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5 Blueprints for Your Brand’s Story | Entrepreneur Magazine

This article appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine’s April 2016 print issue.

Entrepreneur magazine cover April 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’ve got a great product. Or service. Or both. Your packaging, website and tagline are cohesive. That’s not enough. To be a brand, you need to have a story. As a ’trep, you may feel your founding tale, the one that literally gets you out of bed in the middle of the night, is unique. It may be. But your brand’s story needs to take that personal background and combine it with your company mission to make customers and investors listen. We deconstructed five of the most universal stories brands tell, with some advice on how to use them to write your brand’s next chapter.

Story 1: “The old way had to change.”

It used to be enough to be the fastest, the cheapest, some kind of -est. Now companies talk in terms of disruption — an overused buzzword, without question, but there’s a reason this story is so sticky. “To be a disruptor, you have to maintain driving speed of the process and get the formula right,” says Clark Howard, best-selling author of Living Large in Lean Times. You’re saying that your way of doing things is so spot-on, it changed the competition. That’s a powerful endorsement. Consumers always like a leader.

As a disruptor, you’re willing to launch a business that others thought was crazy. Uber sounded nuts — people jumping in stranger’s cars instead of hailing a cab? So did Casper — selling a mattress without a showroom? But Howard offers a word of caution: Don’t frame yourself as a disruptor until you’ve really disrupted something. That’s the difference between empty hype and, as he says, the “fresh and exciting” company you want to be.

The story in action: Like nearly everyone on the planet, Ernie Garcia was not a fan of the way used cars are sold. So he created the Phoenix-based Carvana, a used-car-buying website that allows consumers to search for, finance, purchase and take delivery of their car without dealing with a salesperson. “We decided to build something that’s better by creating a better truth — and then tell that story,” he says. “People regularly complain about buying a car, yet the industry has, strangely, been immune to change for 75-plus years. There has been technology to improve the car industry for a while, but the transaction process is complicated.”

Consumers like seeing the old way knocked down. And that’s why, since launching in 2013, Carvana has raised $300 million from investors and is on its way to ringing up annual revenues of $200 million.

Story 2: “Nothing else like this existed, so we made it.”

This is perhaps the most common of all the brand stories: I wanted it, I couldn’t find it, so I made it. It’s compelling because it’s so simple and relatable: The CEO was once like you, dear customer. “Building successful brands today requires a mix of business smarts and being clever,” says Chadwick Boyd, a brand marketing executive. “Consumers want that. They want to be offered something that fulfills a need in their lives.”

And there’s a trick to this kind of story: You can tell it even if, well, a product like yours did already exist before you came along. Why? Because it wasn’t your product, hitting your niche. Look at how Harry’s, the subscription razor company, describes its origin: “Like most of you, we’ve long had to choose between over-priced, over-marketed razors that disrespect your intelligence, and low-quality, cheap razors that disrespect your face.” Is that true of every razor that came before them? Maybe not — but if Harry’s can convince customers of its story, the company just convinced them of its value.

The story in action: “If you go in a Whole Foods, you’re going to see 48 mustards and 57 salad dressings,” says Reggie Milligan. He traces the explosion of options back to the recession, when foodies began launching small-batch food products out of their homes. Now there’s amazing stuff out there, but Milligan figured consumers were all thinking, I need someone to make a choice for me, and I need a brand I can trust. So he created that brand: Mantry, a monthly delivery of small-batch foods for men, which has spent $1.5 million buying such products since 2012. (Why just for men? Because it gives him a filter — a specific customer to serve. “If you’re talking to everybody,” he says, “you’re talking to nobody.”)

Now “too many choices” is his brand’s story. It does all the searching, so his customers can just focus on the eating.

Story 3: “We know your problem  and have a solution.”

If your business doesn’t solve someone’s problem somewhere, it’s obviously going to be a short-lived enterprise. But this story is more specific than problem solving: It’s about identifying a problem that your customer may not even be thinking about. “Speak to specific needs,” says Heather Stephenson, who heads up brand strategy at Super, a home-repair subscription service that raised $3.6 million in seed capital. “You really have to know your customers. ”

This story shouldn’t take long to tell. Sometimes it takes just a few words. Here’s how The Grizzly Labs pitches its product, a smartphone app that scans documents: “Equip your employees with Genius Scan and you won’t need them to be back in the office to access their documents.” The story isn’t really about the product; it’s about the worker on the go. For the right kind of user, it’s totally relatable.

The story in action: HoneyBook offers a whole lot of complex services — bookkeeping, purchasing, invoicing, contracting and more. It’s the stuff that overwhelms people in the events industry, who are HoneyBook’s target customers. But go to HoneyBook.com, and the first thing you see is a big line that says get your life back. That’s the company’s story: “It’s around benefits, not the features,” says Shadiah Sigala, its cofounder. And quite frankly, the features can sound daunting at first. That’s why Sigala keeps the focus on simplicity. “We solve the problem by alleviating personal pain points,” she says.

How many people want to relieve that pain? The company has raised more than $32 million, and sales grew 25-fold in the past year.

Story 4: “We give back.”

What could be more warm, fuzzy and human than a socially responsible business model? This: A socially responsible business model that customers feel is done right, and for the right reasons. Companies like Toms used to get great attention by telling their philanthropic story — but then hordes of other businesses followed, and questions started being raised about just how helpful some of these companies were being. A consensus has since emerged: A program that changes lives is far better than one that merely gives out free stuff. “Helping people by allowing them to utilize their talents and strengths to become employed or get out of poverty improves their economic, psychological and sociological state,” says Laura Ullrich, Winthrop University’s assistant dean for innovation and productivity.

The story in action: Susty Party makes eco-friendly tableware that’s sold in Whole Foods. And the tale it tells borrows from two types of stories. There’s the “nothing like this existed” part: Emily Doubilet was hosting events in Brooklyn to raise awareness about environmental issues but couldn’t find nice, festive but compostable silverware and more. So she and cofounder Jessica Holsey made them. But wait, there’s more! Most of their wares are manufactured by nonprofit factories in the U.S. that employ the visually impaired. Together, that enables Doubilet to pitch her company this way: “Want to change the world? Change the system.” Susty Party has made changes at every step of its system; now it’s inviting consumers to do the same (starting, of course, by using its tableware).

Story 5: “Trust us; we have nothing to hide.”

“My inbox is flooded daily from people who want me to buy their products and services,” says Kim Gorsuch, founder of Weeva, an Austin-based startup that designs personalized books. So how do people decide whom to do business with? Gorsuch says they ask two related questions: “Whom shall I trust? Whom shall I believe in?”

For some brands, the answer becomes the core of their story. These brands aren’t just reliable — as all brands should be — but also promise to reveal things about their business that competitors never do. That’s how, say, T-Mobile got back in the game: It kept calling out the phone industry’s pricing tricks, earning great press. Transparency can be a powerful statement. Just be sure to back it up.

The story in action: The online apparel company Everlane ran a thought-provoking sale this winter: For many products, shoppers could pick among three prices — but each came with information. The cheapest “covers our cost of production and shipping,” the company said. Go up, and you help cover overhead, investment in growth, and so on. It’s part of the company’s “radical transparency,” as it calls it — which extends to offering details on its manufacturing, pricing and more. Its tagline: “Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.”

The story resonates with users: The 6-year-old company’s annual sales are now estimated at north of $35 million (though, ahem, it won’t confirm that). But perhaps more important, the story Everlane tells becomes the story others tell about Everlane. Press — like this article right here! — is almost always about its transparency and prices, reinforcing Everlane’s message. It’s a storytelling cycle.

—Kirsten Ott Palladino

Articles, Equally Wed, featured

Feeling visible: filing together as a married lesbian couple should

kirsten-maria-june-lesbian-wedding-decatur

It’s tax day, and I’m feeling visible, which is a pretty damn spectacular feeling for someone who has felt invisible in her country for the past five years of being married to the woman I love. We have been together for 10 years, married for five, and, in the legal eyes of New York and every other state that recognizes marriage equality, we’ve been legally married for almost three years.

I can’t say I love tax day now. Who loves tax day besides the IRS and the accountants who make a steal of a living off of us? Nobody else! But this year, my wife and I were able to file our federal taxes together. It was huge! A victory! I feel accomplished and validated and recognized—our love is real, it is tender, it is meaningful. We make our home together. We’ve made two children together. We are in love and, most of the time, we like each other, too.

Last year, in June 2013, SCOTUS declared that the federal government would recognize our marriage if we had been issued a legally recognized marriage certificate. My wife and I, who live in Georgia, had flown to New York in August 2011, to become legal spouses. What did that mean for us as Georgians and Americans? Nothing on a technical level. Not on the surface, at least. But it recorded our relationship and commitment to each other in a legal form that suddenly was no longer discriminatory. But more than that, it enabled us to be seen as a valid couple by society at large.

Every time I am able to tell a Georgia resident that I have a wife—and they pause but say nothing or they look me square in the eye and say, “Is that legal now?” I am afforded an opportunity to gracefully share a learning experience that my wife and I are just the same as that person and their spouse, and we deserve equal marriage rights.

maria-kirsten-lesbian-legal-marriageOftentimes, nothing more is said. It’s not needed. No one wants to be lectured to. Not my 3-year-old sons, and not the 40-year-old cashier at my grocery store who just asked me if one of my children looks like his daddy. I take a more vocal stand when I can, going on CNN to discuss marriage equality, writing letters to my senators, reporting on marriage equality news and showcasing same-sex weddings in our magazine, giving visibility to lesbian, gay, trans and queer couples. But in my day-to-day life outside of Equally Wed, my stand is subtle yet strong: I live my love out loud. Even in Georgia, where our marriage is not recognized in the slightest bit.

Thank goodness we were able to both become legal parents of the children we created and are raising with love and devotion. We took great legal and financial measures to ensure that we have all the legal powers we need to make decisions for each other and our children should we ever need to. But if Maria and I were able to have marriage equality in Georgia, we wouldn’t have to get those documents drawn up or shell out thousands of dollars to acquire the protections our straight neighbors are afforded the moment they sign their marriage licenses. And there are many counties in this state where we dare not travel without these papers.

It is my sincere hope that we will have a bill for marriage equality in Georgia drafted soon (Karla Drenner, I’m looking at you, dear). The state’s constitution explicitly banned gays and lesbians from legally marrying in Georgia in 1996. Because it wasn’t enough to just not allow it before then. They had to get it written into their books, dammit. Before the crazy gays took over marriage and burned their traditions of love and long-lasting commitment to the ground! We make up less than 4 percent of the population of this country, and even if we were larger in number, I just cannot understand the threat to humanity of letting us marry each other. For the love, it’s not like we’re asking for the legal rights to forcing a straight person to be married to us. Oh, I could go on and on. But one day soon, I hope we do have countrywide marriage equality. I am so thankful to the work that Freedom to Marry, the HRC and many other organizations are doing on a national level, and that Georgia Equality is doing on a state level. To that end, Georgia Equality has set up a petition for Georgia to allow legally married same-sex couples to file state taxes together. If you’re a tax payer in Georgia, we could use your voice. Please add your name to it!

We have much work to do, but I am reveling in the victory of filing our federal taxes together. Commence happy dancing feet!

Photos: Our Labor of Love, Entwined Studio

This article was first published on equallywed.com on April 15, 2014.

Articles, featured, travel, weddings

Oceanside wellness: A bliss-filled Caribbean adventure on the Riviera Maya

The second longest coral barrier reef in the world stretches from Roatan, Honduras, to Cancún, Mexico. In the lush tropical jungle of Cancún, a host of activities await travelers, from the adventurous set, such as snorkeling, scuba diving, ruins exploring, swimming in cenotes (sinkholes) and sailing to the honeymooners seeking respite from months of charting seats, writing vows, interviewing vendors and managing the full-time job of planning a wedding.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-gay-honeymoon-mexico

Cancún is situated on the Riviera Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula. As vacation destinations go, Cancún is relatively new on the scene. Up until about 30 years ago, it was a dense jungle. Underneath, water runs freely from the river to the peninsula to the Caribbean Sea. An easy drive from Cancún is the sanctuary of Banyan Tree Mayakoba, a luxury resort attached to a heralded brand of international hotel chains known for its superior service.

playa-del-carmen-john-gray-duck
Duck breast with chipotle, tequila and honey at
John Gray Restaurant in Playa del Carmen

Everything that goes on behind the gates of the Banyan Tree Mayakoba caters to the guest. It’s a honeymoon destination all on its own. Though there’s plenty of exploring to be done off property—from visiting ruins of ancient cities like Tulum and Cobá, and exploring eco parks with knowledgeable guides to shopping and dining out in Playa del Carmen at notable restaurants such as John Gray—there’s so much to keep you occupied and satisfied at the resort. It all depends on the type of honeymoon you want to have.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-villa-mexico

Guests stay in private villas at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba. Every villa is outfitted with its own small pools, in-ground hot tubs, a hammock and a view of the water, whether it’s the canal or the Caribbean Sea. The villas are discreetly built into the carefully conserved landscape, which preserves four ecosystems in balance—the mangroves, dunes, low forests and coral reefs. To get around the property, guests can call for a golf cart pick-up or rent a bicycle from the front desk for $10 a day. Without a doubt, rent bikes for you and your new spouse. The resort’s property extends all the way to the Caribbean Sea. When you hop on your bike, you can cycle by mangroves, along canals, wind your way through the resort’s award-winning golf course, spot lizards sunning their dry bodies in the Mexican warmth and arrive at the sugary white sand and turquoise waters.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-gay-honymoon-mexico-sands-beach
Sands, Banyan Tree Mayakoba’s ocean-front restaurant

Here, the resort’s al fresco beach restaurant caters to refined palates with fresh sea food, authentic Mexican dishes and light fare. The bright white building is U-shaped and spills into an inviting pool with swim-up bar, leading to the ocean. Bartenders service at any lounge chair, so go on and relax.

A myriad of dining experiences abound at Banyan Tree Mayakoba with trained chefs at all the restaurants, from the elaborate breakfast smorgasbord laden with food from around the world to the aforementioned beach club to the upscale Asian-inspired Thai restaurant situated over the peaceful canals.

Because the resort is built around canals, the spiritual sense of moving water is quite calming. Boat operators are stationed around the property to taxi you back and forth from the beach to the main building. To better understand the eco-system, charter the taxi with a nature guide to tour the canals. Mangrove boat tours run three times a week, and provide a special opportunity to spot wildlife, from blue herons, gray herons, snowy egrets, crocodiles to great blue herons, the biggest in North America. There are 13 kilometers of artificial canals on property, but natural water from the sea flows throughout.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-beach-gay-wedding-mexico

There’s no shortage of romance at Banyan Tree Mayakoba, and the staff is generous with its pampering for all couples, straight or gay. To customize your love-themed visit, the property created an Experience Department, staffed with a romance and events manager and a romance coordinator. Options range from in-villa dining, where a chef privately prepares a lavish barbecue by your pool for you, to assisting you in planning your wedding ceremony at the resort. The expansive property boasts ample rooms for any size reception, as well as its own florist and catering staff. But the allure of marrying here is having an authentic Mayan ceremony, performed by a real shaman, who doesn’t discriminate against same-sex couples. Tied together through a spiritual ceremony celebrating the bonds of nature and each other, marrying in the Mayan tradition is a rare experience. Couples can arrange it all through the Experience Department, even ordering custom traditional Mayan wedding attire. The ceremony is available in your villa (for up to 10 guests) or surfside, and includes local floral decorations, Mayan musicians and a traditional performance during the ceremony .Packages starting at $2,200 include all of the aforementioned with an in-villa wedding, plus one 90 minute massage session for two at the award-winning spa and a dinner for two at Saffron, the resort’s fine dining restaurant, which includes one bottle of wine.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-spa-massage-gay-honeymoon

Though most resorts can boast a spa, Banyan Tree Mayakoba has the market on the serenity with its exclusive Rainforest experience, involving an intense pampering session through seven stations which titillate all the senses, from showers replicating tropical waters with a rainbow of lights and a medley of sounds to an avocado body mask to an invigorating body scrub of papaya to a plunge into the warm bubbling indoor vitality pool. Finish it off with an authentic Thai massage from a limber table-climbing therapist, and collapse on each other in your villa until you’ve got enough energy to hop on the water taxi to take in more of the Caribbean Sea.

WHEN TO GO:
The temperature is a comfortable 80 degrees year-round. For a beach wedding at sunset, April is ideal. September is the rainiest month. Hurricane season runs from June through November.

GETTING THERE: 
Fly into Cancún International Airport. Banyan Tree Mayakoba is an easy 45-minute drive. Arrange transportation through the resort.

ACTIVITIES:
All activities referenced can be arranged through the resort.

RATES:
Villa rentals start at $565 a night.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Banyan Tree Mayakoba
Carretera Federal Chetumal-Puerto Juárez Km. 298
77710 Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Tel. +52 984 877 3688

John Gray’s Downtown
Av. Xpuhil, SM 19 Mz 2, Lt 24. , Cancun
Tel. 998.883.98.00

Photos: duck dish courtesy of John Gray; all others courtesy of Banyan Tree Mayakoba

 

Editor’s note: This article was first published on Jan. 30, 2012 on equallywed.com.

 

Articles, featured, Fitness & Health, Food & Health, writing

A juice cleanse before the wedding

Warning: This isn’t a “how to lose weight in X amount of days before your wedding” article. Fact: I loathe those types of articles.

I was the kind of bride who eagerly showed up to cake-tasting appointments hoping to try all the flavors, not just the three I’d selected. Sorry, not sorry.

But beyond my personal weakness for sugar, there’s a difference between getting skinny for someone else’s vision for the perfect bridal size and achieving a state of wellness. That’s what I want to talk to you about today.

rainbow-juice-cleanse-book

There’s a new nutrition book that piqued my interest: The Rainbow Juice Cleanse: Lose Weight, Boost Energy and Supercharge Your Health by Dr. Ginger Southall
 (Running Press,
 April 2015, 
$17.00). The tummy-toning tome focuses on how juicing popular high-glycemic vegetables will affect the intricate physiology of the body. Each day of the program focuses on a different color of the rainbow—that is, drinking different colored veggies each day of the cleanse—ensuring the best possible nutrition profile and guaranteeing positive results.

While Dr. Southall’s book, The Rainbow Juice Cleanse, does promise losing seven pounds in seven days, those are likely seven pounds of gross things you don’t even want to know about. Toxic sh*t you need to get rid of. She also boasts that her book will help you boost your energy levels and supercharge your health. Well, I took her challenge—not the seven-day one (yet!), but I have felt extra wonderful when I’ve drank her recipes, so without further ado, let me show you what I did with her book, a trip to the farmer’s market, my newest kitchen toy, Omega juicer (NC800 series), and my Kenwood X-Pro blender (which I seriously don’t think I could live without in the summer or winter because it blends both hot and cold foods).

The first recipe I made was what Dr. Southall explains is definitely not juicing. It’s a smoothie. It’s a way to get your taste buds ready for the change that’s coming your way when you start replacing meals with liquid veggies. And these are veggies, not fruit. One tip I’ll never forget from her is “Eat your fruit, drink your veggies.” She’s still pro-fruit, but she explains over several useful pages how fruit is full of sugar, and how “eating whole fruit, with its fiber and full nutritional and phytonutrient package, is entirely different than drinking a glass of condensed fruit juice or even adding a few pieces of fruit in your veggie juice. This is especially true for someone facing a health challenge (as most of us are today) and for those trying to lose weight. From a healing and weight loss perspective, try to keep your total fruit consumption between 5 and 10 percent of your total daily calorie intake. The cleaner and healthier you become, the better your body can handle fruits and even fruit juice.”

Eat your fruit, drink your veggies.

— Dr. Ginger Southall

OK, doc. With that lesson, I think we’re ready to dive into Drink No. 1 that I tried, the Green Cilantro Smoothie, which was positively delicious, tangy, refreshing and filling.

 

 

Next, I made the Thai One on Tonic. Honestly, this one made me want to break up with cauliflower, for like, forever. But, it’s packed with many of the B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and omega-3s, which promote healthy sugar metabolism, according to Dr. Ginger, which she says helps with blood sugar stabilization. So I mentally pushed myself to finish it, and I was proud that I chugged it down. It tasted good, but it was more like a creamy soup. Mixing in some (pure) stevia and pouring it over ice could really help.

 

The Red Pepper-Mint Juice might resemble a Bloody Mary in appearance, but don’t add any vodka if you’re going for a cleanse. It’s full of vitamin E, manganese and more than 30 known members of the carotenoid phytonutrient family!

 

 

All photos except book by Kirsten Ott. Recipes copyright Dr. Ginger Southall, The Rainbow Juice Cleanse.

This article was first published on Equally Wed Magazine.

Articles, featured, Portfolio

Transcending time

Atlanta author Colleen Oakley wins hearts with first novel ‘Before I Go’

This article was originally published in the Jan./Feb. print issue of The Atlantan. Written by Kirsten Ott.

before-i-go-book-cover-colleen-oakleyThe looming threat of mortality is inescapable in our lives, but most of us can shrug off thoughts about it. But for Daisy, a witty Athens, Ga., graduate student who is lucky enough to have found lasting, meaningful love early in life is also painfully unlucky enough to have twice developed cancer before she turns 30. The protagonist for debut author Atlanta author Colleen Oakley’s novel Before I Go (Jan. 6, 2015, Simon & Schuster) is faced with a heartbreaking challenge when she learns that her breast cancer has returned, it’s in stage four, and she will not survive the year. Daisy’s husband, Jack, is a devoted guy with terrible life skills when it comes to pulling together the four basic food groups into an assemblage of a healthy meal, and unsurprisingly, Daisy’s more concerned about Jack’s future than she is her own. Putting his needs before her own health, Daisy starts looking for a replacement wife for him before she makes Jack a widow, employing her best friend Kayleigh to scout out potential suitors for her husband on dating sites and in coffee shops. Naturally, hilarity and hijinks ensue.

 

 

Colleen Oakley

Author Colleen Oakley Photo: C. Noel

Oakley expertly woos readers into Daisy and Jack’s love story with well-woven story arcs and characters you can root for. Her career as a former magazine editor and current freelance magazine journalist make Oakley a natural narrator, and it was one particular subject who sparked the creative juices for this book. “The inspiration for Before I Go hit when I got an assignment from an editor to interview a woman who was dying of metastasized breast cancer. It was a powerful interview for many reasons, but what struck me the hardest was the fact that she was around my age — late 20s at the time — so I couldn’t help but put myself in her shoes. I was a newlywed, and it surprised me that my first thought wasn’t ‘what would I do if I was dying?’ but ‘what would my husband do?’”

 

INKWELL

KO: What have you learned from this experience of writing (and publishing) your first book?

CO: “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I can actually do it. Writing a book is one of those things that I always vaguely said I’d do — like becoming fluent in Italian and moving to Capri — but I’m not sure I ever really believed I could. You type that first sentence, or first page, and realize you still have 300+ pages to go. It seems impossible. But then there’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment when you write those two little words: “The end.” I imagine it’s a lot like running one of those ultra 100-mile marathons, but with less sweat and blisters. (Probably the same amount of cursing though.)”

BEFORE I GO LAUNCH PARTY

Benefitting Susan G. Komen for the Cure

WHEN: Jan. 6, 2015, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

WHERE: Room & Board, 1170 Howell Mill Road NW

COST: Free; raffle tickets and book available for purchase at event

RSVP: colleenoakley.com

Articles, changes, pain, recovery, relationships, writing

Why We Stay: One Woman’s Lens Into Psychological Layers of Suffering Abuse

The country is abuzz about abuse again, and the talking heads and twittering fingers are asking why people stay in abusive relationships. Why is Janay Palmer Rice standing by her man even though he punched her in an elevator and dragged her body out? (And then she proceeded to marry him one month later.) Why did Rihanna have such a hard time leaving and subsequently going back to Chris Brown, even after the world saw her blood-crusted, bruised face after Brown crunched his knuckles into her eye socket? Why did Tina Turner take Ike Turner’s slaps and punches again and again?

Guess what? You’re not the only person to wonder this. People currently in abusive relationships and those who have successfully escaped them ask themselves that very same question. Why do/did I stay?

In order to truly understand the answer to that question, it’s helpful to think of abuse, whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional, as a series of tiny subconscious extensions of permissions. Each time he hits you or she tells you you’re worthless and you—for whatever reason—don’t take a stand right then and there that you will not tolerate such abuse, you’ve made a docile statement that it’s OK to treat you this way. Of course, it’s not OK and you don’t want it to happen—you never did and you never will. But each time it happens and there is no serious repercussion for the abuser, they are granted more permission and you’ve given them more rope to tug you around with, much like a master with a dejected mutt on a leash.

For victims of abuse, the internal question often is “How did I get here?” and one part of the puzzle is all of those tiny permissions.

So there you are, a scared, frightened pup on a leash, right? But that’s not all of who you are. You might be brave at work, pumping your fist in the air and demanding your employees follow the rules. You might never lead on about the troubles at home when hanging out with your girlfriends, and possibly even telling elaborate stories about what a good man you’ve got, how he spoils you like a princess. Or you’ve been so desecrated for so long that you no longer recognize your former spirit and you walk around with empty eyes, shoulders slack, wondering when you’ll have the courage to just walk out into the middle of the street and let a bus hit you because that would be easier than leaving.

Not everyone being abused is suicidal and not every survivor would agree with being likened to a gnarled stray dog, jerked around on a chain. In fact, the abused can get downright defensive about their situation, telling you things like, “You don’t know him like I do,” “You don’t know the whole story,” “I made him do this to me,” or “She’s a good person; this only happens when she’s stressed.” But in the quiet darkness or in their quick trips out alone, they’re lost in a reverie at the red light, wondering how their life spiraled out of control and what can possibly be done about this. If you leave, he’ll come looking for you. Maybe she’ll take the children and hurt them instead of you. Maybe he has all the financial control and you don’t have a dime to your name. Oh, and then the bone-crushing shame of admitting to anyone that your life has fallen apart—that you chose an abuser. There’s that, too.

We still exist in a world where the victim is blamed: A rape victim’s experiences of consensual sex are paraded in front of her in a courtroom as if an experience of forced sex isn’t as big of a deal if the victim wasn’t a wholesome virgin. A child molested again and again by an adult is outrageously asked what he did to encourage the abuser. An emotionally abused middle-aged woman is asked if she’s just being too sensitive. Talk show hosts say you must have provoked him. Friends say there’s no way that he could be so different behind closed doors—it’s you who is failing to see things as they are, not the friend.

And, then, if there are emotional ties between the abused and the abuser, it’s a thick, tangled web of thorny branches and it feels like no one can escape unscathed or at all.

***

But then, there’s hope.

Even prisoners of war, locked in dank cells for years, beaten routinely until they’ve lost both health and self, are miraculously able to retain hope.

And survivors of domestic abuse know that feeling all too well. The abuser doesn’t always abuse you. Oftentimes he’s sweet as pie, reminding you of why you fell in love with him. It can even feel like you’re being courted, receiving flowers, chocolates and poetic texts. And you wonder—for a moment, albeit fleeting—if you shouldn’t take the bait this time. But your sense of danger is warped now. He’s successfully convinced you that you’re not a victim, this isn’t abuse and you two are madly in love, and you can make this work. So you bite the apple, and ingest more of this charmer’s poison, waiting with hopeful baited breath for things to get better. But they don’t. And they won’t.

***

It’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole when you choke down the forbidden dry, crusty cake, which turns everything upside down and suddenly you don’t know what is normal or OK even is anymore. It’s all an illusion. Is everyone laughing at you? Have you hidden the bruises—internal or external—enough? Is that a trick mirror you’re looking into? Is this really your life? Is your partner your friend when he says, “Come here, love. You know I can’t live without you.”? Or is he a foe, when he says, “Why do youmake me so angry? Why are you so fucking slow? Get out of my fucking way, you fat bitch!” as he kicks you to the ground, causing the plates in your hand which you couldn’t put away fast enough to collapse beside you, clattering in slow motion, sharp pieces flying. “Jesus, you’re so fucking clumsy!” as he takes one last swing at your head, rearing his leg back like

Beckham and pointing his toe right into your temple, making you so dizzy you’re unsure if this is even happening, and why, oh, why is it happening again? “Clean this mess up, bitch.” And he walks out the door while you hold back your anguished moan because between two bloody clumps of your hair you can see your children standing solemnly in the kitchen entrance, holding each other, curious, scared and masking their fear with false bravery at their tender ages, seeing too much, learning the wrong thing. And yet. You’ll stay for their sake.

***

As for those asking the abstract victim the inflammatory question of why stay, know that the very inquiry places blame on the struck, the raped, the broken.

“Why did you let him do that to you?” The haughty superiority in this question is enough to make us want to choke you, not the abuser. You think you could have done better? You think you would have fought back, run, gotten away, gotten help? You. Don’t. Know. Anything.

When are we going to start hashtags such as #handsoff or #wewillhelpyou or #leavethemcomehere? Instead of gnashing our teeth at each other on social media, how about extending your hand to someone in need? You don’t have to know them. Send comforters and comfort to women’s shelters. Show up for the soup kitchen line. Say something when your friend is entering into an odd relationship where she is giving up all power. Say something when that kid who used to have light dancing in his eyes is all burned out, can’t look you in the face and is struggling to hold his life together. Step in. Step up. Show up.

It is not enough to just tell a victim to “just leave.” It is always complicated. And she (or he) needs your help. We need your help. #helpusleave #wewillhelpyou #wecanbestrongtogether

Kirsten Ott Palladino is an award-winning editor and writer working on a memoir about surviving repeated gang rape, emotional and verbal abuse and child molestation. She’s the co-founder and editor in chief of equallywed.comthe world’s leading digital LGBTQ wedding magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @kirstenop.

This was first published on The Manifest Station.

Articles, Atlanta, featured, restaurants, writing

Brewed to perfection

New Atlanta gastropub delivers a myriad of beers hailing from Atlanta to Belgium

By Kirsten Ott Palladino

ormsbys-atlanta

Tucked away in the bottom of the White Provision building (a former meat-packing plant in the early 20th century) on the Westside of Atlanta is Ormsby’s, a self-proclaimed good place to be. Co-owner Michael Goot won’t exactly confess to it being either a pub, speakeasy or a tavern, but the low lighting, dark milled walnut floors, oak booths, copper-topped bar with mahogany leanings, slightly secretive location with just a metal-worked O hanging by the front door and casual atmosphere of good times speak for themselves. The newly minted restaurant opened in December 2009, and has been packed most every night. The camaraderie found at Ormsby’s is scholarly in a grad student/professor way, but the fun to be had is for all drinking ages and personalities: A flight of stairs below the restaurant is a host of games, ranging from bocce ball, darts, pool, shuffleboard, ’80s videogames (think Donkey Kong, Pac-Man) and even Skee Ball is in the works for April. Ormsby’s is a collaboration between Michael Goot, a man whose work history is steeped in beer, and Warren Bruno, who opened his first bar in Atlanta in 1974. This is Bruno’s 12th bar, and he says it’s his final. He had a bocce ball court at his first one, and to bring it full circle, he wanted to have the precision game available at his last venture. Bruno also owns Atkins Park Tavern, Atlanta’s longest-standing bar and restaurant, which has two locations. The pair looked to Executive Chef Andrew Smith to design their easygoing but respectable menu, which features American-style pub dishes such as house-made sausage, hand-dipped corn dogs, New England clam chowder, bratwurst, fried cod, veal and mushroom meatballs, as well as more than 10 hearty sandwiches. But the real shining star of Ormsby’s is the beer. With more than 20 offerings on draft and 45 to 50 bottle brands available on any given day, it’s no wonder beerophiles flock to this hidden gem. Choices abound, from complex Belgian beers like Dupont Fore, which has the “Belgian funk,” according to Goot, because of its orientation in a Belgian farmhouse where the windows stay open to allow the yeast to blow in from the farm (also known as spontaneous fermentation) to simple craft beers like Avery Ellie’s Brown Ales from Boulder, Colo., which shines with vitality. Local Atlanta beer is a top seller, especially SweetWater 420 Extra Pale Ale, with hoppy characteristics and a crisp finish. Trappist beers like St. Bernardus Abt12, a dark ivory-colored beer with a high fermentation, is on draft, while St. Bernardus Prior 8, a fruity malt with a purple-ruby hue, is available by the bottle. While no favorites ever leave the beer menu, Goot continues to tweak the list to continue to intrigue and satiate Atlanta’s thirsty palate.

st-bernardus-649x3901

THE PERFECT PAIR

Savor the weekly special pot roast braised in red wine and served with root vegetables and buttered noodles with the notes of fig, raisin and dark stone fruit in Dogfish Head Paulo Santo.

Loop your fingers through local pale ale-battered onion rings, and wash it down with Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, a light, citrus IPA.

Southern hospitality takes center stage with shrimp and grits, roasted peppers, caramelized onions and cream sherry. The spice in Dupont Foret Organic keeps up nicely.

The spicy orange blossom, caramel malt and crisp hop at the end of the Ommegang Rare Vos Amber Ale balances out the spicy lamb merguez (sausage) with Tzatziki sauce, cucumber and pickled red onion served gyro-style in a grilled pita.

This article was published in Draft Magazine.

Articles, Portfolio

Why my wife and I had to create a gay wedding magazine


By Kirsten Ott  for The Huffington Post

I’ve never been ashamed of being a lesbian, no matter what society has attempted to make me feel with its laws set up for my relationships to fail. I was born to love the girl next door, who preferably would have bigger muscles than me, exude a quiet confidence, make me fall to the floor laughing and love traveling, creating, exploring new cultures and gastronomy as much as I do.

Though I’ve certainly not been immune to discrimination for being a lesbian, I was naïve in my understanding of what modern-day society felt about my “kind.” Sure I’m aware (and angry) that we don’t have the 1,138 Federal rights that are naturally afforded to my straight co-citizens, but I didn’t realize just how unequal some of the basic components of life — like having a wedding — are for the LGBT community.

I dreamt of having a romantic lush wedding since I was a little girl. Yep, I’m one of those. And when I realized that it was a woman I wanted standing at the altar waiting for me, I never thought it wasn’t possible. Not once. You see, to me, a wedding is a wedding, whether a government legally recognizes it or not.

I finally met the woman of my dreams in 2003: She easily ticked off all the items on my checklist and then some. Maria and I began dating in 2004, and she proposed one frosty winter day in 2008. I was over the moon with elation, and quickly started the perhaps-tad-excessive planning process.

I settled in with my strong cup of joe and my self-made mountain of wedding-planning insanity in our living room, and I began flipping through the magazines, the glossy pages of beautiful brides and their handsome grooms. I didn’t mind seeing straight couples, of course, but page after page I didn’t recognize myself in these magazines. Where was I? And more importantly, where was my soon-to-be-wife, with her short hair, her masculine figure, her men’s clothing, most notably the wedding suit she’d soon purchase. The lack of information for gays and lesbians bothered me, but I also felt that not being included translated to rejection and what I could only imagine to be homophobia in the wedding industry at large.

It was at that moment that I knew what I was being called on to do. Don’t for a second think I have any delusions of grandeur or celestial inspiration. But I’ve always had an insatiable appetite for helping the underdog, even when that dog is me. So I did what any writer/editor who was about to marry a talented graphic designer would do. We decided to launch our own online magazine for engaged LGBT couples.

I still didn’t even know how much our kind of magazine was needed. When Maria and I started calling vendors to interview for our own wedding in the city that The Advocate named the No. 1 gayest city in America in 2010, I was shocked to have multiple phone calls and emails unreturned when I made clear in my initial message that it was two women getting married. When I spoke to some vendors, I felt rejected and unwanted. At one bridal salon, a saleswoman disappeared on me after I told her my fiancée was a woman.

As a credentialed magazine writer, I even pitched the honeymoon department of a popular bridal magazine known for its more modern presentations of weddings. The now-defunct magazine’s travel editor told me politely that they weren’t ready to run a lesbian’s honeymoon story in their magazine.

Every homophobic wedding vendor or wedding-industry professional Maria and I dealt with when planning our wedding rained on our gay parade. It was a light drizzle compared to the horrific stories I’ve heard from some gays and lesbians. But I was more determined than ever to try to help the members of my family, the LGBT community, be able to plan their weddings — enormously important days when we officially begin our lives as two, not one, with the person we love — without this hate and judgment.

After an intense nine months of research, writing, designing, coding and developing, we launchedEqually Wed, the nation’s premier online same-sex wedding magazine, in March 2010.

At EquallyWed.com, we showcase a myriad of gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgender weddings to serve as inspiration to those planning their own nuptials. In addition, we also offer Local Resources, a marketplace of gay-friendly wedding vendors across the United States, Mexico, Canada and parts of the Caribbean. We now have a team of editors and writers working at EquallyWed.com, bringing same-sex couples the latest in fashion, beauty and grooming for every wonderful sector of our diverse community of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and genderqueer, from the butchest of butch to the most feminine; honeymoon articles written by gay travel journalists who visit destinations to aptly review them for being gay friendly (who wants to worry about getting arrested or beaten on their honeymoon?); a plethora of wedding-planning inspirations for ideas and trends for each special moment on the Big Day and everything surrounding it. Because politics and marriage do mix when you’re gay, we cover the latest news in marriage equality, as well. We produce new posts daily, and later this month, we’re taking our quarterly magazine to monthly issues. Also later this month, we’ll debut our own wedding tools to further help our readers enjoy planning their weddings in an accepting and inspiring environment.

As we continue to grow our company and attract investors, we’ll be able to do more, but I’ve gotta say, I feel pretty good already. Not a week goes by that I don’t get a note of thanks in my email inbox from someone planning their own wedding, a relative of theirs (usually a parent) or a wedding vendor who just wants to say what we’re doing has helped them in some way.

Follow Equally Wed on Twitter: www.twitter.com/equallywed

Published in The Huffington Post: Jan. 25, 2012

Photos: Our Labor of Love

Articles, featured, writing

How optimism has saved my life (and sanity)

I don’t call myself an optimist to self-compliment. It can actually be a curse. I don’t get to wallow in self pity for long. I forgive people way too quickly. I trust others in bad situations, and I put myself in close proximity to toxic people because of my naïve nature, thinking that people will be good if I just give them a chance.

But I’m proud, too, of being an optimist. It’s gotten me through the dark times of my life. Very dark. I have survived a lot: When I was 8, my parents divorced. At age 10, my mother, the county jail nurse, moved a convicted felon straight from the jail into our home. By the time I was 15, I’d been molested by a family friend and then repeatedly gang raped by my boyfriend’s friends for a year and a half—all high school athletes—until numbness overtook me. For the remainder of high school, I acted out in every way possible, demonstrating just how poorly I thought of myself and found myself pregnant in my first year of college, but I lost the baby to a heart-wrenching birth defect. It took me seven years and five schools to graduate college, and I did it all on my own, amassing a huge amount of debt and hangovers and a strong circle of friends who believed in me as much as I did.

Finally, at 25, as I found myself through a career I’d wanted since I was a child reading books and magazines under the covers with my flashlight, I began to blossom, and my optimism, my ability to see the light through any tunnel I’d trudged through, started to do more than just save my life—it enabled me to fully enjoy it.

And that’s when the universe gifted me with Maria, a strong, sincere woman who loves me despite my troubled past and supports me emotionally through the good and bad times. For the next five years, our love bloomed and grew. The moment she proposed to me in Central Park, the day before I turned 30, rushing rivers of happiness plummeted through my body. I couldn’t wait for my father, a man for whom my affection was boundless, to walk me down the aisle.

When he was ripped from my life just 8 months before my wedding, my heart throbbed in a way I never knew possible. My whole chest ached as the loss drenched me. It would be years before I could even speak of him without tears quickly spilling down my cheeks, without warning. By my side through this has been my steadfast wife, but on my other side has been my sweet brother, a man whom I’ve admired and appreciated as a devoted father, a beloved uncle and a really fun comrade. George walked me down the aisle when I married Maria in 2009, and has stood by my side through thick and thin in every way. When my mother and I became estranged before the wedding, George helped me cope with comedic relief (how else are you going to deal with a woman who tells you a week after your dad dies that her responsibility to her children ended when they turned 18?).

It never got much better with me and my mom because every time we were around each other, I would open myself up with a forgiving heart, only to get hurt again (see how that optimism is my Achilles heel?). When my brother became terribly ill with severe acute pancreatitis this past November, it took me 24 hours of serious pep talk to embolden myself with nerves of steel and some serious detachment to put my strained relationship with my mother aside to help my brother. As George’s sickness progressed and he was put into a medically induced coma, my mother’s mental capabilities decreased and I had to take on the role of parent in addition to sibling, taking on all of George’s financial affairs and medical decisions.

It was a 15-week roller coaster of incredulous highs and rock-bottom lows, peppered with a sharp increase of verbal abuse from my mother (winning statements include disowning me and my children and telling me she was sick of me and didn’t want anything to do with me once George recovered), the death of our dog at Christmas, our water heater breaking, the threat of toxic air pumping into our lungs and thus our heat having to be turned off for two days, a close friend of George’s going absolutely mental on me, daily discussions with George’s doctors in ICU and then his horrid rehab facility and then getting him moved back to ICU, all on my own because my mother was essentially just a visitor coming to see George and looking to me to make all of the decisions.

The lowest point of the journey of George’s illness was his rapid decline at the end due to the development of three medically resistant infections. Ten days after he had taken 10 steps, the doctors were speaking to me with heartbreaking phrases such as “it’s time to think about hospice” and “we’re doing him more harm than good” and “he’s on the strongest antibiotics available and they’re not working” and “there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

We moved George into hospice on the last Friday in February. Those were some of the longest days, but they were no longer filled with the constant worry that had troubled me the last 14 weeks. While George was in hospice, I felt that I was watching his spirit being tangibly stilled with peacefulness, and though it was difficult to watch him slowly leave his body, it was an honor to be by his side throughout it all. By Tuesday night, his breathing became so shallow that it woke me up. I’m a heavy sleeper with serious hearing impairment in both ears. But I had watched him breathe for more than an hour before I’d finally given into sleep, only to wake three hours later when his breathing made significant changes. He was gone 30 minutes later, and I laid my head on his strong chest and let out my tears for my sweet brother, just 18 months older than me, with two children of his own, and his entire future wiped out. Poof. Gone. My heart remains broken, and I don’t know when it will be repaired. Maybe it won’t be. I’m not trying to fix it right now.

The family slowly gathered after I made the phone calls around 4:30 a.m., and by 11, the funeral home had come to take George’s body. At a family lunch at noon, my mother threatened the life of her only living child: me. And though I remained calm and polite and invited her to a therapy session with me, inside I knew that in order to protect myself and my own family, I needed to put some distance between us for awhile. Again. It’s not our first go at estrangement after all, and though I might be too forgiving, the time has come to be even more protective of what I have left.

Life will continue to hand out lemons, and though I’m honestly not trying to make lemonade from it, I am still able to enjoy the happiness that life offers, even in the midst of trauma and tragedy. Life is a bounty of smooth and rough patches, and I’m quite certain that it’s better this way, than always being easy with no challenges. Does life suck sometimes? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Do people suck sometimes? Clearly they can. But most of them don’t, and I feel such a connection with the people on this planet, just for the simple fact that we are all in this together, that I haven’t lost any of my faith in humanity. Do I startle easily? Yes. Do I more easily suspect people of child abuse and molestation? All the time. Do I want to make sure my wife drives extra carefully and goes to the doctor once a month to make sure no crazy illnesses are developing? Yes, I’m guilty of now worrying that I might lose her, too.

But I’m not searching for any deep meaning for the reason that I have lost both my brother and my father and have been left with one family member—the one who loves me the least—from my original four-pack, because to me, there’s no good reason. Life just isn’t fair. We enjoy who we are blessed with for as long as we have them. I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the people I have left in my life while enjoying my own existence. I am just happy to still be here.