a copywriter. When you hear people talk about the benefits of "Generation Flux," he's the poster child. That diverse experience not only makes a great guy to have a conversation with, but is also a huge asset to a marketing agency. He has demonstrated the ability to step into any situation and quickly identify 5 different creative ideas that no one else in the room has thought of yet. He's been a real asset to Brunner and will continue to be an asset to the advertising industry throughout the rest of his career." - Steve Radick, VP, Director of Public Relations and Content Integration

"Actor. Musician. Comedian. Director. Editor. Thinker. Presenter. Teacher. Student. Sponge. Volunteer. Nathan is hard to pigeonhole. But he is exactly the kind of person companies in the business of communication should hire. A content creator." - Rob Schapiro, Chief Creative Officer, BRUNNER

"His writing, of course, shows thoughtfulness. His presentation skills prove him as confident yet approachable. And quite frankly, he’s also just a really good person who’d be a seamless fit to any team.  Make the smart choice by going with Nathan. You will be so happy you did." - Andy McKenna, VP/Creative Director, BRUNNER

"He showed great poise, confidence and personality.  His presentation skills are enviable.  During the time he worked with us Nathan proved himself to be adaptable, appreciative of every opportunity and with a drive for over-delivery.  I believe Nathan would apply his skills and enthusiasm to any organization." - Kim Tarasi, VP, Director of Creative Operations, BRUNNER

"Nathan Marshall did a great job, not just with these commercials, but with all of the work they have put in towards helping the Wellsburg church of Christ update its image.  'Rebranding' might sound like a weird concept, but a fresh look can greatly help get your name out there!" - Jarred Currence, Evangelist of the Wellsburg church of Christ

"Our experience with Nathan has been excellent. Any problems that arise while updating our website, he worked quickly and efficiently to solve the problems. I would recommend anyone looking to do a new website , flyers for an event or any marketing and advertising to check with him. A+" - Chuck Isinghood, Elder of the Wellsburg church of Christ

"Nathan Marshall helped make our newest marketing campaign a reality with our "Dream Car, TEAM Car" commercial. He made the whole process easy. Plus, we're getting a great response from this commercial. We're excited to work with Nathan for future commercials." - TEAM Automotive Group

"The University I represent hired Nathan Marshall to create a promotional video. I shot the video with a simple HD (allegedly) camcorder and a live audio microphone. The footage was fair at best. Nathan took that footage and made the best product I could have imagined. It was hard to believe that they were able to take such amateur footage and create something of such high quality. Additionally, they were able to meet our budget needs with an unbelievably reasonable price. I highly recommend him." - Jeff Weisberger, Director of Admissions of American University of St. Vincent

"Thank you so much for the awesome work you did for me!  I am very happy with it, and I am thankful that you went above and beyond my expectations for the project. You were timely and your creativity helped me express the concept better than I expected.  I am excited to see what the future holds for Nathan!!  Keep up the terrific work!!" - Mike Florak, Founder of the C.A.A.S.E. Program

"Nathan did an excellent job on our logo. It looks great on our Twitter account and has been very easy to incorporate in to our correspondence and website as well." - Dan Wilson, President of the Ohio Valley Vets

“Nathan did phenomenal work at the Port-sponsored October 15 Downtown Summit last year, providing a sleek and creative design for the invitations, as well as participating in the event itself. They were a true pleasure to work with and we are grateful for their generous contribution toward future economic development in the City of Steubenville and Jefferson County. A definite five stars!” - Evan Scuti, Executive Director of the Jefferson County Port Authority

"Nathan and his team could not have been easier to work with!! They took a very vague concept that I had and turned it into a design that was exactly what I wanted! You couldn't ask for a more talented group of people to satisfy all your marketing needs!"  - Trevor DeVore, Owner of Devore Quality Development, LLC

The Best Story Wins

Standing on part of Scotland's Holyrood Rock.

Standing on part of Scotland's Holyrood Rock.

That one time Chris Rock opened for you.  Scaling the walls of a late 17th century castle.  Climbing through a rain cloud on a mountain in Tibet.  Spending the night sleeping on the streets of New York City.  Having Rose’s fiancé from the movie Titanic steal your car at gunpoint.  These are things most won’t find on the piles of resumes businesses are constantly inundated with, but when it comes to the world of creativity, this type of experiential education should be one of the first things you are looking for.

One of the most valuable and underrated traits of today’s creative minds is the amount of experiential education they have attained.  So, what is experiential education you ask?  Simply put, learning through observation and interaction with different types of environments.  So, yes, that means that the time you attempted to ski down a women’s Olympic ski course in the middle of the Alps in Innsbruck, Austria (even though you had only ever skied twice before) is worth far more than the bruised ego and several bruised body parts you received.  Even the Center for Creative Leadership and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that people learn 70% of their jobs informally through experience, 20% through relationships, and 10% through formal training methods.  What that means is that no amount of schooling will ever replace good ol’ fashioned living it. 

One of the most famous examples of this method of learning is Steve Jobs, who did something super famous and big that I would look up if my Macbook Pro’s track pad wasn’t sticking so much.  Maybe, I'll consult my Apple Watch, iPhone, or iPad later to find the answer...  Anyways, as a teenager, Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College after six months and went to India before returning to Silicon Valley.  Often in his life, he went back to that, not for its triumphs, but the hardships he suffered and the harsh reality that he learned from observing and interacting with an environment he had so often dreamed would be much different than it actually was. 

You see, he had went to India for enlightenment, but he returned after contracting lice, scabies, dysentery, and a near mob thrashing after he protested at being sold watered-down buffalo milk.  Don’t worry, Steve.  Everyone knows that watered-down buffalo milk is the worst.  But the trip did mark a turning point in his life. In his own words, it helped him realize that "Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx and Neem Karoli Baba (the guru he had been seeking in India) put together."

Thank God!  Could you imagine Steve Jobs as purely a Marxist disciple?  That would be like the alternate universe Superman portrayed in Superman: Red Son where Superman's rocket ship lands on a Ukrainian collective farm rather than in Kansas, and instead of fighting for "... truth, justice, and the American Way", Superman is described in Soviet radio broadcasts "... as the Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact…"  GASP!!  In other words, it just wouldn’t be right.

With all that in mind, everyone’s life is solely unique in its own way, but people live “boring” lives because they are afraid to be different or try new things.  In the world of advertising and marketing, being different and trying new things is invaluable.  So, as you search for a person that will help your business stand out, remember to hire one with lots of experiential experience. 

One of the things that I pride myself in is the amount of experiential experiences I bring to the table.  Not only have I had the blessing of traveling to over 13 different countries (Canada, Italy, England, China, Tibet, Japan, Greece, Germany, Austria, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, etc.), I have spent time in 48 of the 50 states.  I have worked with school districts in the public and private educational sector.  I have organized music festivals, movie/commercial shoots, and scholarship funds.  I have worked with some of the biggest names in sports (Troy Polamalu, Lebron James, Andrew McCutchen, etc.).  I have performed stand-up comedy at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles and Stand-Up NY in New York City.  I am a member of the Screen Actors Guild, who has taught acting classes and worked extensively with improvisation.  I have collegiate education in marketing, advertising, print media, public relations, film, acting, television, and I have worked in all facets of those industries.  I have created and published comic strips, wrote published poems, and created music that has climbed to number 1 on charts.  I have walked through ruins 1,000s of years older than me.  I have been dwarfed by mountain ranges, awed by the vastness of everything, and humbled by how very, very small (but oh so very important) we all are in the story we call life.  Oh yeah, and all those very specific examples you read throughout this article?  Those are part of my resume too.

I am teeming with moments filled with places with strange faces and unique customs, and I am so very excited to bring this amazing catalogue of experiential education to you and your business.  After all, in the world of advertising, it isn’t just any story that wins.  It is the very best story that wins, and I am ready to share those stories with you!  

Why You Should Execute Your Advertising

Learning all about the execution during my time in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Learning all about the execution during my time in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Not to steal a line from Mary I of England (aka Bloody Mary), but execution, execution, it’s all about the execution.  Many businesses today understand that advertising is essential to bringing in new customers and retaining current customers.  However, too often, when the theoretical dust of an advertising campaign settles, these businesses are left with content far from what they had originally imagined.  In other words, it’s like these businesses are hoping to get results that are equal to Brad Pitt but are left with results that are equal to David Hasselhoff… 

A real life example to further illustrate this lack of advertising execution is something that I saw as I was traveling on the road the other day.  As I was driving, I came into this touristy little town and happened across a company that was trying to entice customers to purchase mass amounts of land that they had for sale in this beautiful area of America.  This company had evidently come to the conclusion that the best idea for them to drive sales was to station a person in front of their offices holding a sign (similar to what you see around tax time in front of professional tax offices).  I assume this only because in front of their offices stood a well over sixty-five-year-old women taking an extra long drag off her Virginia Slim cigarette while propping her weathered body against a sideways “BUY NOW” sign that I can only assume she was supposed to be spinning. 

In principle, the idea this company started with seemed like a good one.  Something somewhat different, definitely something to make you look twice, and something that has proven itself to work, even if it is the inbred gimmick cousin of the wacky inflatable waving arm tube man and charity car washes.  You see, no matter how full proof the idea seemingly is, the execution is so vitally important.  By having an idea that is solely based on the energy and excitement level of the person working the sign and then employing someone who is virtually incapable of producing that level or energy for hours on end, the company doomed its investment in advertising from the go.  In no way was this woman motivating me or anyone else to buy land or to stop by this company to inquire about land.  The only thing I really took out of the whole occasion, other than this article, is that I am very, very happy that I never started smoking. 

This and tales like it are told time and time again, and every time I see or hear such an incidence, I am further baffled by the fact that people continue to invest their company’s hard-earned money into advertising that is not executed correctly.  How is it that companies still don’t realize that when you don’t see your advertisements all the way through, you are in fact just tossing your money away and alienating consumers as you do it?

So, how do you ensure that your company is investing in advertising that is executed properly?  Here are three simple steps to follow to ensure your advertising is carried out correctly.

1) Budgeting
Every business should have a set amount that they have budgeted for advertising each year.  For each advertisement you are looking to create, you need to be clear on just how much money you are realistically willing to spend.  I say realistically because like some people who are stupid enough to get a tattoo by someone whose “artistic” method is heating a safety pin over a lighter and then dipping it the ink of a BIC pen they just cracked open with their teeth, there are businesses who believe they should hire their buddy who can draw “good” over a graphic designer who has spent thousands upon thousands of hours perfecting their technique and has invested time and money into the tools needed to make sure your businesses succeeds.  Yes, the graphic designer is pricier, but the quality you end up with is something that you and your company can be proud of. 

That being said, you can change how you divvy up the set amount (copywriting, photography, video production, graphic design, social media, etc.), but the realistic amount that you set should be something that you are both comfortable with and is a fair price to the people you are partnering with. 

2) Planning & Organization
It’s very difficult to see all your advertising through when you are more worried about running the day-to-day operations of your business.  Hiring an advertising professional, like me (shameless plug), will help you take care of all the organization and planning of an advertising campaign without you sacrificing the day-to-day operations of your business.  Advertising professionals work with you to do the appropriate market research, set goals for a particular advertising projects/campaigns, help you figure out the best outlet/s to advertise through (website, TV station, social media, newspaper, radio station, magazine, gorilla marketing, etc.), and employee the help of quality professional Creatives (people who will write, shoot, design, edit, etc.). 

When you first start with an advertising professional, work together with them to make sure that you both know all the expectations for timelines and progress checks (as you will be reviewing and signing off on different stages of the project).  All of these aspects ensure that you are fully prepared to execute a successful advertising campaign from the beginning to the end.

3) Execution & Evaluation
Whether you are placing your finished advertisement in an advertising venue (website, TV station, social media, newspaper, radio station, magazine, etc.) or carrying it out in a public fashion (gorilla marketing), you need to make sure that your project is carried out completely and effectively.  This step to your advertising is as important as having quality graphic design, video production, copywriting, and other creative services carried out for you.  Sadly, most businesses suffer from something I call Field of Dreams dementia.  They believe “If you build it, they will come.”  Well, that works fine and dandy in the movies, but in the real world even after you build it people still need to know it is there before they will come to it.  In other words, you don’t want to build this great business or pay for great advertising and have no one see it.  You have to fully execute in all facets of your business, most importantly in advertising.  

Finally, after you have finished your advertisement or advertising campaign, make sure you evaluate how your advertising worked.  Now, depending on your ad, how you evaluate it can vary, but some are easier than others.  If you used a coupon, you can simply count how many coupons were used during your promotion.  For other advertising, you can compare the sales or sales inquiries your business had before the advertisement and after.  The information you gain from this analysis is so very important, because with this information, you can point to more effective uses of advertising in the future.

So, as you can see, Bloody Mary might have been onto something all along.  It is the execution that is so very important in helping your company turn into an empire.  Without it all your efforts and financial investments become nothing more than feudal.  

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.  Had to use at least a couple royal puns in this article.  However, it really is a peasant surprise that you are still reading this.  I'm not sure if I should be sad for you or happy about that.  Maybe, reading this article will be your crowning achievement to-knight.  Okay, I'm done.  I'm done.  Enough of this nonsense.  I'm off to drink my royal tea.  

The Jiggly Answer to "Does Advertising Really Work?"

This delicious treat is brought to you by the letters A-D-V-E-R-T-I-S-I-N and G!

This delicious treat is brought to you by the letters A-D-V-E-R-T-I-S-I-N and G!

As someone who deals with businesses (big and small) on a daily basis, you would be surprised at how many people ask, “Does advertising really work?”  What’s even more interesting is that most of them say this to me as if the business I have invested my life in is some form of a bizarre ancient healing technique like bloodletting, ingesting mercury pills, or the good ol’ Babylonian Skull Cure.  Don’t know what the good ol’ Babylonian Skull Cure is?  Well, let’s just say that it includes sleeping next to a human skull, which you are then instructed to lick and kiss seven times each night.  Sound strange?  Well, now you fully understand the tone of voice some people use when they ask me about advertising.

The truth is, advertising is not some business remedy firmly rooted in urban legend.  When done correctly, it is a time-tested, proven commodity that turns even the biggest failures into successes.  There are many examples of the success of advertising, but one of my all-time favorites is the success story of “America’s Most Famous Dessert,” J-E-L-L-OOOOOOO!  If you didn’t just sing the Jell-O jingle then you obviously aren’t a child of the early 90’s…

The Jell-O success story is one that is the rooted in new, creative, and never before employed advertising and merchandising methods.  It is a story that not only changed the way we eat dessert, but one that I am sure will change the way you look at investing in advertising. 

Our story begins in 1897 in the town of LeRoy, New York, where a carpenter and cough syrup manufacturer named Pearle Bixby Wait was creating a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home.  Isn’t that the way all great business ventures start?  With a big mug of laxative tea… Anyways, while experimenting with gelatin, Wait came up with a fruit flavored dessert (strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon), which his wife, May, named Jell-O.  

Like many businesses today, Wait realized he had a great idea on his hands, but his lack of capital experience seemingly doomed Jell-O to be the greatest idea that no one outside of LeRoy, New York had heard of.  Instead of seeking advertising and marketing expertise to aide his budding product, Wait gave up on Jell-O and in 1899 he sold his formula to a fellow townsman, Orator Frank Woodward, whose Genesee Pure Food Company produced the successful Grain-O health drink (evidently all food products in the late 1800’s ended in “-O”), for the sum of $450 (about $12,000 today). 

Just to put this all in perspective, what Orator Woodward bought for $450 in 1899 grossed $932.5 million in its peak year of 2009.  Some would look at that and say, “Lucky guy.”  Others would say, “Smart business man.”  Well, I have always been taught that luck is preparation that meets opportunity.  So, to those who said, “Smart business man,” you are the winner, winner.  Go buy yourself a chicken dinner.

You see, where Wait’s story ends, Jell-O’s story truly begins. Already a successful packaged food businessman, Woodward knew how to sell a product, and he thought selling Jell-O would be no different than any other food.  So, he dressed armies of well-trained, well-groomed salesmen in fancy suits and had them offer free samples to homemakers. They employed every trick in the book to get grocers to stock their shelves with boxes of Jell-O.  Despite all of this, Jell-O sales did not take off the way Woodward had planned, and as is the case for many businesses today, Woodward became frustrated.  He knew that he was selling a great product, but couldn’t understand why it wasn’t selling.  In fact, Woodward grew so frustrated, that on one gloomy morning, he offered to sell the entire Jell-O product line to the Jell-O manufacturing supervisor Sam Nico for a mere $35. Luckily, for Woodward, Nico refused the offer.

So, determined to find answers to his ever-growing Jell-O problem, Woodward decided to take some of the money he earned from the more successful products he made, including one that held a “miraculous power to kill lice on hens,” and with it he hired the help of William E. Humelbaugh and the advertising agency Dauchy & Company.  The advertising partners didn’t take long to fix Woodward’s long-standing Jell-O problem for good.  In 1904, they created ads for Jell-O in the national syndicated Ladies Home Journal.

The three-inch ads, costing $336 each, featured a “smiling, fashionably coifed women in white aprons proclaiming Jell-O to be ‘America's Most Famous Dessert.’”  Ever so slightly beating out other American classics like Pineapple Upside-Down SPAM Cake and Ham and Bananas Hollandaise…  The ads were a rousing success. Annual sales quickly jumped to $250,000 an increase of 55,456% or $249,550 (about a $6 million increase today)!  Soon, beautiful hand drawn pictures showing pantries stuffed to the brim with Jell-O and kids begging for the delicious dessert were marketing the product everywhere.

If those statistics still aren’t enough to convince you that advertising has been producing major benefits for years.  Phase two of Humelbaugh and Dauchy & Company’s plan sent Jell-O from a minor success to an overwhelming, unprecedented success.  In 1904, the Dauchy & Company sent the armies of salesmen back out.  This time, they arrived in eloquent “rigs, drawn by beautiful horses" and they ventured into the roads, byroads, fairs, country gatherings, church socials, and parties of the common American.  There they had them distribute free Jell-O cookbooks telling homemakers how to properly prepare their Jell-O, a pioneering marketing tactic. In some years as many as 15 million booklets were distribute, and noted artists such as Rose O'Neill, Maxfield Parrish, Coles Phillips, Norman Rockwell, Linn Ball, and Angus MacDonald made Jell-O a household word with their colored illustrations.

Still, Humelbaugh and Dauchy & Company weren’t done.  They handed out free Jell-O molds to immigrants arriving into Ellis Island. They introduced Jell-O girl, played by four-year-old Elizabeth King – the daughter of a brilliant Dauchy & Company ad artist, Franklin King. With a tea kettle in one hand and a packet of Jell-O in the other, she declared to the world that, “You can’t be a kid without it.”  Pictures, posters, and billboards went up all over the American landscape, as well as page ads in magazines, which carried the Jell-O Girl and the six delicious flavors into the American home.

Celebrity testimonials followed with recipes appearing in advertisements featuring actress Ethel Barrymore and opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Some Jell-O illustrated advertisements were even painted by renowned American painter Maxfield Parrish.

These great advertising successes afforded the Jell-O brand to continue to grow and try new things, like three new flavors, chocolate (discontinued in 1927), cherry, and peach, and they launched the brand in Canada.

In 1924, understanding the power of a name, the Genesee Pure Foods Company became, quite simply, the Jell-O Company. That same year, the company hired the soon-to-be-famous Norman Rockwell to draw colorful illustrations depicting Jell-O. He did just that, depicting a young girl serving a Jell-O to her doll at tea time.

Succeeding years saw many changes for the Jell-O brand, changing from a hand-packaged business to a highly mechanized factory, being sold to Postum Cereal Company (eventually known as General Foods Corporation), and even changing advertising agencies to Young & Rubicam.  Still, due to its brilliant marketing, Jell-O remains a testament to the benefits of employing the help of an advertising agency, as it has embedded itself as one of the most well-known brands in American history. 

So, does advertising really work?  Well, advertising got us all to consider the boiled skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones of cows and pigs (yes, that’s really what gelatin is made from) as one of our favorite desserts.  So, does it work?  You tell me.

REFERENCES
1) The History of Jell-O
2) The Jiggly History of Jell-O
3) Editor and Publisher, Volume 53, Issues 27-52
4) Jell-O

Finding Beauty in Your Business

A view from a late fall's hike through the woods at Swallow Falls State Park.

A view from a late fall's hike through the woods at Swallow Falls State Park.

Long before I became obsessed with the art of advertising, I was a young man who had just graduated from college with a degree in English and Theatre.  Determined to get a job based on my own merits, I began my professional career as an English and Theatre teacher in public high schools.  Heading in this direction as a professional allotted me with several opportunities to explore parts of this country that I had never been to.  One such area was a very small, very mountainous area in Maryland called Garrett County, a place I instantly fell in love with and would later spend two years of my life there pouring my heart and soul into the community.  Little to my knowledge, I had driven by this area, as most do, on my way to and from Washington, D.C., but had never really had a reason to stop, and honestly, from the interstate, you really can't see much of any reason to stop.  So, I didn’t.  

With all this in mind, you can imagine my surprise when I was heading to my interview at the high school, Northern Garrett High School in Accident, Maryland (yes, that's the towns real name...), and my eyes beheld the truly beautiful splendor of this unique piece of America for the first time.  Bounding with gorgeous areas like Swallow Falls State Park, Casselman’s Bridge, a natural rock maze, Deep Creek Lake, Wisp Ski Resort, it reminded me more of a miniature version of the Austrian Alps than a place you would just dismiss. 

Flabbergasted as I was by this treasure, I walked into the high school and up to the front desk of the main office secretary, Mrs. Berry, a kind-hearted women with an air of being extremely busy and extremely efficient.  It was a very rare occasion when Mrs. Berry would stop moving and even rarer when something caught her off her guard.  Mrs. Berry was as honest as she was blunt.  She never had much time for small talk.  However, this was my first meeting with her, and as is customary for first time acquaintances, we made awkward small talk.  As I was muttering about the weather to try to keep her attention, I couldn't help but see the beauty of the farms all around the high school.  It was then that I said something really quite meaningless that, little to my knowledge then, would change my entire opinion on how human beings see the world. 

"You all live in a beautiful area," I said sincerely complimenting the place.  

Suddenly, Mrs. Berry stopped and like a parrot confused by its cage, she cocked her head to the side, staring off into the distance, as if in a confused trance, and then she said something I'll never forget.  

"Really?" she said trying to determine if indeed this place she called home was indeed beautiful or not.  "I wouldn't know. I have never left."

Then back to work she went at the speed of a hummingbird on Red Bull. 

The area surrounding Cassleman's Bridge in Grantsville, Maryland.

The area surrounding Cassleman's Bridge in Grantsville, Maryland.

This story might not seem like it has much to do with business, but in reality, there are many people like Mrs. Berry in the world of business.  These people are ones who have been conducting business the same way for so many years that they could never imagine doing it any other way.  They are the ones who are surrounded by opportunities to make their business more successful than it currently is, but are fearful that changing something up will topple their business faster than a house of cards.  It is like their business is in a theoretical lifeboat drifting upon a vast ocean of opportunity, and instead of them eagerly exploring all their options, they choose to sit still and let the wind decide their next course of action.

One of the great attributes that I have been blessed with and have worked so hard to refine is my sense of observation.  As a former professional stand-up comedian who worked with the likes of Chris Rock and perfected this trade at prestigious comedy clubs such as Stand-Up NY and The Laugh Factory, I had to learn to observe people, places, and things in a wholly unique manner that 100s of other creative minded people hadn’t thought of yet.  The success that I gained in the world of stand-up comedy was due to my ability to do this better than the rest.  These skills translate very well into the world of business.  As I have had to learn to observe each opportunity from all angles possible.  As a former colleague of mine, Steve Radick, Director of Public Relations at BRUNNER, once said about me, “Nathan has demonstrated the ability to step into any situation and quickly identify five different creative ideas that no one else in the room has thought of yet.”  This is the kind of talent and educated thought that is rare in business, and it is something any successful business has on their side.

As Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing that we see too late the one that is open.”  That’s why creative professionals are here.  We open all the doors for your company and help you decide which direction is best.  We know that one person can’t do everything and be successful.  It takes a team of people dedicated to the same beliefs, same ideals, and the same vision for any venture to succeed.  That’s why I'm not only dedicated to the businesses I partner with but getting to know and understand how the individuals who own and operate these businesses work.  That way the beauty of a successful business is not only seen by all those you do business with but by the most important person, the one who has never left their business, you.   


 

 

What is a Creative, and Why Does My Business Need One?

Working on a human mold for a Huffy Bikes billboard.

Working on a human mold for a Huffy Bikes billboard.

One of the worst tales of advertising that I have ever heard is a story about a guy who owned a small tire business that was blooming into something bigger.  One day, this gentleman decided that advertising would help boost the sales of his tires.  So, he called around talking to various advertising agencies, gauging their prices, and weighing the worth of their services.  Services that he knew very little about.  Finally, he reached a point where he believed that advertising agencies were asking too much.  He especially found it comical that they would try to charge him for something they labeled as “creativity.”  He thought, “I’m creative.  I started and built this business from the ground up.  So, why do I need to pay for someone else to create for me.”  After thinking about this for a while, he finally reached a point where he talked himself out of getting help from an advertising agency specializing in creativity.

So, determined to see this idea through, he contacted the local news station, and they promptly offered him a deal where if he bought so much commercial time that he would end up getting some commercials for as cheap as fifty dollars per spot.  Sounded like a good deal in principle, but as they say, when things seem too good to be true, they usually are.  For the tire store owner, this saying couldn’t have rang louder or truer.  An idea that had started out so promising turned terrifying really quickly.  Not only did the news station not offer him any creative services, but they put just as little time into the production value of the commercial.

The result?  His hard-earned money paid for commercials that, every time they aired, lost him more costumers than he gained.  Even more sadly, he had invested a lot of money into a lot of commercial air time.  So, the commercials continued to air everyday at all hours of the day. 

The commercials were so bad and played so much that when a community group gauged the residents as to which local commercial they found to be most annoying, his tire business won by a landslide.  Not something you want to hang your business’s theoretical hat upon. Fifty dollars a commercial or not, this was not good business, and he knew it.  By trying to cut corners in his attempt to advertise his business, he literally paid money for something that hurt his business.  Sales suffered, and he blamed himself for having done what he thought was irreparable harm to his business.  The man was so crushed by this that he swore off advertising completely, and his business muddled in mediocracy.

I often think of advertising horror stories like these when I talk with someone who has never worked with a true creative professional before.  You can tell these people pretty quickly because they usually say things like, “Advertising doesn’t work.  I tried it, and it just doesn’t work.”  I can’t help but feel for these people, but to say advertising doesn’t work really is an overreaction.  All over the world, advertising is alive and working for businesses, small or large.  Why is it working for them?  They have some of the best and brightest creative minds partnering with their business.  These professionals are known as Creatives.  So, what is a Creative, and why can partnering with a true Creative turn even the most mediocre businesses into thriving successes?

What is a Creative?

The first step to understanding how advertising can and will work for you is to understand what a Creative is and why that is so important in the world of advertising.  Many people believe that true creative advertising takes a very short amount of time and requires very little effort/work.  Part of this misunderstanding is that, like so many words in the English language, creativity has become a blanket term: a term that tries to cover any and every person who has an ounce of “creativity” in their being. 

As renowned artist, Andy Warhol, once said, "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.  Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."  Simply put, advertising is art.  I know.  I know.  Right now the anti-establishment, free-lovin’, never create for the man part of your cerebral cortex is going crazier than a Kardashian at Coachella, but hear me out.  Advertising is art, because it truly is the essence of the definition, the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.  The Creative is a person who just happens to use their creative skills and imagination to make a living. 

Accepting that advertising is art and that the Creative excels at it is only half the story though.  The other half, many people leave out, and that is why too often the Creative, one who is working so hard to create captivating business solutions through advertising for you, is placed on the same level as that delusional “artsy” guy we all know.  You know the one.  The guy who wakes up every day in his parent’s basement, has a rough time playing the D chord on his Squier guitar, but doesn’t get a full-time job because he fully expects that a record executive will beat down his door any second, because his YouTube cover of “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys has thirteen views…  Just because there are people in this world who try to put the creative professional on the same level as someone with more of a “free-spirit”, doesn’t mean that all creative people are like that delusional guy we all know.

So, the job of a Creative is something new? 

Not really.  In fact, history shows us many examples of the creative advertising.  For instance, did you know that Michelangelo was a Creative in the business of advertising?  You didn’t?  Well, think again.  After all, the Sistine Chapel that he so gloriously and painstakingly undertook is not only one of the greatest pieces of art in the world; it is also one of the greatest pieces of advertising in the world.  During his time, the church was very good at promoting religion through unorthodox means of advertising, like the Sistine Chapel.  To this day, people are moved to discuss the Bible simply from looking at Michelangelo’s work.  As you can see, the church invested in Michelangelo’s professional skills, and being the genius Creative that he was, he created advertising that has long outlived him, and is still effective to this day.

Sticking with the Ninja Turtle theme, the great sculptor Donatello was no stranger to advertising himself.  Very often, he was commissioned to create art, and this art?  Well, it was always made to promote someone or some ideal.  For example, at one point or another Donatello had befriended the family of the famous mercenary Erasmo da Narni.  When he passed away, da Narni’s family commissioned Donatello to sculpt a bronze statue of Erasmo riding a horse in full battle regalia, minus a helmet.  This was the first time an equestrian statue, which was saved for rulers, was dedicated to a man that was merely considered a warrior.  What Donatello was hired to do there was to simply catapult the da Narni “brand” to a different stratosphere, and how did he execute?  By creating a sculpture that has us still talking about Erasmo and the da Narni’s to this day.  Now, that’s great advertising!  

Is creativity really hard work?

Yes!  Though the creative worker is not one who physically grabs his lunch pail, puts on his hard hat, and punches in to plod the day away doing a physically demanding job.  I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe that Steve Jobs, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Nikola Tesla, the Wright Brothers, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Charlie Chaplin, Tom McElligott, Ray Charles, etc. were hard workers.  Yes, they might not have worked the same way that we, as a nation, did during the he Industrial Revolution, but they put in just as many hours, as many days, and as many years, perfecting their ability to create. 

That being said, I know there are still some who might say, “But Mozart created his first symphony at the age of eight-years-old.  So, how hard can it really be?”  Yes, technically they are right, but as English author Malcolm Gladwell so eloquently pointed out in his novel Outliers, how many of us have actually heard Mozart’s first symphony?  My guess would be very, very few.  Why don’t people play it, you might be asking yourself?  Simply put, because it is not very good.  He was an eight-year-old boy writing a symphony.  I mean, come on.  We all have to start somewhere. 

For further example, even sport’s prodigies like Tiger Woods, who was practically born with a golf club in his hand, didn’t compete full-time on a professional level until he was in his twenties.  Why?  Because hours and hours of perfecting one’s craft is necessary for even the most gifted of talents.  In fact, as Gladwell goes on to point out, it takes at least 10,000 of those hours to become great at something.  Let me write that one more time – 10,000 HOURS!  That’s an awful lot of hours.      

In my life, I have been fortunate enough to know many talented, hard-working Creatives.  People like Rob Shapiro, a Creative Director I worked with at a Pittsburgh, Pa based advertising agency.  Rob is a fine example of how much hard work and unique talent it takes to create something that is not only enjoyable to watch, read, or listen to but is an effective business tool that increases the sales and brand recognition of the business or organization that he is working with.  Time and time again, I watched Rob zooming and zipping around from creative world to creative universe, lending his full attention to whatever creative project lays in front of him.  More often than not, Rob would come into a project and, using his vast education and unique experiences in creativity, he would strategize, concept, develop, or simply, roll up his sleeves and create a great, daring solution to the advertising puzzles that lay before him. 

Celebrating my team's 2015 ADDYs® Gold winning work for Bob Evans.

Celebrating my team's 2015 ADDYs® Gold winning work for Bob Evans.

Under Rob’s tutelage, I developed an understanding and enjoyment for the process of creating award winning content for our business partners.  As in the case of our 2015 ADDYs® Gold winning spot for Bob Evans, Rob challenged myself and our team to not only come up with content for Bob Evans, but to come up with something that stayed within the Bob Evans’ voice, while pushing their brand towards new avenues.  What we came up with was a concept that I named “Feast or Famine.”  This spot would play on the Food Network’s website as a “helpful” step-by-step video on how to make Bob Evans’ Broasted Chicken from the comforts of your own home. 

What we developed in the end was content marketing at its finest, a spot that not only educated the audience about just how difficult it is to make Broasted Chicken, but inspired the audience to go to Bob Evans for all their Broasted Chicken needs, because of Bob Evans’ expertise in that area.  You can see the final project here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrs7Cu5e3SI

So, why haven’t you hired a Creative?

This all being said, the question remains, if creativity is such hard work and it takes such a special, refined skill, then why do businesses beg for creative advertising but invest in the stale and boring? Advertising is often the only way you communicate with your consumers. So, why destroy your company’s image by putting money into advertising that even has you saying, “It’s okay.  It’s fine.”  In today’s world, the consumer can see through your mass amounts of used car sales antics and are bored to death with advertisements featuring company owners staring directly into the camera, reading off a poorly written teleprompter script saying things like, “Come on down!”  In the age of DVR, streaming media, and of course, our old pal, the Internet, consumers are turning off your business at an alarming rate.  You can’t afford to ignore the need for professional creative advertising help any longer.  Hire a proven Creative.  Your company won't regret it.     

“Why Should I Invest in Creativity?”

"Marketing is about values. It's a complicated and noisy world, and we're not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us." -Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple Computers

"Marketing is about values. It's a complicated and noisy world, and we're not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us." -Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple Computers

Being in the business of creativity, it is no secret that people often ask me, “Why should I invest my money into creativity?”  Though this is a fair question, it is a question that usually comes from people who can’t figure out why their business, organization, or event is struggling.  So, why should you invest in creativity?  Well, I usually answer this question with this analogy.  You work up enough money to buy your dream car, a Bugatti Veyron.  You labored hours upon hours for this car.  It was the sweat of your brow that bought this car.  It’s a sleek car.  It’s top of the line.  It has speakers, tinted windows, a horn that plays melodies more beautiful than those of the mutant love child of Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff.  You love this car.  You earned this car.  The car is your driveway.  You get in the car.  You are ready to take off.  Full speed ahead.  You press the gas pedal to the ground, and you…  You don’t move.  You get out of the car.  You’re puzzled by this car.  Why won’t this beautiful thing that you worked so hard for take off?  This car that you worked so hard for does nothing.

Still, you end up telling all your friends and family about this car, this beautiful, wonderful car.  Hoping that it will take off with their support.  They come to see it.  They are amazed by it.  Now, they want to see you drive it…  Again, you get in the car.  You are ready to take off.  You press the gas pedal to the ground, and you…  You don’t move.  Friends and family are puzzled by you.  Why can’t you get this wonderful piece of equipment to work?  Eventually, they talk less and less about your sleek, beautiful, amazing Bugatti Veyron, because it simply doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.  It is worthless to them.  It is worthless to you.  It is worthless to all those around you.  So, the car sits still, and it rusts.  Why does this happen?  Simply put, because you forgot to fill it with gas.  That’s right, no matter how beautiful or wonderful or different a vehicle is, it's absolutely worthless without something to make it go.

As my good friend, musician Jim Avett, father of Seth and Scott Avett of world famous The Avett Brothers says about creativity, “Creativity is how humanity moves forward/progresses.  Creativity in thought of arts, education, construction, music, painting, cooking, …  you name it. Without creativity, we stand still as humans.” 

This is the same with your business.  You build, you love your business, but it goes just so much or, even worse, it stands still.  You know your business is amazing and worth your consumers money and time.  The problem is, you forgot to put the theoretical gas in your business’s engine.  You see, without advertising, your business doesn’t move, and without professional creativity behind that advertising, you’re driving 15mph on a 70mph highway.

Let’s look at a simple example we all know, Apple Computers.  It is a highly documented fact that Steve Jobs started this multi-billion dollar business in a garage.  In other words, you most likely started your business at a nicer location than Steve Jobs.  However, Steve Jobs moved his business from a garage to the penthouse in a few short years.  How did he do it?  He used, he invested in the most creative advertising available.  Groundbreaking advertising.  Advertising that prompted people to think, to discuss, and to buy.  For example, we all know of or remember Apple Computer’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial for their Macintosh Computer launch.  To this day, people still talk about this commercial and share it all over their social media.  This commercial is still advertising for Steve Jobs’ company, long after he himself has passed away.  Here is a link to that glorious piece of creativity:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zfqw8nhUwA

Steve Jobs understood that the investment he was making in creativity, in advertising was one that would pay dividends upon dividends upon dividends.  To further illustrate these dividends, a majority of you are most likely reading this article on your iPad, iPhone, Macbook, etc., and to you, I ask, “Who can argue with the successful strategies of Apple Computers?  Who can argue that Steve Jobs’ investment in creativity has paid off?”
 
Still need further example?  Look at Mail Pouch Tobacco, a small tobacco company from Wheeling, WV who commissioned 20,000 barns painted with advertisements for their product in 22 different states.  The result of investing in creativity?  Their advertisements have spanned from 1890-2015, and during that time, their brand, their product has become a piece of American iconography.  In fact, Mail Pouch Tobacco has become such a piece of American iconography that I know people who have never used tobacco and are adamantly against using tobacco, but they will still decorate their home with memorabilia bearing the Mail Pouch Tobacco name.  Why? It has become a significant part of American history.  What’s this mean?  Their one creative advertising idea has had a ripple effect that has generated 1,000s upon 1,000s of free advertisements.  Now, that’s creative advertising at its finest.    
     
The fact is, we, as business owners, need to quit aiming for mediocrity.  With the right creativity supporting our business, organization, or event, we can develop the confidence of David, a confidence that brings success.  What do I mean by the confidence of David?  Well, most people know of David from the story of David vs. Goliath, but how many of us who has ever listened or read this historical account paid attention to the confidence David exuded throughout? 

The story goes that little David defeated the huge giant named Goliath.  Something no one thought was possible.  What people often overlook is the confidence David had going into this battle.  Nowhere will you find in this account a moment of David worrying about the battle or cringing in a corner over the thought of facing the biggest, baddest warrior of his time.  Nowhere will you find David fearing for his life or an account of his trebling hands heaving forth a lucky shot that sent Goliath tumbling to the ground. 

No, what you see is a boy who had supreme confidence, unshakable confidence.  How much confidence, you ask?  Enough confidence to not only turn down the king’s personal armor (he went into battle in regular clothes) but enough confidence that he went to face this giant man killer with only sling.  He didn’t even have the rocks to launch from his sling until he was on the way into the battle.  Still, he had enough confidence in God to know that He would provide him the victory. 

So, how much confidence do you have in the success of your business?  Is your confidence that of David or are you scared to face the giant?  Partnering with a creative consultancy like Leviathan Creative will not only help you develop and execute a successful advertising campaign worthy of your business, but it will give you the confidence to take the chances needed to attain the right consumers for your business.

Creativity is the thing that makes or breaks your business.  So, stop sitting in your theoretical Bugatti Veyron, wondering why your business is not taking off.  Fill your business with creative solutions and let them help you GO!

What Do You See in a Swamp?

Was lucky enough to speak to the Steubenville Revitalization Group.

Was lucky enough to speak to the Steubenville Revitalization Group.

Last Monday night, I was lucky enough to speak to a fine group of people (the Steubenville Revitalization Group) from the small city of Steubenville, Ohio on the importance of creativity, marketing, and how to turn a dying city into a thriving city. 

You see, years ago, Steubenville was known as an all-American town.  It was the birthplace of legendary entertainer Dean Martin, and it was a booming steel town.  However, like most American industrial businesses over the last several years, the steel boom stopped, steel mills battled bankruptcy, unemployment rates skyrocketed, and cities all over, like Steubenville, had the preverbal wind knocked out of them.  As they scrambled helplessly to find a means of recovery, their once busy downtown had become overrun with gangs and gang violence.  In fact. this got so bad in the late 1990s and early 2000s that seemingly almost every day there was a shooting being reported as happening in Steubenville’s downtown area.  Even the people in Steubenville and especially the people who lived around Steubenville became afraid to venture to the downtown area.  More businesses shut doors, and a generation grew up learning to fear Steubenville’s downtown.

Years passed, and city officials and community members worked hard to change the public’s perception of something they remembered as being a great place to raise a family.  The gangs and gang violence dissipated but still hadn’t fully disappeared when Steubenville itself received another black eye.  A haymaker that hit them so hard that it sent the whole community to the floor.  Steubenville schools had somehow managed to retain more than a shred of dignity throughout all of the city’s socioeconomic hardships.  Like most struggling communities, it had become the beacon of light fueling pride in a city that had very little to be proud of.  Then the worst of the worst happened, a beyond horrible incidence of unspeakable propositions, a violent rape of a teenage girl involving several members of the school’s football team sent the town and the national media abuzz.  Steubenville went from bad to worse, and once again, the public’s perception of the small city had become jaded and all the old fears ignited again.

The community looked and felt as if the referee had counted to nine and three quarters before they were able to scrape themselves off the mat, and, now, dizzied and confused, the city is in for the fight of its life as it looks to champion itself a comeback beyond epic proportions. 

So, how does Steubenville, Ohio and small cities and towns like it take back their city? 

A) TO GET RID OF THE PROBLEM, BE HONEST ABOUT THE PROBLEM

They say that the first step for any addict to overcoming an addiction is admitting that they have a problem.  Even the Bible touches on this method when it talks about confessing your sins to one another so that you will be less likely to do it in the future.  Still, people in general hate to admit when they have a problem.  So, it should be no surprise that a whole city would have a tough time admitting that they have a problem.

There is no doubt in my mind that many great things are coming out of every town, but too often that is overshadowed by the bad.  By being honest with our selves about the public’s perception of our town, be it true or not- it’s true to the people perceiving it, you can go forward to correct the problem.  Cities falter for years, because they are too busy fooling their self into believing that no problem exists.  They are simply pretending there is no elephant in the room when it would be much easier and more memorable to admit that obviously there is an elephant in the room and we need to get rid of it before we can sit down to our nice, formal dinners. 

To find what is ailing Steubenville and many other small towns, the first step you have to do to defeat the problem, is that you have to be honest with the problem.  If you are honest about the crime, the gangs, the gang violence, etc. then you can focus on what is being done to fix this. 

I call this the Domino’s Pizza strategy.  Though Domino’s pizza sales were okay in recent years, they knew that they could do better than being just another chain pizza restaurant.  So, they came out with an aggressive campaign highlighting and admitting all the things that they were either not very good at in the past or things that they tried and failed at in the past.  This was an interesting strategy and campaign, because once everyone saw this, it was much easier for us as a costumer to literally buy into the rebranding of an established pizza company.  Like all of us, they had failed on certain levels, and we could all relate to that.  By admitting their mistakes, they became more human to us.  People actually began to sympathize with a pizza company, and they were motivated to buy a pizza from a company that some had long ago written off.  Pizza had won people over with honesty.  If pizza can do it, why do we believe that it wouldn’t happen with a city looking to rebuild its image, its brand?    

Nathan Marshall making a passionate plea with the SRG for change. 

B) YOUR CITY IS A BRAND, TREAT IT LIKE ONE

The more and more I get into the world of marketing, the more I realize just how much of the world is separated into those who are selling their product and those who aren’t.  Cities are like the ultimate brand, and they should start treating their selves like one.  Not only are they competing for quality residents, business opportunities, and tourism, but they are also looking to make their city, their brand the best it can possibly be.  If that is the end goal of all cities, then why do cities like Steubenville not have the foresight to hire professional marketing agencies to lead the branding or rebranding the city itself?

Hiring an agency, like Leviathan Creative, to lead the charge on something like this, helps put the creative and professional side of brand building into the hands of true, experienced professionals.  It also helps the city speak to its consumer, the community at large, in a more cohesive fashion.  When a city, a brand has one voice, it gives the consumer the peace of mind needed to be happy with their decision to buy into a city like Steubenville, and when the consumer is happy, the city is happy, and that is when you will grow. 

Too often cities reach their residents, tourists, businesses in multiple, multiple voices.  No matter how good the intention is, not having a cohesive voice leads to confusion.  So much confusion that even people who have lived there their whole lives can’t tell you much about what their city stands for or what direction it is headed for in the next several years.  We are alienating the consumer, the community, by not speaking to them as one entity, one brand.  We drive our residents to uneasiness about their decision to live in a town such as Steubenville, and when that happens, growth and revitalization is virtually impossible.   

Cities, like Steubenville, are overdue for a rebranding.  Taking a fresh look and approach to a city can not only inspire growth, but can inspire the people of the community, the consumer, to by reinstill pride in their town and inspiring them to help the town grow. 

So, what do towns like Steubenville need to do to rebrand their self?  To make a comeback?

1) CHANGE PERSPECTIVE

Yes, it’s true what they say; it’s all about your perspective, and there is no finer example of this than a story I call “What Do You See in a Swamp?”     

Evidently, I am making a very passionate plea with the SRG for change here.

Evidently, I am making a very passionate plea with the SRG for change here.

The supposedly true account goes that there was a great deal of useless swampland in the great state of Florida.  This swampland sat there for years upon years, everyone said nothing could be done with it, it was useless, and that no one ever would want to do anything with this “worthless” land.  That was until one day, a man had come into town, brokered several different land purchasing companies to work out a deal so that he could purchase all this “worthless” swampland at the exact same time on the exact same day.  The reasoning for this plan?  Well, his name carried a little bit of weight, and he was afraid that if someone got wind of him purchasing one piece of this terribly “worthless” swampland that the others would drive up their price significantly.  You see, he saw this supposed worthlessness and by using his highly defined perspective, he imagined creating the most magical of places sprouting right up from what everyone saw as the most desolate of land situations.  The man who bought this “worthless” swampland?  Well, people know him as Walt Disney, and the “worthless” swampland that he would build on?  That became Walt Disney World, one of the great destinations in the entire world.  As I told my friends at the Steubenville Revitalization Group that day, it is all in perspective.  The people who had owned the swampland saw the land as uninhabitable and worthless, but Walt Disney, himself, he saw that swamp as the perfect place to build his crowning achievement.

Steubenville, Ohio is better than a desolate swamp.  In fact, I would even go as far as to say that all small towns and cities are better than a desolate swamp.  So, if Steubenville is better than a swamp.  Why are the people of that city not seeing the results we want?  Perspective.  As they say, they do not see the forest, because they are blinded by the trees.    

There is no finer example of what Steubenville is dealing with then an instance that happened to me when I used to work as a broadcast journalist for a news station in my small community.  It was a second place news station out of two news stations in this very small market.  In other words, it was last place, and sometimes, it seemed as if the people who worked there thought that our news station was actually last place in all of the world, which to my knowledge it wasn’t remotely close to.  To add insult to injury, our news station had not made the jump to high definition yet, but our competitor had.  So, this made the situation even more desperate and gloomy.  From time to time, I joked with my friends at the news station that we had become the manic-depressive news station.  Almost every day seemed like the news station itself was suicidal.  At times, it was a very dark place. 

Finally, after hearing the seemingly billionth complaint about, “There are no stories to tell in this small area…”  I responded with, “Are you serious?  I could tell you 500 stories about that empty cardboard box sitting over there.  Who made it, why it was made, where it was made, what materials it is made of, where those materials come from, the journey the box had to make to get here today, why is cardboard brown instead of other colors, what can you do with the box now, what have people created out of boxes, etc.  It’s all in how you look at the box.  It’s all in how you look at the place you live.  Do you see 1,000s of people living meaningless lives, or do you see 1,000s upon 1,000s of interesting, captivating stories that are living and breathing and everyday, they are making and creating 1,000s upon 1,000s more interesting and captivating stories. 

You have an entire news station available to you, and you can use it any way you like.  That is special, that is unique, and that could make a world of difference for 1,000s upon 1,000s of lives.” 

Like Steubenville and other cities and towns similar to it, this news station could not see all the wonderful things they could accomplish, because they did not want to see all that they could accomplish.  When we open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the infinite possibilities that are available to us that is when we can look at our towns and stop pining for the past and become anxious for the future. 

2) CREATE POSITIVE MEDIA

The fact of the matter is small cities like Steubenville have a tough time getting the media to cover all the great things that the city wants the media to cover, and a way too easy time of getting the media to cover and over cover all the bad things that the city doesn’t want them to cover.  In layman’s terms, Steubenville has a major PR problem. 

In Steubenville’s case, this is due to having two small, competing news stations in a close vicinity.  The people working for these stations are often very young (most in their first job in broadcast journalism), and they are looking more for stories that they can add to their reel (so that they can move on to a bigger market) than stories that can help the community.  Also, most of these news personalities aren’t from the area.  So, the first impression they get of their new market is too often what Google tells them, and trust me, if you Google Steubenville, it’s not good. 

It’s true that the newsperson is a pessimist at heart, because we, as humans, are pessimistic in nature.  If you don’t believe me, spend twenty minutes scrolling through your Facebook’s newsfeed, and then we can talk.  A gentleman at the meeting asked me about this very point.  “How do we change the perspective of the news stations?” he inquired. 

To which my response was, “Make the good news so unique, so interesting that they have no choice but to do a news story on it.”  After all, to no fault of their own, these young journalists look at working in markets like Steubenville’s as a stepping-stone in their career.  So, they are looking for stories that will get them their “big break.”  Sadly, too often, the stories that give these journalists their “big break”, the national news worthy ones, are the ones that are so horribly bad that the rest of the country has to pay attention.

Still, as a brand, you are always looking for ways to utilize the news as “free, trusted advertising” for your business, so why would cities, especially Steubenville, not use the creative training of an advertising agency to increase positive public relations?

Nathan Marshall touches on the pursuit of greatness.

3) PATTERN YOUR CITY AFTER GREATNESS

When I was a public school teacher, I was always baffled by the fact that our school and district would always look to pattern itself after the slightly bigger, slightly more successful school up the road.  They treated that bigger school as if it was Heaven itself, and it was the be-all, end-all for education. 

So, one day, having had my fill of failed attempts at patterning ourselves after another slightly better than mediocre school.  I printed out a list of the 100 best public education institutions in the country, and I took it to my Head Principal.  I then asked her if she happened to see the school we were patterning ourselves after on the list.  When she looked through the list, and said no, I told her where they ranked, according to this list, in the 7,000s.  I have never understood why we as a society pattern our lives, our jobs, our cities after anything than the best?  Why do we muddle in mediocrity?  Because we strive for mediocrity.

Steubenville itself hit hard times after the steel mills went belly up, so why would they not look up the road forty minutes to the ultimate steel town gone bust and now, is a must to visit, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?  Pittsburgh has transitioned so well from chaos that it has actually been voted the number one place in America to live for the last several years.  That’s the kind of thinking and emulation that places like Steubenville need.  So, as a great writer and, at one time, the wisest man on the face of the earth, Solomon, wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  In other words, as a not so great writer and a not so wise man, myself, writes, borrow from the best and make it better than the rest. 

4) BE AGGRESSIVE IN PURSUIT OF BUSINESSES YOU WANT TO SHAPE YOUR COMMUNITY

One of the things that baffle me about cities that are creating a strategic plan for the future, is that too often that “strategic” plan for the future stays in the future.  We never see that plan come to fruition, because they are always planning for the future.  It’s great to have goals and aspirations for the not so distant future, but as a brand, as a city, if you are not meeting the needs of our consumer, our community, today, there will be no ten years down the road. 

Actively, aggressively selling your city to the businesses you want to shape your city is a great way to not only stimulate the economy but to speed up the revitalization of a city.  For instance, one of Steubenville’s biggest problems is getting anyone to come downtown for anything.  Well, how do you get people to overcome their fear?  You make their desire for something so great that they want to overcome that fear to reach that desire. 

One of the businesses I suggested for the downtown was making a Starbucks Coffee the focal point of a rebuilding project.  Not only does Starbucks not have a store within a forty-mile radius of Steubenville, but it is a proven brand that attracts all ages of consumers.   Especially in an area where it is hard to get the youth to visit, it would be a powerful, proven motivation to not only get the youth off the hill, but to spend time and to spend money downtown.

Another powerful motivator of this plan is that a corporation like Starbucks would make sure that their building was renovated so that it looked as good as their coffee tastes.  Also, having a company like Starbucks Coffee as a centerpiece for a rebuilding effort would attract several other quality establishments who would desire to be located near Starbucks, because they know what a powerful draw it is.  Thus, your economy has been stimulated and your renovation project has been expedited exponentially by being active and aggressive. 

5) USE YOUR HERITAGE AS A BUILDING BLOCK

Finding those unique quirks about the heritage and history of your city can be such a huge building block for success.  Towns that center their entire city center or city around historical landmarks, like forts, have proven time and time again that this method drives success and stability in their economy.

To me, one of the biggest mysteries of Steubenville, is the fact that a legend like Dean Martin not only came from but frequented Steubenville quite often.  Still, the only year round tribute they have to this legend is a nicely painted mural on the side of a Kroger.  Yes, it is a nice painting, but it is on the side of a chain grocery store.  A chain grocery store…  Correct me if I am wrong, but that doesn’t seem like a destination many people put first on their list, even the most avid of Dean Martin fans.  By building a Dean Martin statue or even better, an entire Rat Pack one, in the middle of a small shopping center downtown, you have not only increased the uniqueness of your town, but you have increased tourism and economic opportunities.

This is just one example of some of the great things you can do by utilizing an iconic figure like Dean Martin as your city’s centerpiece.  Once you find this centerpiece, the possibilities are endless.  You could reconstruct the whole downtown to fit the Dean Martin era, an era that most of the buildings and area are still in.  You could reconstruct an old movie house, which will always have a showing of one of Dean Martin’s films plus special events like Dean Martin themed movie festivals. 

Another smart idea would be to move the Dean Martin Museum down to the downtown area, an opportunity to create a highly unique, highly visitable tourist destination.  This also gives you another chance to turn dilapidated buildings into an effective tool in building a better Steubenville.  These are just some of the many things that can be done with such a great building block.

6) TURN YOUR FROWN UPSIDE DOWN

Lastly and maybe most importantly, it is so vastly important to realize and embrace the power of optimism.  Too often we forget about how important each and every moment is in our lives.  Not to sound corny, but it is so very true.  As Thornton Wilder so eloquently penned in his great American play Our Town, "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"  There are so many millions and billions of instances that have had to happen to lead you to each and every moment you are in, and the things you do in that moment will send a ripple effect throughout time.  Though we might not see all the great things that can come from having an optimistic attitude and mindset, they are happening, and it is up to us to continue build upon that optimism.

It is my hope that some of these rudimentary steps to building a better Steubenville and better cities across our fine nation have helped you gain more clarity as to the benefits of having the creative minds of an advertising agency working with you.  After all, not many people can look at a desolate swamp and figure out a way to make it into something magical.  That’s what I do, and I do it well!

Hard Work is in My DNA

Ann St. Railroad Station in Parkersburg, WV circa 1936.

Ann St. Railroad Station in Parkersburg, WV circa 1936.

I come from a family of hard workers. Whether it was toiling in fields to provide for our family or marching through fields to provide for our country, our family has had a long tradition of working hard. 

One such example of this hard work is the story of my great-grandfather, Harry Smith.  Harry was a man who tirelessly spent his whole career working for B & O Railroad.  Everyday, he punched in and out.  There he not only worked, but he grew from a boy to a man and from a man to an old man.  Still, he was loyal.  His labor never tired.  He was old but he worked at twice the pace of much younger men. His hands grew callused and his heart grew weary, but his spirit never diminished. 

Finally, the day of his retirement had come.  “It will be strange to leave the confines of this company,” he had thought, a company that had grown to be so much a part of who he was.  Still, he set about climbing the rickety stairs of the old Ann St. railroad station in Parkersburg, WV to fill-out his retirement papers.  When he finally reached the top, he approached the window, and told them his name.  Before the person at the window could gather the appropriate paperwork, Harry fell over dead.  Heart attack. 

Later that week, on the same day of my great-grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother received a bill from the doctor’s office.  Harry had visited the doctor a few days before, and the bill of health they returned?  Well, it clearly stated that Harry’s health was fine and his heart?  Finer than fine.  Though this story lives in a dense forest of irony, the fact is, my grandfather, like many generations of my family, labored tirelessly, giving of the sweat of their brow, the strength of their backs, and even the very last beat of their heart.  Why?  Because they understood the importance of hard work, and even when that meant giving of their self, they knew that the legacy they were building for their family was worth way more than a paycheck.  

To Tibet and So On and So Forth

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

Though the names were changed to protect the very real people in this tale, this tale is not make believe, and sadly, I had to suffer through some pretty horrible things to make some pretty amazing strides in my own life’s journey.  I am still not sure how I put myself in the situation I did with the man I named Tom, but to this day, I still have no respect for any man who would abuse their family, women, another culture, and their self the way he did that night.  I am in no means proud that this portion of the tale is a permanent part of my life’s story, but it is, and the only thing I can think to do with it all these years later is to share it.  Share it with you, with whomever, because, as horrible as it is at times, this is life.  It is full of good people, bad people, people who make horrible, stupid, terrible, very awful and unacceptable decisions, but through stories, through sharing, we learn, and hopefully, someone somewhere will read this story and when they are presented with a decision, they will remember this tale and make the right decision.  This is my hope.  This is my prayer.

To Tibet and So On and So Forth

           Our story has its beginnings buried in the West Virginia hills at a very small school called Bethany College (about 800 students), and this story’s roots are planted firmly in a time when winter is losing its cold grip on the world and spring is just being birthed into the lives of the hibernated universe that is my sophomore year in college.  A random day, a Tuesday of no significant importance, lights the spark that starts the forest fire that is the craziness of preparing for a trip overseas.  On this day, a fraternity brother, John, proposes a trip to Tibet to several of us in the fraternity house, a conversation with my family ensues, money is raised, bags packed, and seemingly suddenly, I find myself soaring above the clouds for the first time in my life en route to a world I have only briefly examined through travel brochures, a biographical novel or two, news stories, and a couple of rudimentary websites.  The plane lands, days were spent getting from one end of China to the other end, Tibet.  Culture shock was suffered, sickness was overcome (an ear infection that made it impossible to hear out of my left ear for a majority of my trip), and I, for the first time in my young life, understand what it was to truly be away from home.             

         All this being said, I had tried my best to enjoy my small band of misfits (fraternity brothers of mine and John’s father, who had made this trip several times before), I tried to enjoy my foreign travels, and I tried to realize the importance of our work while in Tibet (to help build housing for a school and families there).  Still, as anyone can tell you, the first time being away from home is a difficult but rewarding and often times awe-inspiring/life-changing process, and my experience seemingly was going to be no different than really anyone else’s.  That is, until our second to last night in Tibet.

         Zhongdian, Tibet, was a very small, very remote city in the midst of a very small, very remote section of a very big country.  At this point, very few Americans were allowed into Tibet, and when they were permitted in, their every move was monitored, inspected, questioned, and, like an old shampoo idiom, repeated.  We were no exception to that process.  Everywhere we went, we stood out like a person wearing a Halloween costume to Christmas dinner.  There was one American family living in Zhongdian, the Russell’s, Tom, the father, Jennifer, the mother, Anna, the oldest child, and then the three rapscallions, Jacob, Ezekiel, and Solomon.  We were tasked with working closely with this family who had moved there so Tom could teach English to the Tibetan children who boarded at the local school. 

            The family was kind, well travelled, and well mannered.  We immediately had our home country as our common ground, but we quickly developed a close friendship that was based on more than the colors of the flag we were born under. 

            Tom was a jovial man with a big personality and a seemingly bigger heart.  He oozed of martyrdom for sacrificing his life for the good of those less fortunate than him in a country he really had had no ties to before he accepted his current teaching position.

            Jennifer was and still is one of the loveliest women I have ever met.  Her hair and her smile always stick out in my mind.  Her hair like a lush field of wheat that moved rhythmically to the tune of the wind, and her smile, her smile was that warm, inviting, infectious smile that could light up a night where the stars are sleeping and the moon has went on a long vacation.  She was an oak, and she welcomed the roots of the saplings, which grew around her.  She was seemingly on this earth to foster who were planted around her, and we all loved her for that care.   

            Anna was no different than her mother, just younger.  Most teenage girls feel like they are an outsider in the world that surrounds them; Anna was an outsider, but she was one of those people who, even at this early point in her life, knew her place in the world and thrived in it.  She was the oldest child in the family, she was the leader of the Russell children, and she never flinched once at her many responsibilities to the flock of brothers she had nestled beneath her protective wing.  Like her mother, she cared for others without a second’s thought to her own state of being.  She knew the world was bigger than her own childish dilemmas, and therefore, she had no time for such nonsense.        

            As for the rapscallions, Jacob, Ezekiel, and Solomon, believe me, rapscallions was probably not the best word to describe these boys, but, like most people, it is tough to sum up the entirety of one human soul in a word, let alone three.  They were the definition of orneriness, and I truly believe Tibet was not ready for one of these boys, let alone three of them.  Heck, as I am writing this, I am not even sure that America itself would have been ready for these three.  They were smart, resourceful, and they had all of Zhongdian as their playground, and play they did. 

            I still remember going spelunking with the boys in a random cave on the outskirts of the city.  There were no questions of should we or shouldn’t we with them, it was let’s go for it and why not.  The cave ended up being some sort of a Buddhist monk burial site, which, when we discovered this, after a couple of hours of journeying, we childishly screamed in terror, and like a person standing at the bottom of an empty basement when the lights get shut off, we jettisoned back toward the protective light of the afternoon sun.

            The Russell family quickly became our family.  Our Tibetan/American family.  We made laughed with them, danced with them, helped them, and most of all, we loved them.  At least, we loved the them that we thought they were.     

            Tom spent more time with us than almost everyone else in the family.  I think he felt two obligations, 1) to show us a good time, and 2) to fit in with the “frat” boys and to show that side of us a good time.  Many times throughout our time with him, Tom had mentioned the need for us to all go out and have our hair washed.  He discussed the process with such ease and candor, that we all believed it was a cultural thing for people in Tibet to do, and, of course, after Tom gushed about how his school’s principal had taken Tom, himself, out as a welcome to Tibet gift when he had first arrived, we all decided it was a must to have this experience. 

            Well, it so happened that it fell on the night before our last full day in Tibet that Tom wanted to treat us by taking us out on the town as a reward for our hard work during our stay.  After an elongated stay at the first discothèque I had ever visited, John’s father decided to call it a night and hitched a ride back to our hotel.  As John’s father left, the first thing an increasingly drunk Tom Russell insisted was that it was time for us to experience a Tibetan hair washing.        

            The next thing I knew, we were all piled into his Land Rover and sent bouncing up and down the pothole laden primitive roads of Zhongdian.  As we journeyed to our destination, my stomach began to sink.  I imagine now that my topsy-turvy stomach would have paralleled the tires of the Land Rover quite accurately, sinking into a trap of a three-foot road divot here, level out, and then fall into a two-and-a-half foot suicide dive hole in the road.   

            As we pulled down the obviously dead end street, which we were venturing to, I quickly began to realize that no reputable establishment would come in the form of a long, dark back alley.  The street’s complexity was only confused when the first rays of light came from the source of one neon pink lamp, which hung above what I would soon discover to be our destination.  It was very quickly hereafter that I realized that this was no mere sickness I felt growing in my gut, but t’was the unfortunate realization of the fact that I, little Christian, goody-two-shoes who has never drank alcohol, smoked, or done anything remotely scandalous in his lifetime, was standing outside of a Tibetan brothel. 

            Anger quelled up inside of me, more anger than I thought I had.  Not only was I someplace I had no desire to be, but much, much worse, I had been deceived.  I had trusted Tom.  I trusted my fraternity “brothers”, which I was quickly discovering is nothing like real brotherhood at all.  I didn’t believe this kind of stuff happened outside of the characters in Law and Order: SVU.  Here I stood, a young man, a confused man, a very disenchanted man who was getting a hard lesson on the sad reality of the human condition. 

            “I’m not going in there,” I finally chirped up, having a difficult time standing up for myself in fear of being ostracized from not only my travel group but my source of collegiate friendship.

            To which a chorus of “Why not?”, “What’s wrong with you?”, and “Who cares?” rose from the crowd of people I had considered my close friends mere seconds ago. 

            “I’m not going in there,” I stammered a little more confidentially. 

            Disgusted looks shone on me like prison spotlights who have just locked on to the escaped convict.  Finally, the seemingly years of disapproving silence burst apart. 

            “You can stay out here if you want,” Tom’s commanding drunken voice cracked as if he were a man who seemingly had just been forced to watch his own lofty image shatter before his own eyes.

            Tom glared at me for another moment longer, the last time his eyes ever met mine, and he turned to the door.  As if it were a scene from the Pied Piper, the rest of our band of travelers drunkenly staggered after their leader.  

            “Stay?” my mind raced.  “What does it mean to stay when one’s mind is so jumbled.  It feels as if I am living a million different scenarios all at once when in reality I am only living one.  One very disgusting, very real one.”

            I wanted to run to the moral confines of home.  I wanted to burn the brothel to the ground.  I wanted to stop five drunken men from their dance with the devil.  I wanted, but I didn’t.  I collapsed to the ground in helplessness.  I wanted to cry, but that too didn’t happen.  I was in shock.  I fumed in hate.   

            The front of the whore house was all windows, which made it even easier for my mind to realize the horror of what I was facing.  I tried not to look at the reality that was having a staring contest with my forlorn demeanor.

            In they went.  To my surprise hair washing was actually a task these women performed.  Laughingly, they all sat side-by-side in chairs.  Back they went, hair into a bucket of water.  Soap was lathered atop their scalp.  Hope began to whelm up inside me.   

            “Maybe that is really all that will happen,” my mind soothed itself.  “Maybe all this was me overreacting to something?  Maybe, I am the dumb one here.  Really, Tom has a wonderful, beautiful wife, and he said so himself, his own principal brought him here.  A principal would never…”

            Then it happened.  The thing I had feared the most.  Tom rose from his chair, and, by himself, departed almost symbolically into the darkness of the back of the brothel.

            “Maybe, he just has to use the restroom,” my mind begged the world to comply.  It didn’t.     

            The darkness of the backroom that had devoured Tom moments ago claimed another victim, one of the hair-washing girls, who willingly sacrificed herself to follow. 

            The Tibetan dirt suddenly seemed rougher.  The alley became the darkest alley in the blackest part of the universe, a world away from everything that I knew as normal.  The pink lights cascaded mockingly across my face.  This is the moment my childhood officially died.  I held the services in my head.  My body moved like my soul had put up the Be Back in Five Minutes sign for the rest of the evening. 

            Later that night, I collapsed on my bed at the hotel.  The Tibetan air carried through my open window the whiskey induced words of two of those who had been masquerading as my brothers.  The mask was off.  These people were barely acquaintances, which made their hate filled words easier to stomach.

            “I’m sick of his holier than thou attitude.”

            “Who does he think he is treating Tom that way?”

            “Does he think he is perfect?” 

            “No one is perfect, especially him.”

            “I can’t believe he embarrassed Tom like that.”

            “Us like that.”

            I fell asleep that night with the stars waving hello from the sky.  They were familiar.  I breathed a deep breath.  Their insults faded into white noise. 

            The next morning began with doors opening, lights suddenly coming on, hung over voices groggily exchanges small bits of sentences, talks of going camping with Tom and the Russell family, me declining all invitations that had anything to do with Tom, somewhere the disdain laced words, “Fine!” and “Be that way!”, doors slamming, more mummers, and then a jeep pulling away.

            Alone.  Truthfully, I had felt alone since last night, but for the first time in weeks, I was actually alone.  Alone to my thoughts.  Alone to the world.  Alone to make this day, this trip my own. 

            “What had you wanted when you had signed-up for this trip?” I kept asking myself in my head.  “Not this I imagine.” 

            “Adventure,” I answered to the ceiling of my room.  “I wanted to have an adventure.”

            “What is keeping you from this adventure?” my mind retorted back.

            Daily, I had seen the Himalaya Mountains looming of Zhongdian.  I had remarked several times how I wanted to hike to the top of them.  I thought it would be a cool experience, being this close to them and all.

            “That’s too far away.  No one wants to do that,” John had quickly shot down.

            “John is keeping me from my adventure,” I finally responded to my questioning mind.  “John’s dad is keeping me from my adventure. Tom is keeping me from my adventure.”

            I paused.  Who were these people to keep me from this.  They were no great deity.  They had no physical control of me.  I was not their indentured servant.  I was not their errand boy.  I had legs.  I had an able mine.  I had my youth, and for the first time in seemingly forever, I had the will.  

            “No.  It’s not them.  It’s not them that is keeping me from my adventure.  I, I am keeping myself from my adventure.”  

            I shot out of bed, threw on a pair of shorts, researched the inventory left behind by our John’s dad (being the group leader, he had demanded that he be in control of all our money and supplies).  A granola bar from home that I hadn’t told anyone about, a half a bottle of water, no qián (money), and no means to get in contact with anyone.  Honestly, I didn’t even leave a note telling those I was leaving behind where I was setting off to.  Looking back, these were all very bad ideas, and not ones that I recommend anyone follow, but I was determined to not let self-doubt deter my adventure any longer.  So, I gathered what I had, threw them in my backpack with my old high school football wind breaker jacket, and I set off out my door and into one of the most important adventures of my life.    

            As I stood in front of my hotel gazing at my prize, the Himalayas, I determined that they were seemingly a couple hours walk away from me.  How many times does a guy from West Virginia get to utter such words? Then I began that journey as each and every journey of every adventurer (Ferdinand MagellanVasco da GamaMeriwether Lewis and William Clark, you?) before me had begun his or hers.  I put one foot in front of the other, and I started to explore.    

            One of the first things I was quick to discover on my own, is that there are probably as many strange things about a white American passing through a Tibetan’s soy field to a Tibetan as there are to a white American.  Still, like a parade slowly moving through town, the locals did not stop me or ask me what I was doing.  They merely looked up confusedly, as if they were wondering why this parade had not tossed candy in their direction yet.

            As I marched forward, I realized how surreal everything had suddenly become.  Moments ago, I had been physically in Tibet, but for all intents and purposes, I had been stuck in a cocooned extension of my life back in America.  Now, I was journeying through soy fields with the stereotypical Tibetan worker in their conical straw hat tending to the fields all around me. 

            Each step I took seemed to bring a bigger smile to my face.  Yes, technically I was still alone, but in reality, I was not.  I was surrounded by so many people and places, and even though all of these were foreign to me, I was living.  I was enjoying.  I was on my adventure. 

            One of the more interesting facts about this particular region of Tibet, that I happened to be fortunate enough to explore, was that no one there has a home like you and I have a home.  Most homes are loose boards stacked on top of each other in some shoddy manner, or in the case of the outside of the main town, rounded huts (kind of like a half tennis ball) made solely out of dirt.  Along with these dirt homes, comes a dirt walled fence surrounding the small communities of huts.   

            As I approached one such cluster of homes, I thought in my head about pictures I had seen in National Geographic magazine where some American traveler goes to a much less financially affluent part of our world and there they run into pot-bellied indigenous children to which they give pieces of candy to and are revered as a god.  With these dreams bouncing around my head, I reached my hand into the side pocket of my book bag and pulled out half a dozen or so candies which I had forgotten to remove from one of my days around campus.  Strangely, I pined sympathetically for these cadies as I shuffled the candies between my fingers. 

            “These candies sure travelled along way to end up in someone’s stomach,” I thought half-expecting that this National Geographic dream o’ mine was a dream that seconds away from becoming a reality.

            As I crossed between an opening in one of the dirt fences, my wondering thoughts were abruptly interrupted, not by a sound, but by red eyes glowing from the darkness of the only entrance into one of the dirt huts.  Like the minute before high noon in Tombstone, Arizona, the summer of the world around me immediately froze.  Panic swept over me.  I didn’t, couldn’t be the first to draw.  I waited, hoped that time would pass and my trespass would be forgotten.  The world waited.  A tumbleweed blew across the stillness of my being.  Then, seemingly all at once, high noon struck, the Tombstone clock tower rang out its death knell, jaws glistened through the darkness, and the hungriest, man-eatingest bark you have ever heard was released into the universe.

            My life instantaneously became a slow motion rewind of the present.  Sharpened teeth that had been cut on bones chomped together as four legs churned like a locomotive whose coal furnace had been stoked to full bore.  The death dealer lumbered towards my nonexpectant frame.  The dirt piled fence, that separated farmland from what was the village, screamed salvation.  I bounded to the top of the dividers and stood atop them like a beginning gymnast atop a balancing beam.  Quickly, I composed my shaky balance, the Tibetan Mastiff, the sadistic beast which been chasing me, was still ripping at the wall hungry for my throat. 

            Obviously, at that point, I realized that this side of the wall was off limits.  Thinking it was safe to jump off to the other side, my eyes were met by the bloated corpse of a wild boar, which had a hole in its side that was either created by a submarine’s missile or that of another wild predator, one I had no desire to mess with.  Being that we were not close to the ocean, and no submarines were in sight, I guessed the second of the two and decided that it was better if I just moseyed a little of my journey striding atop the wall. 

            By the time I decided it was safe to leave the friendly confines of the top of my dirt wall guardian angel, I was well beyond the seemingly all-seeing eye of a murderous pooch I had affectionately deemed Annoying.  It was at this point that I was beside the base of the descent into the Himalayas.  Here, yaks roamed freely, and I had started to become comfortable in my present setting.  So comfortable, in fact, that I had begun to wave to the farmers I passed.  None responded, but it made me feel like I was back on the farms of my youth where everyone waves to everyone, stranger or no stranger, when they see them.  I felt as if I was acting as an ambassador of goodwill from the farms of West Virginia to the yak fields of Tibet.

            As I started to ascend the mountain, I grabbed for my water bottle, which I had drained hours ago, hoping that there might be even a morsel of a drop of water that I could squeeze from the dry plastic container.  There wasn’t, and as much as I willed it, there wasn’t going to be.  I started my Himalaya Mountain ascent feeling semi-victorious for having at least made it to this range of the Himalayas, but, also, semi-defeated because not only was I thirsty, hungry, and exhausted, I was now competing with the sun who seemed like it was teasingly humming, “Now I’m free.  Free falling,” as it sank from the sky.  Still, I was determined to accomplish this goal of mine.  I must make it to the top of these mountains.

            One-third of the way up the mountain, I had a relapse of thirst, hunger, and exhaustion.  I collapsed on a rock and the self-doubt rose up in me like a flood seeking to destroy a town after the dam, which had mediated peace between the two opposing forces for so many years, was broken. 

            “I can’t go on,” words which echoed from one side of my physique to the next.

            “Go back, “ one-side of my conscience contested.  “You have made it further than anyone else you know.  It’s getting dark anyhow.  You will never make it back to the hotel in time.”

            “There are camper’s in the valley there.  I can see their fire.  They must be Americans,” the other part of my conscience foolishly associated the homelike image with my current geographical location.  If I hadn’t been so mentally frail, I might have realized that, at that time, I was one of a handful of Americans in Tibet, and the odds that these campers were American was astronomical. 

            “Give up.  They were right,” the battling consciences continued to taunt me.  “You have no clue what you are doing out here.  You are a…”

            “Hruuuug!” a great guttural grunt let loose from the distance, ripping my quarrelling psyche apart like feuding school children.   

            I was now wide-awake from my stupor.  I looked around for its source.  Later, I found out that there are bears in the woods of Tibet, but in this moment, ignorance was bliss. 

         “Hruuuug!” the noise rang out again.

            This time I quickly spotted its origin.  An ever-growing mound of straw rose from path leading towards the base of the mountain.  At the bottom of this mound, a lady, which couldn’t have been younger than eighty-eight, who was wearing a ten-foot tall stack of hay like book bag on her L-shaped, wrinkled exterior. 

            In amazement, I took in the sight before me.  She stopped at the top of the hill to catch her breath.  I was taught, growing up, to always help the elderly, so naturally, in this moment, I was at a loss.  Should I say something?  What would I say?  I felt stupefied, cemented in indecision.  I never did ask if this ancient women if she needed help.  One, I figured, she wouldn’t have been able to understand me if I tried.  Two, to me, it was like asking the Incredible Hulk if he needed some help lifting that car.     

            Finally, her breaths slowed, and she realized she was not alone atop this hill.  It was at that moment, her eyes caught mine.  Stopping, staring nothing happened but our eyes sizing up their targets like the Terminator looking for his next mission. 

            She broke the confusion by saying something in Chinese to me, which sounded like… like… well, like Chinese to me…  After a long pause of confusion, she squinted her eyes tighter, and she flicked her long boney hand at me as if to say, “Get up.”  Then, she flickered her wrist again seemingly saying, “Go on!” 

            My too often defeated young mind suddenly filled with optimism.  If this elderly women can climb this mountain with a giant stack of straw atop her back then I can certainly climb this mountain without water.  Even to this day, it is funny to me that one simple encouraging gesture could send my defeated spirits from ashes to soaring like the phoenix let free in the Tibetan sky.  I thanked the old woman, “Shi-shi.” Then I set off to complete my original mission.

            It would be nice to say that this was the last of the hurdles I had to climb that day, but thirst can do crazy things to people, and I am no different.  As I soon, unfortunately, discovered, a parched mouth and an eager soul are not the best of friends, and it was a lot harder to be optimistic when you can’t hardly swallow.  Each step I took, my mouth seemed to get dryer and dryer, and steps got harder and harder to accomplish.  I was like a human version of the Tin Man, and I was rusting rapidly.  Water was my oil, and without it not only would my adventure be cut short, but I was extremely far from my hotel with the sun increasing its decent back into the earth.  What would become of me in the Tibetan wild at night?  Would I survive? 

            When you’re not expecting something in life, everything about that something, that surprise becomes highly memorable. On this occasion, when the first raindrop exploded upon my cheek, I truthfully believe that, at that moment, I could feel this one raindrop absorbing into my skin as it rolled down onto my cracked lips.  My body welcomed the water like the father welcomes the Prodigal Son.  I walked further, more raindrops drummed off my skin.  With each step, the orchestra of rain increased its symphony.  I had ascended so high into the Himalayas that I was actually passing through a cloud of rain!

            I dropped to my knees, removed my jacket, soaked it like a sponge, and drank bountifully from it.  The refreshment soothed my throat, my body, my mind.  The downpour had soaked my being more than a day at the water park, but I was happy to be able to move with ease again.  I felt years younger, and as I looked to the peak of the mountain, I had a bounce to my step and a goal directly in my sight.  I had come too far, experienced too much to not finish the rest of this adventure.  Sure, even as I am writing these things to you this day, they feel like a dream, but they aren’t, they weren’t.  This was a path I chose to journey down, and that has made all the difference.    

            The next thing I remember is a very small dirt way that led through the bushes.  I shimmied between them, and, at last, I was there.  I had made it to the top of the Himalayas!  I looked out across Zhongdian, across Tibet.  Prayer flags and prayer mosques dotted the hilltops.  Below, the birds soared, and with them, my heart.  My depressive, confused state was gone.  Here I stood, a man and a mountaintop.  I had finally began living in a manner to be proud of.  Exhilaration moved me.

            “Finally!” I screamed.  “Finally.”

            Emotions, memories began to overtake me.  I thought about my last two years in college, and how lost I had become.  I remembered a time when I cared not about what others thought of my life.

            “I can’t believe there is no one here to share this sight with,” I stammered to myself.  “In all the world, there isn’t one person here with me right now.”

            Then I remembered a relationship I had been neglecting.  One that I had lost under piles of popularity, fame, narcissism, desire, envy, pettiness, self-doubt, anger, loneliness, fear.  A relationship that I had once held as the most important in my life, but, like a used car salesman, I had traded it in for worthless relationships with people who could care less about where I was standing at this very moment or what it had taken for me to get here.     Finally, I remembered God here, atop this mountain.  For the first time in my life, I fully understood that he was watching me at that moment, that he was standing right beside me right at that moment, and that I was not alone at that moment or ever.  I was never alone and never had been alone.  If anyone had abandoned anyone else, it was I who had abandoned God.   

            Tears began to run the course of my face.  I dropped to my knees, bowed my head to the dirt, and prayed harder and more fervently than I had ever done, and for the first time in my life, I truly realized what it meant to be a Christian.  To give reverence to God.  I had reached a peak so high above this life, but I was still so far below my Lord. 

            Before I left that day, I envisioned God having the exact same view as I did but from Heaven, and he was looking down at me.  I wished to leave a bit of me behind on that mountaintop.  I thought about my backpack, a note written in the dirt, I even went as far as tying my jacket to a tree branch before I realized that I didn’t need to leave anything physical atop these mountains to let others know I was there.  I have been there, I was there, and I have left a part of me there.  A part of me that I didn’t want to return, then or ever again. 

            To this day, I am proud to say that the part of me filled with vanity, foolishness, pride, that part that creeps up on us all in our youth, I left it halfway around the world in the most remote of locations, on top of a mountain, and if fate should ever decide that I actually should go back to that exact location, I am happy to know that I won’t find it there.  No, I know that, that mountaintop was its grave, its burial, and I know that no one, especially not me, is mourning its death.

            As for how I got home?  Well, at this point the sun was as old in the day as that lady who had been carrying the straw but way less strong, and the sky was filling with darkness faster than ink spilled on parchment.  I made my way down the mountain, visited the campsite I had mentioned before still half expecting them to be Americans.  I was wrong.  They were Tibetan, of course, and thankfully they were fairly kind. 

            My broken Chinese got me a bowl of chicken soup (bones still included, which they encouraged me to eat, and I did from fear of making my ride mad), a warm fire, and a one-way ticket back to the main town of Zhongdian. 

            The crazy part about that trip back is that the only place they had for me to sit was in the back of one of their small trucks in a cage.  Yes, a real cage.  I didn’t even think twice about it.  Looking back, I definitely should have.  Still, there I was, tired, still wet from the rain cloud, shell of my former self riding in a cage in the back of a Tibetan’s truck zooming past the last remaining confused on-looking eyes of the locals. 

            When I returned that evening, my roommate, a fraternity brother of mine named Mel, excitedly retold the stories of the days events from their camping trip with Tom, the rest of the Russell’s, our other fraternity brothers, John’s dad, and the rest of our traveling crew.  Yes, Mel had participated in the events of the night before, and yes, he had stood silently there as our mutual acquaintances berated my character and my morals numerous times, and yes, Mel had even reached a point in twenty-four hours that any dislike or disagreeance he had had for Tom’s deeds the previous night were long forgotten.  Tom had fully won him to his side with a camping trip.

            “What did you do today?” he finally asked me as darkness now tucked us into our beds.

            For a brief moment, I thought about recounting all the day’s occurrences to him, as I did for you today, but that day, that adventure, it was my adventure, and that day, it needed to stay just that, my adventure.

            “Oh, nothing much,” I responded as I turned over to dream about the day I had just lived.

 

 

A Lesson Learned from the Janitor

I truly believe that you can and do learn from most every instance of this life that you actually pay attention to.  My learning experience takes place in the spring semester of my last year of teaching in Maryland.  During this time, I was acquaintances with an old janitor named Mr. Beachy.  Mr. Beachy was a very small, bald man with a slight speech impediment and a knack for dropping by to talk about life whenever he could.  However, in the winter of that same school year, Mr. Beachy was admitted to the hospital and almost died of undisclosed complications with old age.  It was after this period of time that he returned and told me very conversationally that since his near death experience, that he now could see angels. The first of these angels, he said, came into his room right after the surgery and she was dressed in a white coat…  I told him it was probably just his nurse.  He didn’t seem to agree with me.  So, it was at this point, that I thought Mr. Beachy had basically reached the spot in his life that had morphed him into a sort of loveable nutcase.  Still, at that moment, little did I know that this crazy man who had pushed a broom down those hallways for years, without anyone paying attention, was just about to teach me a lesson about life that would stick with me forever.     

However, to understand the full scope of this tale, you first have to realize what was happening in my life.  Therefore, I have appropriately entitled the next section the Back Story, aka It Sure is Lonely Atop Negro Mountain.  This title is fitting for a couple of reasons: 1) this is the back story, 2) the place I was teaching in was a remote, Podunk town called Accident, MD, and 3) I was living in Grantsville, MD a place located at the top of a mountain actually named Negro Mountain.  I am also fully aware that this title is probably both humorous to you, mildly offensive, and completely politically incorrect, but if you keep these three things in mind, you will be mentally prepared to journey inside my time at Northern Garrett High School. 

In my tenure at NHS, it seemed that as much as Mr. Beachy was ignored by the resident population, I was not.  I was sort of a Garrett County anomaly, to wrap a huge story into a few concise words.  They did not understand me, nor did they try.  I wore different clothes, talked differently, I was a man who taught Theatre and I was straight (gasp!), and my students referred to me as their family, not their teacher.  I had invested everything I had into teaching, and I was awarded with a dynamic relationship with my students and their parents, but for my good dead, I was hated and reprimanded every step of the way by administration.  For the first time in my life, I had become a patriot, fighting for a just cause, and all the while being fully convinced that my enemies would eventually see my sincere intensions and come over to my side.  

Like so many people in this world, work had become my life and work was not pleasant, therefore, life became less pleasant.  Then Snowmageddon happened, and trapped the mountainous Garrett County in with so much snow that we were jumping off our rooftops into snow banks taller than a house.  For three weeks straight we had no school, I sat in my apartment, I grew a beard, I started watching lots and lots of Netflix, and for the first time ever in my life, I paralleled the Unabomber, and it was not pretty.  I became defeated, depressed, and trapped.  Eventually, the snow did melt (We still had snow flurries all the way through the end of May), and we did get back to work, and I still had to put on one last grand finale of a spring musical before I closed this chapter of my life.   

It was during one of these many late night practices for the spring musical that I was returning to my classroom alone, exhausted.  It had been another day in which I was so busy I didn’t even look around to notice or talk about much other than the many tasks I had at hand.  That is when I ran into Mr. Beachy, sweeping the hallway, by himself, as usual.  I simply gave him a generic, “Hey there, Mr. Beachy,” and followed it up with some stock conversation reel that I had played out a million pointless times before.  As I turned, tired and ready to my classroom, to my home, Mr. Beachy stopped me in my tracks by making the comment, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, do you have an uncle or someone who was a little Jewy?”  Being as that I had already agreed to let Mr. Beachy in my life a the lovable nutcase and being that I was in the Mecca of politically incorrect banter, see previous comments about Negro Mountain, I probably wasn’t as thrown off by this comment as I should have been.  I simply took it in stride and turned laughing to say, “No, why?”

“Oh, just wonderin’, because that is what your angel looks like, and he is standing behind you right now,” he continued.

To say the rest of this conversation didn’t and doesn’t still give me cold chills would be a lie.  I am not sure if it was the lack of sleep, the overload of work, or just being the only people in a school hallway talking about the afterlifethat made my hair stand on end, but it did.  Still, I quickly tried to ignore the off kilter comment and began retreating to my cocoon of daily pattern.  I simply chuckled again, said thank you, and started back towards my classroom again.  It was then that I heard something that dumbfounded me that day and is still on the tip of my brain today.  Mr. Beachy simply concluded with, “I just wanted you to know that, because the next time you feel alone in this world, just remember, you are not alone.”

I turned just in time to look him dead in his very sincere eyes.  Here he was, this little crazy old janitor with a broom in his hand and a song on his lips before I even realized how much I needed to hear something like that in my life.  He smiled at me and said, “You have a good night, my friend,” and he went sweeping down the stairwell. 

The last time I checked, Mr. Beachy was still sweeping the halls of Northern Garrett High School, and, as he was that day, I can’t help but assume that he smiling with that same boyish, wide eyed optimism he always gave those who paid attention to him.  Whether or not there was actually an angel behind me that day, watching me, helping me accomplish more than I ever thought I could have, I am not sure, but it is my belief that that was not what I learned from that moment.  As I sank into my classroom’s swivel chair that evening, I took a deep breath, gazed off into the blackness that filled the world outside my window, and for the first time in a long time, I realized that there was more to this life than just me. 

As I walked through the parking lot that evening, the stars danced on the canvas of the sky and the wind was warm.  Soon it would be summer, and the page had begun to turn.

 

 

What Inspired Me to be Baptized?

     I was baptized on July 24th, 1999, but as to how I got to that point?  It is never just as simple as I read my Bible, I understood, and therefore, I became a Christian.  You can say it is, but even the Ethiopian eunuch had more to his story than that.

     The inspiration for my baptism began with attending church my whole life, literally since the week I was born.  I grew-up with parents who were learning what it was like to be a Christian their self.  I witnessed their struggles, their successes.  I saw them research their Bible in times of trouble, as opposed to seeking out their own solutions.  I still remember my parents deciding to leave the Waverly church of Christ, a church that was transitioning from conservative to liberal, because of the leadership it had received from the preacher at the time.  I remember it being like any other Sunday morning, running around the parking lot after church with Trenton Hall, who is a cherished friend and brother-in-Christ to this day, but at this time, he was a curly headed child running around in diapers.  There are moments in life when no matter how normal it all seems, something just seems to be amiss.  That was this Sunday morning.  It was if the air itself had even morphed into this other worldly state.  I remember my father and the preacher having a very serious discussion, and the next thing I knew, we were in our old station wagon driving home.  My father said, “We aren’t coming back here again.”  Endings tend to leave a lasting mark on a child.  I don’t care how old they are.  They realize when something is changing in their lives, and for me, that day I learned that the preacher is not always right, every church member can be fallible if they don’t go by the Bible, and I learned what it was like to miss my Christian friends and family for the first time.  I was separated from people that I had learned an invaluable amount from, my family, my home.  I will never be able to repay the great ladies who had taught me about the Bible there.  Sometimes we forget that, if they are fortunate enough to, our little ones grow-up to be adults, and they taught me from the ground up like they knew that all along.  They provided me with building blocks that I am unbelievably grateful for to this day, ones that began to build my faith and love for God.

     We attended Winding Road church of Christ in Parkersburg, WV that Sunday night and after that, until we moved.  There, church became an extension of the family based community I was a part of on a daily basis.  You see my childhood was spent living on the family farm.  We raised cows, sheep, had horses, dogs, barn cats.  The earth was our playground.  We caught salamanders, got way too dirty too many times, and had way more freedom than kids do today.  From that freedom, we got bumps, scars (one under my chin if you would like to see it), and we made good and bad mistakes.  We saw birth.  We learned death.  We saw the world working in perfect order without any man controlling it.  My Grandma Sams’ and Great-Grandma O’Dell’s houses sat atop our hill and there we were exposed to an older woman (Grandma Sams) doing everything she could follow God’s will and an old woman (Great-Grandma O’Dell) who really studied her Bible or went to church.  I saw a woman in my Grandma, though she had lost her husband and her son at a very early age, who was always happy and worked for others without giving a second thought, and I saw another woman in my Great-Grandma, though she was always kind to me because I was born on her birthday, was living an unsatisfied and remorseful life.  Great-Grandma couldn’t move very well at this time, and she had a lot of time to sit and think about her life, and even as a child, you could tell their was a lot of pain in her memories, a lot of regret.  I learned from everyone, be they a member of church or not.  The people who surround us impact us more than we ever know.  In my Grandma I saw a woman who I wanted my life to emulate, and in my Great-Grandma, I saw a woman whose life I did not want mine to become, even if she did live to be well over 100.  I knew I would rather have as many good years as God was going to grant me then to live 100 years not appreciate the daily blessings God provided me.     

     At Winding Road, I got to worship with not only my mom and dad, sisters, and Grandma, but I was also fortunate enough to worship with my cousins and my aunt and uncle, which I thought was so great.  To this day, I can see why it is hard for people who were not raised in the church to leave their family’s belief, even when the scriptures clearly state a practice contrary to God’s will that their family’s congregation is practicing.  I am not saying that it is right.  I am just saying it is harder than people give it credit for.  I could see that if I attended a church surrounded with a large part of my family for my entire life why it would be so difficult to see an error if they taught it, because as children, we don’t think our families can do wrong, and sadly, that sometimes bleeds into adulthood.  The examples I got from my limited time spent at Winding Road weren’t innumerable, because they were things and people I had been learning from my whole life.  It is easy to take advantage of something you have always had in your life and you believe you will always have.  The lessons I learned there I am still learning as I grow older.  Never take people for granted, and never take the time you have with them for granted either.  One thing you can’t replicate in life is moments, so why throw them away so carelessly?

     We moved shortly after we started attending the Winding Road church of Christ, an hour up the river to Sistersville, WV.  While we were there, I remember I tried to be baptized once when I was in the sixth grade.  I say tried because it didn’t really work out.  We were attending the Elk Fork church of Christ at that time, and I remember I would sit-up at night in a cold sweat fearing that I might die and be found less than favorable to God.  Some people might have you believe that it isn’t healthy for little children to sit-up at night in their beds and fear for the afterlife.  Contrary to what their 21st century Americana brainwashed minds might tell them, a healthy fear is a good thing to have.  I have learned more from moments when I have been afraid then moments where I coast through things.  Just like a child shouldn’t rule their parents, a person shouldn’t attempt to rule God.  I only feared God because I loved Him and respected Him enough to not want to let Him down, and truthfully, that mindset has been one of the greatest blessings of my entire life.  This is what I believe is meant by the term reaching the age of accountability.  I had reached it because I knew what was right, but for any young person, doing what is right is sometimes way more difficult than it should be.  The night I “attempted” to be baptized was one of moments where it was difficult. 

     It was about 2am on a Monday night that I finally got tired of sitting-up at night in a cold sweat, and I finally got the gumption to go to my parent’s bedroom, lightly tap on their bedroom door, and very nervously declare I wanted to be baptized.  Well, my parents, groggily (so groggily in fact that to this day, I don’t know if they even remember this happening) advised me to make sure that this is something I was ready to take on, and if so, that I should go forward on Wednesday night.  Well, as soon as those words came out of their mouth, I pacified my fears because little to their knowledge, from our move and reaching an awkward age, I had cocooned myself in a place where I was nervous to put myself “out there” in front of people (mostly adults).  So, I told myself, “You must still be too young, Nathan.”  That made me feel better for a time, and I let Wednesday night come and go without doing what I knew was right.  Even sadder, from this moment, I carried this “your not old enough” rational in my mind for many years, and it was further justified by the fact that I was not seeing others my age being baptized their self, and I thought, “If it is so important, why aren’t they doing it?”  So, Wednesday after Sunday after weekday after weekend passed, and I continued to attend church and occasionally, I would have a night where I felt so very alone in this world and I would think about my days on the farm, and the animals that had so quickly come and gone and how my fate was no different than theirs.  Then fear would dot my brow with perspiration, and I would calm my thoughts by praying to God, but, as so many of us do, forgetting to do His will completely.     

     Life went on.  I grew from a little boy to a young man.  We moved again and were now attending the Wellsburg church of Christ.  The people who surrounded me in the church, at that time, were the worst group of “church friends” I had ever had.  They were not the best examples and didn’t seem to put God first, second, or one hundredth on their priority list, and so, I got even more comfortable in my place in life.  I thought, “Well, you surely aren’t as bad as they are.  So, you are good.”  This is the danger in comparing yourself to others, something the Bible has never commanded, but no doubt, a trick the Devil uses to his advantage.  I was now mentally being dragged to church.  I had become a teenager, and I had too many other things on my mind: girls, being the “popular” kid for the first time, girls, sports, and did I say, “Girls?”  Notice, I left out school, because like God, it was something I always assumed I would get to eventual.  Assumptions, another great trick of the Devil.  I gradually stopped caring about death.  The world told me this was my time and I needed to focus on living, because no moment in life would be as good as it was to be young.  What lies.  Still, I bought them hook, line, and sinker…

     This continued from eighth grade till the summer before my senior year.  It was like a mirage, it seemed to be continuing the same way it always had, but again, that all to familiar word “finality” gradually began to creep back into my world.  I tried to focus my attentions on keeping life the same as it had seemingly been every year leading up to this one, enjoy time off from school and prepare for football season.  I wasn’t worried about life after school, that’s all I had ever known, and as we all do, I had fooled myself into believing that this was life.  For forever and always, this was the way life would be.  However, as my mom often told me while I was bemoaning the fact that I was growing older, “Well, you can’t stay the same age, Nathan.  You have two options in life, you can either get older or die.”  As morbid as that looks on paper, believe me, it was even more morbid to hear out loud.  Still, she was right, and sometimes little conversations like that pay big dividends down the road, be it later that day or later that lifetime.  Thankfully, God was patient enough with me throughout all of this that He would spare my life until I made the decision to be baptized.  A decision I should have made many years before my trip to a summer camp on the other side of a cornfield in the middle of nowhere Ohio.

     It sounds weird, but the push that finally sent me off the cliff and soaring into the skies of doing the Lord’s will was the peer pressure I received from the great Christian friends I got at Camp Noah.  As a young man, I was fortunate enough to attend Camp Noah, a weeklong summer camp that former Wellsburg church of Christ minister Bill Carroll ran based on principles of the Bible.  That fateful summer, I had decided that I had no desire to go to some “baby, Christian based” camp.  I had determined that I was too grown-up for that.  I was too cool.  You know how we all think we are too “mature” for so much during that time in our life.  Well, I had decided that I was not only too cool for the camp, but somewhere along the line, I had begun to believe that I was too cool for God.  I saw it as something only hypocritical people in outdated dress clothes cared about on Sundays and Wednesdays.  Even then, I had seen members of the church, people who were supposed to be an example, do nothing more than reinforce my being okay with not fully serving God.  They talked about each other, got insanely angry and jealous of each other, and they tried to beat the Word of God into your head instead of being patient and kind.  Church became a burden to attend.  It drained me more than the world did, and there were times when I sincerely hated it.  What had become of me?  I needed to open my Bible for the answers, but I looked to the “successes” of people in the world as a measuring point as to what kind of a man I was to become.    

     The year Camp Noah changed my life, very nearly didn’t happen.  All this animosity toward “boring, old” church had bled into my day-to-day life, and I hadn’t even realized.  This was actually the second year I was attending Camp Noah, and I figured I had been there once and seen it all, and what I had seen, I didn’t desire to be apart of again.  It was “too corny” for me.  In fact, I so completely disinterested in attending that I literally was on the floor of our van begging my parents not to make me go the entire way to camp.  Again, my mindset was worried about other things, like the phone number I had just got from the girl I had a huge high school sized crush on.  “She can’t wait a WEEK to talk to me,” I had thought.  “This is literally going to be the longest and worst week of my life.”

     Still, my parents made me go, because I had signed-up months before.  Little did I know how much this would impact me for forever.  That year at camp, I was in the oldest boy dorm.  It was an eclectic mix of ornery kids from all over Ohio.  I soon found out that I was the only one in the cabin who wasn’t a Christian.  Our counselor wasn’t some stuck-up, terrible dictator as I had assumed he would be.  He was one of the best Christian examples I could have had at that time.  He was a Christian man by the name of Gary Lucas who attended the Barnesville church of Christ in Barnesville, Ohio, and he was as ornery as the rest of us in the cabin.  He was not stuffy, pretentious, and self-righteous, as I had seen so many people in the church become.  He was the opposite.  He was humble, kind, obedient.  He was flawed but perfect.  To this day, he is still one of my examples of what the definition of a Christian man is to be.  He challenged us to grow-up in Christ and to be more responsible for our actions.  It wasn’t anyone else’s fault but ours if we weren’t serving God correctly.  This cut me deep, because I knew I wasn’t.  I had developed an excuse for every occasion when it came to Christianity, and he showed me with his Bible why those excuses were no good.  At night, he would lead us in devotion, turn out the lights, and leave us alone in our cabins.  This gave us time to talk about love, life, and the pursuit of eternal salvation.  Us campers, we stayed up every night, way too late, talking, philosophizing, learning from each other.  For the first time in my young life, when the lights went off, it wasn’t just God and I having a discussion with, it was many other voices, and thankfully, they were Christian voices.  They would ask me things like, “How are you not baptized?”  Things that I did not have answers for.    

     By the end of that week, I had grown more in my beliefs in Christianity than I had in five years.  I learned more than how shoot a bow, how to secretly smuggle a pizza into camp from a local pizzeria, and how to beat our counselors at softball.  I learned how to be a better man, a Christian man.

     I still remember our last night there, another moment of finality.  I remember Rob, one of my closest friends out there, sharing with us his fears of returning home.  “Why would you have fears of returning home,” I asked?  I’ll never forget this young Christian man with tears in his eyes and fear in his heart, telling us how he didn’t want to return home because he knew that he was going to let God down.  Like me, he had set-up a world around him that was destining him to fail as a Christian rather than to succeed.  He told us he had already been failing in his Christian walk in life, and that the people he had chose to surround himself with at home were ones he knew would easily lead him astray again.  My heart went out to this young man, because he was saying the things I was feeling inside my heart.  Like me, like us all, he was struggling.  He was looking for a hand to lift him up, not shove him down.  From moments like this one I shared with Rob and my other cabin mates, I realized that no matter what part of life you are at, you are going to deal with circumstances that try to drive you from God, and you have two choices, whether to obey these things or to not obey them.  I had finally matured enough to realize it was way past time for me to obey the Lord.   

     As I left my friends, my new family that week, I didn’t speak too much on the way home.  That week, I had witnessed friendships, baptisms, and a sense of pride in being a Christian that I had never fully experienced before.  To this day, I still love singing “As the Deer” in our hymnals, because every time we sing it, it takes me back.  Back to a little camp on the other side of a corn field in middle of nowhere Ohio, and for a moment, I hear not only the congregation surrounding me sing it, but the voices of Rob and Gary and my friends at Camp Noah and Bill Carroll and my Grandma Sams and the many, many Christian men and women who had patience with me, who loved me, who inspired me to be better than just another man.  I hear them sing, ”You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you,” and I yearn to hear them again.  Daily, I fight to hear those voices again, and I imagine that on the day I breathe my last, before I go, I will hear those voices singing, welcoming, “You alone are my strength my shield, to you alone may my spirit yield.  You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship you.”  I can’t wait to join that chorus.  A chorus of all the voices that have led me home.  Won’t that be a beautiful day?

     As far as when I was baptized?  It was the day I returned, July 24th, 1999.  I was working in the attic of our house with my father.  We were putting insulation in the top of our house.  It had to be 100 degrees in that attic working then.  I had been thinking about baptism all day, and in the middle of placing insulation, I finally had enough of the countless moments of contemplating.  I told my father, “I want to be baptized, and I would like to do so now.”  At that point, I had no clue what an amazing journey I was about to embark upon.  I just knew I wanted to be a part of my Lord’s church, my Lord’s army, and that I wanted to dedicate my life to Him.  So, that day, I was finally buried in baptism and rose a Christian.  Never again would life be the same, and for the first time in my life, that was more than alright with me.