Friday, October 21, 2016

Remembrance of things past.

My first three proper jobs in the world, as a game room attendant in a large municipal amusement park, as the night clerk in a downtown Chicago liquor store, and as a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward catalogue, all had something in common.

I punched a clock.

In in the morning. Out in the evening. 

There was something very equitable about having to punch a clock. For one, you got paid for the hours you worked. Two, when you punched out, dammit, you were out.

There was "company time," then there was your time. Time when you were "off the clock."

The way the world works now (this is one of the reasons how the moguls at the tippy tippy top of the pyramid can give themselves $100 million in compensation not including their $44 million retirement parachutes) we never punch out. 

Even though the charade of timesheet tyranny has us accounting for 1875 hours a year, most of us are "on" double that amount of time.

Worse, for relationships with significant others, with friends, with family, with self is we never hear anymore that assertive mechanical punch on your timecard. The stamp that says, I'm out.

My guess is that 94% of my friends and colleagues, when they do finally leave their desks at night, check their phones while waiting for the elevator, again on their way to the train, and about six times while on the train. Then the moment they get home, they log on again and see what they're missing.

There are many things that lead to the great dismal swamp of mushy creative.

Maybe the absence of time clocks--of punching out at the end of the day and being out--is just one more.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Old joke for a new morning.

I had my regular Thursday psycho therapy (two words) this morning. My therapist and I have been seeing each other for well-over 20 years. I like to joke that I’ve had so much therapy in my life, I am actually featured on the 12 pfenning Austrian stamp.

We were talking, as we do, two men who have known each other for a large part of our adult lives. Two old men who are growing older together. When you’re old, chronologically anyway, you run out of age peers to talk to. So many of my long-ago friends have scattered to the winds, and in an agency—where I spend so much of my time—I sometimes feel as anachronistic as an IBM Selectric typewriter, and therefore, alone.

In any event, pertaining to what we were talking about, my therapist reminded me of a joke I had told him many years before. I’ll retell that joke here:

An old Jewish man is lying on his deathbed. He’s lived a long life, and a good one. He’s been married 59 years and has a loving helpmeet of a wife.

It’s coming to an end, he knows, and that’s ok. His life has been a good one. As he lay in bed waiting for the final close of his eyes, he has no regrets.

All at once, he smells a smell emanating from his wife’s newly renovated and obscenely expensive kitchen. It is a smell that is to aroma what ambrosia was to the tastebuds of the gods.

A son comes in, for a final kiss.

“Your mother is making apple strudel,” the old man says. “There’s nothing in the world I love more than apple strudel. Tell your mother that before I die—“


“Before I die,” he mumbled. “Before I die, a small piece of your mother’s strudel I would like. A small piece.”

Thinking about the strudel, the old man brightened. The film on his wizened eyes seemed to evaporate. His lips formed into a smile.

The son came back in the room two minutes later.

“You have for me a piece of strudel?”



“No. Mom wants me to tell you, she’s saving it for the Shiva.”

Banking and the Brotherhood of Baseball.

Chicago, Hog Butcher to the World, City of Broad Shoulders, is in the grips of a not inconsiderable case of Baseball Fever.

The North Side's Cubbies--without a World Series title since William Howard Taft was President--are by many accounts baseball's best team this season. They're currently knotted two games apiece with the Dodgers of Los Angeles. The winner of their best-of-seven series will face the Cleveland Indians in what Ring Lardner's rook used to call, "The World Serious."

It goes practically without saying that the town ol' Blue Eyes sang about, is fairly bursting at the seams, pulling for the Baby Bears to go all the way.

There's a very smart man I know who lives in Chicago. Let's call him Marty. He helps me handle some of the money I've accumulated over the years--and like Garrett Morris' Chico Escuela used to say on Saturday Night Live in the mid-70s, Marty's been "berry berry good to me."

Marty works for a financial firm called UBS. He sent me this snapshot yesterday from his office.

Here's a replica I made for clarity's sake:

Like I said, the whole of Chicago--even bankers--are turning out for the Cubs.

Win this one for Ernie. For Fergie. For Billy Williams. And Ron Santo. Win this one.

And in 2017, let's make it two.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Daily Dose of Dumb.

I read a breathtakingly-asinine quotation the other day, this one from a guy called Andrew Bruce who's CEO of Publicis, North America.

I have nothing against either the agency or the man, but I do rail, often, against mindless babble--an agenda posing as reality.

Publicis, I've just read in "Interior Design" magazine, not only has no offices anymore, they have no assigned desks. 

Apparently they also want to do away with "authority."

This, to my mind, is the height of dumb.

Because I'm old-fashioned. And I believe people--and this is written in our evolutionary code--need quiet, a space they can call our own and leadership.

(It wasn't long-ago, that many hailed Howard Schultz of Starbucks for recognizing that people needed a 'third place.') 

The magazine said of Publicis' new desk-less/wall-less space: 

"The desire for an “open concept” environment originated with CEO Andrew Bruce. 'We’re a communications agency, and we need to break down the walls that prevent com­municating,' Bruce explains. 'When people have an office, they’re at their desk all day, blasting out e-mails.' Spatial equality, he believes, sends a message: 'Don’t respect authority—respect intelligence. Ideas matter.'"

It strikes me as perhaps the apotheosis of dumb for a person who decides to append the initials CEO before his name to say, "don't respect authority."

Then, drop the title.

As for the idea that offices are to blame for the blasting out of emails, I will gladly send Title-less Bruce a screen-grab of my email box. We have no walls where I work. Believe me, people have no problem blasting away. 

Then there's the idea that walls prevent communicating. I wonder how much better DDB would have been in the 60s if they had Helmut Krone sitting at a communal office space.

If wall-less-ness is responsible for Publicis' "Dare Greatly" Cadillac work, I know where you can get some drywall, cheap.

You've heard of Virginia Woolf?

She wrote "A Room of Her Own."

Not "A Chair at a Communal Space."

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Haiku on working till midnight.

Late at night at work,
In the bathroom, don't wash up.
There are no towels.

Some timeless writing from another time.

Yesterday in my meanderings, I happened upon a column by the great New York sports writer, Red Smith.

My old man—Uncle Slappy’s younger brother—for all his failures, short-comings, peccadilloes and foibles, did good for me in a couple of ways. Perhaps most important, he was an inveterate reader of “The New York Times,” and accordingly, he introduced me to many of the great writers of the 20th Century. Forced me to read them, if you must know, like forcing vitamins down a colt’s throat in winter.

We’d be fairly quizzed by my father. “Didja read Red Smith today? Didja read Scottie Reston? Didja read Flora Lewis, Ada Louise Huxtable, Thomas Wicker?” Most of all, my old man fairly swatted me with “The New York Times Book Review,” like a cruel owner a recalcitrant dog. He believed that the Book Review contained the best writing—and the greatest ideas—of just about anything you could buy for a buck.

But at the top of my father’s personal pantheon was Red Smith. Which brings me to today’s post.

Yesterday, as I labored to write more manifestos than you can shake a timesheet at, I remembered this quotation by Smith: “Writing is easy. You just sit at the typewriter, open a vein and bleed.”

That quote led me to an article on Smith and his prowess. In it they noted that Smith had the only journalism included in a famous College Literature anthology. Smith’s column, the one below, was nestled between an essay by Winston Churchill and a story by Dylan Thomas. Good company for a writer.

The column was written after a rising young Rocky Marciano knocked out a fading Joe Louis, 12-years a champ, in the eighth round in the old Madison Square Garden, on the site of Ogilvy’s old HQ.

Here’s the article. Maybe it's the last paragraph that got to me.

In any event, do my old man proud, and give it a read.

"Night for Joe Louis”
by Red Smith

Joe Louis lay on his stomach on a rubbing table with his right ear pillowed on a folded towel, his left hand in a bucket of ice on the floor. A handler massaged his left ear with ice. Joe still wore his old dressing-gown of blue and red—for the first time, one was aware of how the colors had faded—and a raincoat had been spread on top of that.

This was an hour before midnight of October 26, 1951. It was the evening of a day that dawned July 4, 1934, when Joe Louis became a professional fist fighter and knocked out Jack Kracken in Chicago for a fifty-dollar purse. The night was a long time on the way, but it had to come.

Ordinarily, small space is reserved here for sentimentality about professional fighters. For seventeen years, three months, and twenty-two days Louis fought for money. He collected millions. Now the punch that was launched seventeen years ago had landed. A young man, Rocky Marciano, had knocked the old man out. The story was ended. That was all except—

Well, except that this time he was lying down in his dressing-room in the catacombs of Madison Square Garden. Memory retains scores of pictures of Joe in his dressing room, always sitting up, relaxed, answering questions in his slow, thoughtful way. This time only, he was down.

His face was squashed against the padding of the rubbing table, mulling his words. Newspapermen had to kneel on the floor like supplicants in a tight little semicircle and bring their heads close to his lips to hear him. They heard him say that Marciano was a good puncher, that the best man had won, that he wouldn’t know until Monday whether this had been his last fight.

He said he never lost consciousness when Marciano knocked him through the ropes and Ruby Goldstein, the referee, stopped the fight. He said that if he’d fallen in mid-ring he might have got up inside ten seconds, but he doubted that he could have got back through the ropes in time.

They asked whether Marciano punched harder than Max Schmeling did fifteen years ago, on the only other night when Louis was stopped.

“This kid,” Joe said, “knocked me out with what? Two punches. Schmeling knocked me out with—musta been a hunderd [sic] punches. But,” Joe said, “I was twenty-two years old. You can take more then than later on.”

“Did age count tonight, Joe?”

Joe’s eyes got sleepy. “Ugh,” he said, and bobbed his head.

The fight mob was filling the room. “How did you feel tonight?” Ezzard Charles was asked. Joe Louis was the hero of Charles’ boyhood. Ezzard never wanted to fight Joe, but finally he did and won. Then and thereafter Louis became just another opponent who sometimes disparaged Charles as a champion.

“Uh,” Charles said, hesitating. “Good fight.”

“You didn’t feel sorry, Ezzard?”

“No,” he said, with a kind of apologetic smile that explained this was just a prize fight in which one man knocked out an opponent.

“How did you feel?” Ray Arcel was asked. For years and years Arcel trained opponents for Joe and tried to help them whip him, and in a decade and a half he dug tons of inert meat out of the resin.

“I felt very bad,” Ray said.

It wasn’t necessary to ask how Marciano felt. He is young and strong and undefeated. He is rather clumsy and probably always will be, because he has had the finest of teachers, Charley Goldman, and Charley hasn’t been able to teach him skill. But he can punch. He can take a punch. It is difficult to see how he can be stopped this side of the heavyweight championship.

It is easy to say, and it will be said, that it wouldn’t have been like this with the Louis of ten years ago. It isn’t a surpassingly bright thing to say, though, because this isn’t ten years ago. The Joe Louis of October 26, 1951, couldn’t whip Rocky Marciano, and that’s the only Joe Louis there was in the Garden.

That one was going to lose on points in a dreary fight that would have left everything at loose ends. It would have been a clear victory for Marciano, but not conclusive. Joe might not have been convinced.

Then Rocky hit Joe a left hook and knocked him down. Then Rocky hit him another hook and knocked him out. A right to the neck followed that knocked him out of the ring. And out of the fight business. The last wasn’t necessary, but it was neat. It wrapped the package, neat and tidy.

An old man’s dream ended. A young man’s vision of the future opened wide. Young men have visions, old men have dreams. But the place for old men to dream is beside the fire.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Life lessons, lox and Uncle Slappy.

Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie left yesterday, returning to Boca after having stayed with my wife and I for almost three weeks. They came up for Rosh ha-Shanah and originally intended to leave the day after Yom Kippur—ten days later. But Hurricane Matthew interfered and they extended their stay.

They’re pushing 89 now, and while they’re well and hale, I’m smart enough to realize that they won’t be around forever. So, as much as they begin to rub my goat the wrong way after a while, and as much as our 1,500 square begins to feel awfully crowded before long, well, I count to ten and grin and bear it. Because like I’ve said so many times before, Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy are not getting any younger.

I had a boatload of work to do this weekend. Work that demanded quiet and concentration and long-stretches of “alone-time.” Of course, my wife had other plans. As did Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie.

On Saturday, at my distaff’s behest, we headed to that great Jewish institution on the Upper West Side: Shun Lee West for dinner. I had gotten up at four Saturday morning to put in a few hours of writing, but I feared, I was not even half-way finished.

We sat down to dinner and had the conversation Jews have at almost every meal.

“You ordered too much,” Aunt Sylvie said.

“Tell them we don’t need the prawns,” added Uncle Slappy.

But the food came—served by obsequious Chinese men in dark red shirts and black pants and vests, matching the décor. In short order, with a flurry of be-chop-sticked hands, the entirety was gone, save for one clump of broccoli that was leftover, just to show we had some restraint.

Dinner over, the four of us walked over to the Metropolitan Opera to hear Rossini’s Opera Buffa—a “drama giocoso,” a play with jokes, “The Italian in Algiers.”

While my tastes sometimes run to the gotterdamurung-ing of Richard Wagner—where the whole world is coming to a fiery end virtually every twenty minutes, the Rossini was frothy and funny and the old man stayed awake for its entirety. Score one for Rossini.

Uncle Slappy has this to say about opera, a quip I have appropriated as my own: “After Wagner, everything else, even a root canal, is a sitcom.” Nothing you’re likely to see or do in your life demands more sitzfleisch that Wagner—even the writing I continued at midnight when I returned to my apartment.

Uncle Slappy saw me hacking away at the keyboard as he readied himself for bed.

“You work too hard, boychik.”

“I know,” I answered stupidly, “I haven’t figured out how not to.”

He gave me a kiss goodnight on the forehead and gripped my left shoulder.

“You’re a good man, boychik. Even if you are too dumb to say ‘no.’”

You don’t always appreciate wisdom when you hear it, but Uncle Slappy, as usual struck a chord, and I called it a night at around 3AM. 80% done.

The next morning, I was up after just three hours sleep at 6. I had promised Uncle Slappy brunch at Barney Greengrass “The Sturgeon King,” and I wanted to not have work hanging over me any more.

By nine I was done, and the two of us got into a yellow cab and found a table at the venerable deli.

“The décor has stayed the same for 50 years,” Uncle Slappy said upon entering the joint. “The wallpaper they don’t know how to change,” he continued, “the prices, they keep up to date.”

In short order, one of the last Jewish waiters in New York came over to take our order.

“On an onion bagel dark toasted,” the old man began, “I’ll have belly lox, and onion and light butter.”

The waiter was startled. No one orders belly lox anymore. Everything has gone upscale even lox. Today people order the less-salty Nova Scotia Salmon.

“You mean Novie,” the waiter corrected.

“No, I mean lox. Belly lox. I haven’t had a real lox and bagel since it went out of vogue. I am at the world’s epicenter of Jewish fish and I want no more effete, affected fish. I want belly lox.”

Still the waiter didn’t let go.

“It’s salty,” he said, as if he had a blood-pressure monitor in his three-pocket apron.

“I know it’s salty. I know also where there’s smoke there’s salmon.”

The waiter laughed at that and returned in ten minutes with the sandwich exactly as the old man ordered it.

Uncle Slappy took a generous bite.

He closed his eyes and seemed to stop breathing.

Finally, he returned from heaven to earth.

“Perfect, this is,” he said, foisting a bite on me. It was indeed perfect.

“Why have we done this to ourselves? Making everything so healthy that nothing anymore has any flavor? For now on, I am 89, I eat lox. Belly lox.”

We finished our sandwiches, bought two black and white cookies for the cab ride home and then picked up Aunt Sylvie and my wife. The four of us drove to LaGuardia for their return flight home.

“You’ll be ok,” I asked after we hugged and kissed goodbye.

“We’ll be ok,” the old one answered. “With that lox in my stomach,” he said kissing me again, “what could possibly go wrong.”

We watched the two of then walk slowly into the giant airport and disappear amid the crowds.

I had a craving for lox. Belly lox.