Wednesday, January 17, 2018

In praise of slow.

If you visit this space with any regularity, you know that of all the world's writers currently putting words down on paper, the one I admire most is Robert Caro.

Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. The Society of American Historians awarded him the Francis Parkman Prize saying, "Caro best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist."

Comparing Caro to David McCullough or Ron Chernow is, IMHO, like comparing Maria Callas to Bobby Sherman. Caro, like Callas, was touched by a god, or at least, a divine genius that makes his work--I'm not exaggerating here--Shakespearean. 

Just yesterday I read an interview with Caro in "The New York Review of Books." You can read the whole thing here; it should take you about 15 minutes.

There were a couple of things in the interview that I think have some bearing even on the sort of writing we do in advertising. 

First, there's this:

"It's a cliche today that people's attention spans are short. You know something? David McCullough's book on Truman is roughly 1,100 pages and it has sold thousands of copies. Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals" is more than 700 pages and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I'm sure Ron Chernow's "Grant" will sell hundreds of thousands, too."

Finally, in a world obsessed by "agility" and speed, there's this:

"My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don't believe this about me: I'm a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

"When I was a student at Princeton, I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I'd give him a short story I'd produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, 'Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want--you think with your fingers.'

"Later, in the early 1960s when I was at "Newsday," my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting "The Power Broker," I realized I wasn't thinking deeply enough. I said, 'You have to slow yourself down.' That's when I remembered Blackmur's admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down."

In this space and when I write copy, I write fast. But more often than not, though I write fast, I've thought about my words for hours and hours before I mark them down. It might look like I'm being rapid. But really, because I don't start writing until the words are in my fingers (that process takes time) I am slow. 

I'm slowed further by being the worst typist on earth. And I think exactly as fast as I type. At least, when I am thinking deeply enough--which I don't always get time to do.

Scary, I suppose.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Simca in the city.

We had out-of-town guests in this weekend, Jewish, and that means the almost obligatory journey down to Katz’s on East Houston Street.

For whatever reason, primarily I suppose because I have unmatched New York City parking karma, we decided, the five of us to fire up my 1966 Simca 1500 and drive down to the legendary deli.

“George will find a parking space,” my ever-loving offered. “He’s amazing, the Michelangelo of municipal meters." Feeling more pressure than I like on a three-day weekend, I shot her a glance. “No, seriously,” she continued, “George’s knack is uncanny.”

Our guests looked doubtful. The last time someone had found a parking space in Manhattan was sometime in 1963, months before Kennedy was killed. How could I possibly find one on the Lower East Side, around a place as crowded at Katz’s.

“Is it true?” our guests asked.

I looked down at my feet, self-effacing like the strong-man in the circus about to ring the bell.

“I’m pretty good,” I admitted. “Today’s a holiday. We’ll see how it goes.”

I steered the car down the FDR and exited on Houston, heading West on the broad avenue. One of my guests saw Katz’s across the street.

“There it is,” he said.

I down-shifted into second and darted right onto East First Street which runs alongside Houston just north of Peretz Square.

We pulled up to a van, and I quickly parallel parked into a perfect spot fewer than 100 yards from the Mecca of pastrami. I fed the meter and within minutes we were within the friendly confines.  

In short order, we navigated the lines at Katz’s and laden with pastrami, corned beef and Dr. Brown’s cream sodas, we settled into a table my wife had somehow secured.

One hour later, after we had each gained about a dozen pounds, my wife had the idea to show our out-of-towners the High Line.

“It’s no problem,” she blustered. “George will find a spot.”

I shot her another look. Finding a space around Gansevoort Street is like finding a Republican who believes ‘all men are created equal.’ Or, worse, that women deserve equal pay.

In any event, I eased the Simca down 12th Street and headed south past thousands of orange and white construction barriers running toward the start of the High Line. In just seconds, I slid in behind a white SUV the size of a mastodon, and the Simca shut off with a cough and then another.

I hustled up the block and tried to decipher the parking regulations written on the white and red sign. They might as well have been written in Cuneiform, but given that there was a meter there, I inserted my credit card and got a little ticket, good for two hours, to park literally spitting distance from the grooved metal stairs that lead up to the elevated park.

"How did you do that?" one of our guests asked. 

"Do what," I non-chalanted.

"The space, at both Katz's and here?"

"There's a thing in New York," I said. "It's called parking karma. You get it when you swerve to avoid hitting people, when you lay off the horn in hospital zones, but mostly when you tip cab-drivers well. Acting like a human, in other words, gives order to the universe."

We strolled, in the frigid air the High Line.

As I would have assumed, my Simca was still there when we returned an hour later.

Parking karma. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Shithole Country.

You want shithole? I'll give you shithole.
Guess which country is:

26th in the world in life-expectancy.
26th in infant mortality.
17th in educational performance.
45th in literacy.
4th (highest) in income inequality.
7th in air quality.
26th in environment.
25th in infrastructure  (behind Oman and Barbadoes.)
11th (highest) in crime.
1st in gun violence.
1st in prison incarceration.

16th (lowest) in corruption.
5th (lowest) in social mobility (among OECD nations.)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The mountains of New York.

One Saturday when I was about seven-years-old, my old man took me mountain climbing. At least he called it mountain climbing, and what did I know? I had hardly ever been further west than Philadelphia, or further north than White Plains.

It was 1964, maybe, before the world was derailed by rampant drugs, and crime, and racial strife and hippies and the chaos—and danger—that tainted so much of my growing up. There was still order in the universe. You could tell there was order because the Yankees were still winning pennants in 1964 with the likes of Whitey Ford still on the mound and Yogi and Mickey still slugging roundtrippers. The Yankees won, when I was a kid, with the regularity of the sun rising in the east or at least the IRT pulling in to 51st Street.

So, one Saturday my old man must have had some work to do at the office, or some secretary to meet illicitly and he reckoned I would, unknowingly of course, be a good beard. We piled in his dusty green 1949 Studebaker and he let me sit in the front seat.

“Son,” he gurgled, “today we ascend to the heights. Today, we blaze in the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hilary. Today, we climb mountains.”

He threw the car into gear and we rattled down the street and across to the park. I had on an old pair of jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and probably a ball-cap and sneakers.

“Is it hard, Dad? I’ve never gone mountain-climbing.”

He laughed and steered the Studebaker around a black-smoke-belching city bus. “A strong boy like you—you have muscles on your muscles,” he said, squeezing my non-existent bicep. “A strong boy like you, you’ll scamper up the escarpment like a mountain goat. You’re a natural.”

In just a few moments we had reached out mountainous destination—a large exposure of Manhattan schist that lifts up in Central Park just north of the zoo at around 65th Street. He parked his car and hustled me across Fifth Avenue against the light. We walked down the asphalt path and up to the fringe of the giant out-cropping.

“Here it is, son,” he said, “New York’s Everest, New York’s Kilimanjaro.” He handed me a brown-paper bag with some lunch in it: a bologna sandwich and a plum. “Look,” he continued, “it’s 10 o’clock now. Your dad has some work to do in the office, I’ll pickya up in a couple hours. Stay right on these rocks and don’t talk to anyone.”

There were other kids around. Some with parents or nannies, some, like me, were alone. They were playing ball, or drawing on the sidewalk with big sticks of dusty chalk, or climbing the rocks, or kicking through the large clumps of pigeons that had congregated where an old man with bread crumbs in a dirty bag was feeding them.

I put my bag of lunch in a crevasse a few feet above where we were standing. It would be safe there, I figured.

My old man kissed me goodbye. And I went off to climb Mount Everest.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Time is on your side. Or should be.

For about thirty years, I've regularly done "The New York Times" crossword puzzle. For about the last ten years, I've confined my efforts to the Sunday puzzle. I've always regarded it as a reward for the week gone by, and a way to relax and unwind.

There's a lesson gained from doing the crossword--an act of problem-solving--that most people and most agencies ignore.

Here's what I mean.

Last Sunday, I got the puzzle and I was stumped. I filled in about eight or 10 easy clues, but with the puzzle just about 10% done, I was stuck, baffled, unable to even hazard a guess.

When this sort of thing happens when you're in your 60s, you immediately think, "Fuck, that's it, I have early onset something. I'm beginning to lose whatever mind I once had."

So, I walked away from the Times, frustrated and a little worried.

Then, after an hour or so, I come back to it. I look at it with fresh eyes. I start seeing things, pulling at strings I hadn't noticed before.

Quickly, I answer 10 more clues, then 20. In just a few minutes I'm 90% done. Then, after another break, I come at it fresh again, and I finish the thing.

Creativity and problem-solving demand distance. They demand time. They demand breathing.

In our ridiculously "agile" world where "scrums" and "swarms" and "sprints" say "do it now," all that is obviated. We solve things half way. And creativity suffers.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Nobody Asked Me, But....Winter edition.

Nobody asked me my periodic doff of the cap to the late-great New York sportswriter Jimmy Cannon. When Cannon could find no topic for his column, he would write one of these—meandering and random, but I hope, fun.

Nobody asked me but….

….nothing’s uglier than the huge piles of monoxide-crusted snow dappled with dogshit that appear on nearly every corner of New York within hours of a snow-storm.

….except maybe Donald Trump’s hair.

….and his personality.

….and his policies.

….if you’ve ever wondered what the metaphor “go piss up a rope” means, try registering a noise complaint with the City.

…As half our business calls TV dead, “The Wall Street Journal” reports “Era of Peak TV Continues With 487 Scripted Shows in 2017.”


….Targeted digital ads make me feel like a target.


….No one wants to feel like a target.


….I don’t trust anyone tells me “I’ll get back to you.”


….I can’t help it, if you don’t wear a hat in the winter a) don’t complain about the cold and b) I think you dress like a fool.


…I get how “Fearless Girl” helped McCann’s business. I don’t see how it helped State Street’s.


…Christmas lights should be down by now.


…Or leave them up for Martin Luther King Day and cut your losses.


…I still don’t understand why more people don’t boycott racist-enabling Fox—including sports—on Fox. Folks, you’re giving money to people who support evil.


….During the morning rush-hour in deepest winter, I think garbage trucks out-number pedestrians.


….Given the amount of garbage in New York, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


…Speaking of garbage, Donald Trump.