Thursday, July 2, 2015

Mexican League bus ride.

We were on the bus, a five hour road trip down route 40, through the desert and the low mountains, to Torreon to play a four-game stand against the Vaqueros.

There were about 40 of us on the bus. 40 man-boys on a trip to play ball. 25 were like me, players. And 15 were coaches, equipment men, secretaries and hangers-on. 40 of us bouncing down the open road in the heat and the dust and the smell of 40 men.

I took the seat I usually took, about three in from the front behind the driver. For the most part--though I was a kid of 17, I sat up with the coaches and with Hector Quesadilla, my manager. It wasn't ass-kissing on my part. But to be honest, even back then, I was never one of the guys. 

You can ask anyone who knows me, I've always been more than a little bit diffident, and for the most part, though I got along with everyone, I've always kept to myself. To that end, I had a dog-eared book I was reading, something by Updike, I think, and I was going through it in a desultory fashion, in between bouts of looking out the window at the lack of scenery.

The back of the bus was raucous. German Barojas, a relief pitcher had taken up drumming, and brought three pieces of his drum-set and arrayed it in front of the long bench seat in the back. Leon Cardenez, another bench player, had brought his guitar and the two men played Mexican blues for hours.

Once in a while, Barojas and Cardenez would break into something that sounded vaguely like a popular song, and then the entire back end of the bus would sing and wail, using the handle-end of their bats as a microphone. Some version of "Guantanamera" went on for half an hour, at least, and then one of the boys--it could have been "Angel" Diablo, began with a nasty version of "Barnacle Bill, the Sailor," in gutter Spanish that could make your hair curl.

Quien llama a mi puerta?
Quien llama a mi puerta?
Quien llama a mi puerta?
Dijo la doncella justa!

There's might have been some liquor being passed around in the back, as well. The coaches chose to do what good coaches do. Let the boys blow off some steam and be boys. Besides, we weren't playing on our travel day and weren't scheduled against the Vaqueros Laguna until tomorrow evening.

It went on like this for a good three hours and somewhere along the way, I must have put down my Updike and fallen asleep. I woke up to the bus swerving nearly out of control and bounding through the sand, rocks and dusty shrubs of the Coahuila desert. I could swear as the driver, Edgar "Gordo" Batista tried to wrestle the ancient vehicle to a stop we careened on two wheels to avoid hitting a lonely scrub oak or to avert a calamitous arroyo.

I found out later that Diablo and Barojas, ringleaders always, had climbed through their windows, out of the bus and onto its roof. They then made their way along the roof--this was all as we were heading down the highway at about 60 miles per, to the front of the vehicle. Then, as they reached the front, they leaned down over the front windshield and made faces at the "Gordo," who veered off the road thinking he was being attacked by Mexican aliens.

Finally, the bus hopped to a stop, its brakes at last grabbing hold on the sand, and Diablo and Barojas pounded on the door demanding entrance.

Half the bus was laughing, half were screaming. 

Diablo and Barojas just kept singing.

Well, it's only me from over the sea,
Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor,
I'm all lit up like a Christmas tree,
Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor.
I'll sail the sea until I croak,
Have my wimmen, swear and smoke,
But I can't swim a bloody stroke,
Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor.

The two walked to their seats in, collecting high-fives all the way to the back.

If I'm not mistaken, we took three of four games in Torreon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Old Man and the Sea.

I got a late start on the blog today.

First off, my usual Thursday therapy session, was moved to today. So I got in at 9, instead of my typical 7:30.

Second, I got a three-part assignment shivved on me last night.

First, it was to be done in 24 hours.

Then, it was needed by five.

Finally, the third shoe dropped, and they asked me to have it done by 11.

That's ok.

I like doing stuff like this.

Tough brain power things--like the crossword.

They wake me up and challenge me.

Speaking of which, I got a call last night from my daughter Hannah, who's down living on a sailboat in the Caribbean, where she teaches scuba diving.

They had a storm at sea, and their dinghy broke loose.

There were 40 mph winds and four-meter waves.

She had to jump in and save the dinghy.

She jumped into the sea.

Made her way slowly but inexorably to the craft and strung a towline where the line needed to be strung.

But it broke loose again.

She did it again.

And the lines broke again.

Finally, she judged the risk greater than the reward and returned to her boat.

"That really got my adrenaline flowing," she said to me, my heart in my throat.

I think there's a lot of advertising in that story.

Sometimes, you have to dive in and rescue something.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts it floats away.

I think of all the titles that bounce off the walls in an agency like ions in the Hadron collider, the one that's missing is the one I really deserve.

Chief Fire Putter-Outer Officer.

AJ Liebling, the great "New Yorker" writer once said, "I can write faster than anyone who can write better and better than anyone who can write faster."

I'll concede, I'm not the best creative in the world.

And, to be honest, I don't relish supervising.

But when there's an inchoate mess of ideas and asks on the table, I can usually attach a towline to it and haul it in.

And if I don't, like my daughter says, I got my adrenaline flowing.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Advice from a neurosurgeon.

I just finished reading a book titled "Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery," by a prominent English neurosurgeon named Dr. Henry Marsh. You can check out the book here.

Marsh divides his book into about 25 chapters. And each chapter is his account of a particular disease in a particular patient and his, often futile, attempts to surgically deal with his patients' ailments.

There were many things I found interesting in Marsh's book. Many things, not surprisingly perhaps, I found relevant to our business.

First is the imposition of management on people who already know how to manage. For the most part Marsh runs a pretty tight, if antiquated ship at his hospital. But then the government comes in and imposes its rules and order. Things go off the rails. There are, all at once, a surfeit of nonsensical signs telling people what to do and how to act. There's a grievous bed shortage. And, I would say, thanks to departments like "The Department of Criticism and Compliments" there's an HR-led autocracy that drives independent thinkers fairly up the walls.

All this, of course, is redolent in agencies today. The first thing I had to do when I joined my current job was "attend" two separate online courses. One on data security written at a fourth grade level on 20-year-old software. The second was on sexual harassment. This is how a senior creative is greeted nowadays. Not with a welcome memo, business cards, a free-lunch voucher and a balloon, but with the shrill imperative to eschew groping minxes.

Next came Marsh's admission that much of the surgery he performs is shaded by luck. There's skill of course, and experience, but a small slip, or perception error spells the difference between someone who recovers and someone who slinks deep into a coma.

There's very little, it seems, science in science. And, I believe, even less in advertising despite the proclamations to the contrary.

Finally, there's the need not to be scientific, but to be human. It's easy, I suppose for a neurosurgeon to hide behind a thick coat of jargon and bullshit. It's easy to spout a lot of medical terms and obscure a diagnosis. It's much harder, I think, to tell a patient that she's going to die in six weeks.

No real summation, I guess.

Stay away from management, if you can. Pray for luck. And try to be human.

It couldn't hurt.

Monday, June 29, 2015

My torn right rotator cuff.

My right arm, my throwing arm, which has been injured since late March, 2014 has seemed to make a comeback of sorts.

It was diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff and I made an appointment to have it surgically repaired, but I cancelled at the last moment. I was actively freelancing at the time and didn't want to miss the day rates.

So even though I could barely lift my wing over my head, and even though I suffered from periodic bouts of numbness in the arm, I delayed and delayed.

Around New Year's, when I sojourned to the Caribbean, I swam everyday, swimming through the pain. And while it still hurt, well, to be precise, it hurt less.

I would try to throw overhand when I took Whiskey to the beach or the park, but it was still too painful. However, as I said, the pain was beginning to abate. I could throw a rock or a ball for Whiskey to mark or chase--throwing from my elbow, not my shoulder, and though I'd wince and have to take a couple minutes to recover, I could feel the affected limb coming back.

Around April when I got the invitation to suit up for the Saraperos de Saltillo's Juegos de Viejos, I started going to the park and throwing overhand, loosely, loosely. My arm cried out for a sling after those sessions, but seemed to grow stronger each week.

And this weekend, again at the beach, I would underhand toss Whiskey's fluorescent orange float and she would beckon me to mark where it was with a stone. I'd hit the float with an overhand toss and before long, well, I had made 20 or 30 throws, some as far as a throw from the outfield.

The pain wasn't gone, but it was manageable. I could throw again.

I suppose in this there is a lesson of sorts. Of persevering through the pain. Of slowly recovering. Of not giving in to adversity.

Six years ago tomorrow, I was fired from a place after they had a big loss of business and decided my salary was more than they wanted to pay. As you'd expect, I was scared but I landed at the place and stayed for five years that was just named Agency of the Year in Cannes.

I left there 16 months ago and have spent the better part of the last 12 months at a place that was just named Network of the Year at Cannes.

This, of course, has nothing to do with my torn rotator cuff.

But it has a lot to do, somehow, with not giving up.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Negative copy.

For as long as I've been paid to write (37 years) I secretly held the belief that most people do not know how to read. That is to say, they can read individual words, but they don't understand that reading, as a grown-up, is not about individual words, it's about the linking together of thoughts into a message or argument.

This is abstract, I know. So let me make it clear.

Take the sentence, "Don't step on that landmine."

My experience says most clients would call that sentence "negative," and ask you to change it, partly because it starts with the word "Don't" and partly because it contains the word "landmine."

You try to explain that "don't do something negative" is a positive. But they can't seem to understand that.

So you rewrite it. "Step anyplace you like. But your day will be sunnier if you avoid that anti-personnel device."

They come back with feedback like this. "I like the first sentence, it's empowering. However the second sentence starts with a negative conditional (but) and contains the phrase "anti-personnel," which will probably not get through HR and will test poorly.

You put your nose to the grindstone. "Step anyplace you like. And try to avoid that section which is less than ambient."

Their feedback? Better. But they're still tripping over the negativity of "less than ambient" and the word "avoid," which is also negative.

At this point, it's late, and well-past the time you should be home for what they pay you. So you send back the following: "Have a nice day! :)"

"You've nailed it," they say. "This is great! Thank you!"

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Read this post and support the beleaguered masses.

The latest trend in advertising, it seems, is for brands to support something almost wholly unrelated to what they sell.

Lately, I've seen Chobani yogurt for gay cohabitation.

Angel Soft toilet paper for single moms.

And just this morning, something for Lean Cuisine about why weight doesn't matter.

To my mind, these ads are merely a continuation of the wrong-headed notion that brands are worthy of being our friends, worthy of having conversations with, worthy of really being inherent in our lives.

I'm not really buying this tack.

In fact, I'm not really buying anything these days except for perishables.

I bought a new Mac a year ago when my old Mac died. But I bought a product that serves my purposes better than any other, not some false homily.

Likewise, were I to buy something from Lean Cuisine, or Chobani or Angel Soft, it would be because I like their product. Not because I like some cause they're pretending to be supportive of.

My two cents says that "causifying" every commercial is in essence the new laziness, a new expression of the disdain most clients and most agencies have for the products and services they sell.

When Bank of America bombasts out a message on how they support the arts--like free Shakespeare in the Park, I puke a little bit in my mouth. You're a bunch of tax-dodging, law-breaking malefactors of great wealth who almost brought down the world's economy. Keep your hands off of me and fucking "Hamlet."

Rather than inform me, serve me, and give me something that's better, they try to affiliate me to smithereens.

I kind of sick of all this.

And don't believe any of it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Melville! The Musical.

I had a meeting last night with a Broadway producer called Cy Bliskin.

My wife met his wife at some cocktail party and, as wives do, my wife told his wife that I had written a Broadway musical based on the life of Herman Melville, author of "Billy Budd," and of course, "Moby Dick."

I met Bliskin, of course, at Sardi's. In a minute the old Italian waiter had  brought me the biggest martini I had ever seen.

Bliskin and I clinked glasses and then he cut to the chase.

"A Broadway musical," he said, lighting a cigar as long as a baby's arm. "That takes big money."

"I know," I answered as demurely as I could.

"I produced 'North Dakota' the year before Rodgers and Hammerstein came out with 'Oklahoma.' I tell you this, not to discourage you, but to let you know that the road to the Great White Way is paved with broken dreams."

I took a long draw on my martini. I almost swallowed an olive whole.

He filled the red-velvet room with the smoke from his Cohiba.

"But listen," he said, "I think you have something here. 'Melville, the Musical.' It's gold. It's 'Wicked' for the literary class. Sing me that song you wrote." He motioned to a baby grand in the corner.

I drained the remainder of my martini and headed over to the ivories. I was feeling more than a little lubricated,

I harumphed then began. "This is a song I call 'Where there's a Whale there's a Way,' I began tinkling. "This is something Ishmael sings to open the show," I said.

What was I thinking
When I sea,
Not knowing at all
If this life is for me?

What was I thinking,
When I made this decision,
When I ignored all the laughter,
Ignored the derision?

Oh, where there's a Whale
There's a way.
Where there's the sun,
There's a ray.
Where there's a boat filled with men
There is hope,
Oh, where there's a Whale,
There's a way."

Bliskin led the applause and a few others put down their knives and forks and joined in.

"That's gold," he told me. "Melville! The Musical."

He bought me another martini. We were on our way.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How work gets done. And why.

It happens about eleven times a day, or fifteen.

You're called into a meeting, or someone sends your a powerpoint, or they drop by your desk. Next thing you know, they're off in full gallop. Jabbering a mile a minute. The buzzwords are bouncing off the walls like neutrons in a cyclotron.

And all of this, every last bit of it, is like a jackhammer to your brain.

You don't have the presence of mind to say, "slow down." Or "I don't understand." Or "can you explain this to me."

No, it's all happening so fast, the person speaking is so fervid and convinced, so SURE OF HIMSELF, that you couldn't possibly put the brakes on their diatribe.

And they're so fucking annoying.







So you nod. You smile. Try to make a joke that shows you do, in fact, get it. You do all that.

Just to make them stop.


Then you get in early the next three days and try to figure out what in god's name they were talking about.

Paths of Glory.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Stanley Kubrick's 1957 breakthrough hit, "Paths of Glory," which starred Kirk Douglass, Adolph Menjou and a really outstanding and unheralded Ralph Meeker.

I loved everything about the movie and every performance in it.

But what I liked most of all is how much it reminded me of advertising.

Kubrick basically shows two settings in the flick.

There's the gleaming marble palace which houses the generals and their staff--from which, wholly distant from the battles, the horror, the hardship and the gore, they direct their textbook war.

Then there are  the trenches.

The filthy, rat infested, death-filled, maimed and pus-seeping trenches. They stink. They're life or death.

The two locales barely ever meet.

The soldiers never see the palaces.

The generals never see the soldiers.

More and more this is what's happened in our business.

The lauded, cool and often wispy work that is feted at Cannes has very little to do with what rings cash registers at the agency or, even more aptly, the holding company.

The palace applauds the concept of what their lives and jobs should be. Art. Beauty. Craft. Distance from crass commercialism.

Meanwhile in the trenches, someone has to write a thousand words about a faster server, or a special lease offer that gets the backlogged Daihatsus off the lot.

These are two different worlds. Two different realities. Two different circles that, barely ever, intersect.

The chosen.

The trash.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Monday morass.

There's a new service in New York--a ride sharing service--called Via. Like Uber, you set your pick-up and drop-off destination and a car shows up in five to 10 minutes. You might have to share a ride with a couple other passengers, but that's ok. The fare--even from way East where I live to way West where I work is only $5. About the same speed as a cab for about the same price as the subway.

As a consequence of Via, yellow cabs are easier to get. But no one wants them. They're twice the price or more as a Via. So when you're standing on a corner, it's not unusual to have a yellow cab drive slowly past you and honk. They want you as a fare.

To me, honking cabs--cabs trying with desperation to get your attention is a perfect metaphor for our business.

We no longer want most of the services brands are offering, so rather than offering something we do want, brands just bring on the noise.


At 57, I have stopped for the most part being a consumer.

Verizon and AT&T and T-Mobile and Sprint spend about $6 billion on broadcast. It's meaningless to me. McDonalds and their fast-food ilk spend another couple billion. Also meaningless. The automotive companies spend double digit billions, meaningless.

They can't get my attention, so they shout.

Which drives me further away.

Of course, television networks and stations are complicit in this. Since they no longer get the price they want for commercial time, they lengthen the number of commercials they show, which drives me further away.

Even when I watch something on PBS--allegedly commercial-free, I count a dozen or so commercials. One is usually from a foundation sponsored by the Koch Brothers. The anti-environment, climate-change-denying, reactionary John Birch Koch Brothers.  Dear PBS, if you take their money, you don't need mine.

I guess you could call this a Bad Mood Monday.

That our industry has built a vicious circle of inattention feeding shrill bombast.

No one listens, so let's shout louder.

None of this will be discussed at Cannes. It will be like Badenheim in 1939. As the Germans march in, we complain that our coffee is lukewarm.

Something needs to be done.

That doesn't involve self-praise and cheap trophies.