Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The tyranny of short.

If you're a copywriter--any kind of writer, I assume, though I am only a copywriter--you hear about 10 or a dozen times an hour that you need to make your copy shorter.

"There's too much copy."

"It looks like a lot of copy."

"Can you cut the copy."

When I write a piece of copy, I always throw a couple of jokes in. Little risible bits just to keep things moving along, just to make sure things don't get as serious as a tomb.

It's my way of keeping the reader or the viewer on her toes. Keeping her awake. Giving her something, hopefully amusing or entertaining or educational for the time she's giving to me.

Last night I re-watched the first 20 minutes of the great Frank Capra movie, "Meet John Doe," written by one of the best screenwriters ever, Robert Riskin. It was all I could do to tear my way away from the set, but I was as tired as the Bataan Death March and needed my sleep.

In any event, Walter Brennan makes his damning "Helot" speech in it about the state of our fucked up world. In it he says, "I know the world's been shaved by a drunken barber."

It occurred to me how easy it would have been to cut that line from the script, or edit it out of the scene. It added nothing to the plot, and little extra to Brennan's character.

But what a line, what a perfect line. Full of wisdom, cynicism, pain, sadness and humor.

Sometimes good writing, good copy has to have room to breathe. Sometimes, it pays to give talented people the space to show off a bit, like Michael Jordan pump-faking on a breakaway dunk. You don't always have to go straight for the basket.

But, as always, I am vox clamatis in deserto.

A voice crying in the desert.

Shaved by a drunken barber.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A tough stretch in Saltillo.

As a rule it doesn’t rain much in Saltillo, Mexico in the summer. But 40 years ago, as I manned third-base for the Saraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League, it was positively diluvian.

As a consequence of the rain, as our long-season limped to its sad conclusion (we were entrenched in next to last place, four games in front of the Sultanes de Monterrey and five games behind the Toros de Tijuana) we had a spate of make-up games to play, forcing us to play 11 games in just one week: two double-headers, three single games, and two more double-headers.

I don’t know what it’s like working in a coal mine with a pickaxe for hours on end, or working on an assembly line, or doing hard manual labor. A ballgame is different. There’s maybe 45-seconds any one individual does in any ballgame. Unless you’re  a catcher or a pitcher, there’s about 45 seconds of running, throwing, swinging.

A lot more time is standing around of course, more, even, sitting around. A fair amount of kibitzing and a giant portion of ragging and scratching. Still 11 games in just seven days fairly ground us to a smooth nub.

Mostly it started the way these things almost always start. Arulfo would be on the bench during a game next to Cespedes and he’d poke Cespedes in the ribs. Cespedes would brush his hand away. Arulfo would redouble his efforts. Before long Arulfo had poked one time too many and the two were rolling in the dust, squaring off trying to club each other with Louisville Sluggers.  

It was like that times the 25 guys on the team. As the youngest guy on the squad, only an ersatz Mexican and Hector’s putative hijo, I was fairly immune from such. That said, at dinner one evening German Barojas, who three seasons after I left Saltillo got called up to Detroit and wound up marrying and divorcing Karmen Rodriguez, hid a baseball in a heap of mashed potatoes and gravy on my plate at dinner.

Usually when ragging stuff like that happened, someone put cockroaches in your bed or Ben-Gay in your jock or glue in your hairbrush, I had enough personal wherewithal to walk away. That mashed potato dinner was different, at least that evening. Like the Hands of Orlac, I found mine gripping Barojas’ neck and threatening to choke him to death.

“Fuck you, Barojas.”

“No, fuck you.”

Generally the discourse degenerated from there.

11 games in seven days meant everyone hated each other. Players hated, coaches hated, batboys hated. Even Hector Quesadilla who was blessed with equinimity the likes of which I haven’t seen since Mother Teresa died, or since that summer 40 years ago, was frazzled to a fine crisp.

I read somewhere that the great Yankee perfesser, Casey Stengel, once said “the secret to managing is keeping the 10 guys who hate you away from the 15 who are undecided.” Well, in this Hector had a lost cause. Everyone hated each other, everyone hated him, everyone hated the stupid league we played in and the game we had dedicated our lives to.

A typical conversation would go like this:

“Their pitcher telegraphs his curve. Watch how his elbow tucks in,” one player would say to another.

“Fuck you,” would be the invariable response.

Soon a gaggle of men would be standing in the dugout, groups of six, maybe, squaring off, teetering just millimeters from a full-blown donnybrook.

11 games in seven days, and we lost the first four, dropping both ends of a double-header twice. My bat had all but vanished and as a rag, someone, I don’t know who, had taken all my lumber from the bat rack in the dugout, hidden my wood and replaced it with an old fly-swatter they had stolen from some down-at-the-heels Holiday Inn in Campeche or somewhere.

We won our next two games, leaving us at 2-4 for the stretch and then proceeded to drop the next four by a combined score of something like 50-10. They were out-and-out slaughters, which only raised the tension and the rancor in the clubhouse.

Our last game, our 11th, before a day-off started inauspiciously at best. “Brutus” Cesar, our fleet centerfielder was leading off. Adame in the on-deck circle called as Cesar stepped up.

“Brutus, you suck.”

Cesar stepped out.

“Fuck you, Adame.”

“No. Fuck you.”

In seconds, the two were sprawled on the ground and our bench was empty with a dozen guys backing Cesar squaring off against the dozen guys backing Adame.

Hector had had enough. He ran out to the imbroglio grabbing the first thing he could put his hands on, a 10-lb sack of sunflower seeds. He began swatting at the boys with the bag and yelling, “Parada, pollo cabrones.” “Enough chicken fuckers.”

At the exact moment Hector said pollo cabrones, Hector’s bag of sunflower seeds split, spilling thousands of seeds everywhere and sending Adame and Cesar ass over teakettle onto the dirt.

The 4,000 or so fans in the stands were clustered predominately behind home and saw the whole shebang. Naturally, they picked up on ‘pollo cabrones’ and began chanting it in an elongated fashion.

Whatever, the pollo caabrones fight broke the tension of the week. For the rest of the game we were loose again, slapping each other on the back with a hearty greeting of chicken fuckers.

I think we scored 12 runs that last of 11 games, going into a much-needed day off, and we won like a good thoroughbred, going away.

Or rather, we won like a bunch of chicken fuckers, flapping our weary wings away.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Washing windows.

It was another one of those weekends.

Another one of those mornings.

I was in with the window-washers.

Long before the guy who makes the coffee.

As Frank Loesser wrote,

"My time of day is the dark time
A couple of deals before dawn,
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with a mop,
And the grocery clerks are all gone."

That ain't bad.

As poetry.

I don't mind being in with the window-washers.

That's what I do.

Wash windows.

Usually the grunt work that the effete can't do.

You can't think about it too much. You drop the brush in the water and swipe clean. Then you move onto the next panes of glass.

Work that needs to be done.

Not glamorous.

But better than pigeon shit obscuring your view.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Cool. Back when.

The Times ran an article yesterday called "When Airlines Looked Cool and Showed It." You can read it here. And below, a few of the 33 posters in the slideshow.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


After nearly two weeks in a "Hot House" and a night last night that went almost to dawn, I slept in today and am slowly returning to the land of the living.

The first thing I did when I finally woke up was take a long walk along the river. I don't believe creativity is served if you are sequestered from sunlight. If you are shackled to a table and stink-eyed if you need to get out and walk.

As Yogi Berra might have said, 'you can observe so much by seeing,' but instead we were heads down in a sticky loft of iniquity peering deep, with electron microscopes, into our collective navels. Not an interesting view, or a good one, or one conducive, I think, to creative elan.

That said, I can't be wholly dismissive of the process either. It demands forced concentration. It brings in people from different entities who carry the banners of different disciplines and who trumpet different points of view.

I think all that's good. I think that part of the process produced a good amount of ideas. Which was the whole point in the first place.

Last night, the last couple of night actually, when work had to be writ, comped, proofed and revised, I thought of a World War II hero (and later Vietnam villian), head of the US Air Force, General Curtis LeMay.

I have a bit, or more than a bit of LeMay in me.

He earned the nickname "Old Iron Ass" for his ability to sit on his keister and grind out work for hours on end. I did a little bit of that for the last two weeks.

It's over now.

I think the work was pretty good and I hope it goes well.

I hope to return to the living soon.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The pitch.

For the past month, a group of about 60 of us from literally around the world, have been holed up in a lavish Soho loft working on a giant pitch.

Today, we had our big presentation to The National Caper Board (NCB). Three fully-blown out campaigns, with TV, print, radio, mobile ads, activation, video case studies, landing pages, outdoor and sundry other channels represented.

I worked on all three of the campaigns we presented.

1) Capers. The salt of the Earth.  And,
2) Start a Caper caper. And finally...
3) Be more Caper-ble.

To say we blew the client away would be an understatement. We made them laugh, we made them cry. We even made them think.

No decision yet on the pitch.

BBDO goes tomorrow.

Wieden on Friday.

It's big, this one.

Fingers crossed.

One night, long ago in Saltillo.

The first pitch I saw as a rookie third-baseman for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League 40 years ago this summer, came in big as a grapefruit, up and out over the plate. I couldn't have called for a fatter meatball. It was right in my power and I swatted it hard to right-center, between their rightfielder and their centerfielder and it hit the green plywood wall on one bounce, right beneath the large white numbers that read: 404, then below that in slightly smaller type, the distance in meters, 123.

There was no play at second, and no chance to making my hit a triple, but I took a pop-up slide into second nonetheless, mainly just to get my flannels dirty. I could hear in my head my old high school coach, Coach Babich yelling at me to do so. Babich didn't believe you were in the game, that you were in it to win, unless you looked like you stepped out of a 1934 photograph of the St. Louis Cardinals' 'Gas House Gang.'
Four dusty Cardinals of the 1934 'Gas House Gang.'

I obliged Babich's voice and stood like De Soto looking at the Mississippi on second. There was a smattering of applause from the Saltillo crowd, a smaller canape of the same from our bench. I had just joined the team that morning and none of the boys knew me yet.

Clemente Bonilla, our big rightfielder was next to the plate and he smacked another opposite field hit, a seeing-eye grounder that dribbled slowly between the first and second basemen of the Tabasco Olmecs. 

When I saw Bonilla's hit going through, and the Olmec rightfielder playing deep, I went full around third, saw the third-base coach waving me in and I scored my first professional run just two or four minutes after tagging my first professional hit.

If I had had parents, or anyone back home in New York who cared, I would have written a postcard. "Dear Mom and Dad," I scribbled in my head. "A double in my first at bat. A run scored a minute later. Major Leagues, watch out."

But I had no one to write to, seldom have. I've always been as lonely as an ice floe, and I like it that way.

To be honest, I don't remember much of the rest of the game. You don't remember your second of anything like you remember your first, and the rest of the evening seemed to pass without event. I've tried to look up the boxscore on the internet. But the Mexican Baseball League was a ramshackle affair in those days--as were most Mexican newspapers, and I haven't been successful in finding an archive that would help me recall the subsequent happenings on that day in June, 1975.

I got back to the dugout that evening, having gotten a hit, having scored a run, and a few of my teammates introduced themselves, welcomed me and shook my hand. Later on that night, our stubbly catcher Isael Buentello sat down next to me on the pine. 

Issy put his arm around my shoulder. "You are welcome here," he said slowly in English. "Thank you," I said to him, tentatively in Spanish. Soon, he became my first and closest friend. He and my manager Hector Quesadilla, well, I became their little brother, or their little son.

I'm not sure why these thoughts are washing back to me now.

Maybe it's that I am beginning to feel at least partially settled in a new job, with a new bunch of people. Maybe I feel like they know or are beginning to know--after two of the most intense weeks of my working life--that I can hold my own at the plate, that I can line a double that makes the fence on one bounce, that I can field my position, run the bases, dust-up my uniform. 

That I can, strange as it may seem, be one of the 'guys.' One of the go-to guys.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


While playing third base for the Seraperos de Saltillo for one season in the Mexican Baseball League, one thing I learned is that it seems, at least sometimes, that waiting is about 80% of life.

As a ballplayer, you're nearly always waiting. Waiting for a game to start or a rain delay to end. Waiting for a ball to be hit your way. Waiting for your turn at bat. Waiting, even, for the pitcher between pitches.

Though I last played ball "for serious" when I was 17, before I enrolled in Columbia University in the City of New York, it's safe to say at that early age, I had earned my Masters Degree in waiting.

It was during that summer, a full 40 years ago, that I invented and became the all Mexican Champion at a game I called rafter ball.

The clubhouse had exposed 2x6 rafters crissing and crossing the ceiling. While we waited for this or for that, two or four of us would position ourselves underneath a rafter which ran about four feet over our heads. Underhand one of us would toss a baseball up toward the rafter. If it missed, that was an out. If the ball bounced on the rafter once, it represented a single. Twice, a double. Three times, a triple. Four times, a homer. And if the baseball somehow stayed on the rafter, it was an automatic grand slam.

We could play rafter ball literally for hours. We'd play with real imaginary rosters. Games that would go on for hours. Longer than real live human being games. Money, of course, would be bet. Tempers would flare. Time would be passed. Which was, after all, the whole point.

Today, like I said, it's 40 years later.

We are often sent off to do ridiculous tasks at ridiculous speed.

Then, of course, we wait for ridiculous feedback.

Rafter ball anyone?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Two sentences.

I ran across the sentences below in an email from "The New Yorker," announcing the publication, late next month of a new collection of writing from the really very surpassing writer Joseph Roth. You can read the whole piece here. And I think it's worth it. 

I've read a lot of Joseph Roth in my day, and I suppose he's in the top three of Roths out there. He's not Philip--the Roth who stands head and shoulders above all other Roths--read "Portnoy's Complaint" if you doubt that. And Joseph probably falls in behind, just barely, Henry Roth, whose "Call it Sleep," is pretty damn good.

Joseph specialized in feulletons. Little incidental marginalia. Still I regard his "What I Saw," as one of the great books of early pre-Hitlerite Europe.

But back to the sentence at hand:

"On Sundays the world is as bright and empty as a balloon. Girls in white dresses wander about the streets like so many church bells, all smelling of jasmine, sex, and starch."

When my younger daughter was about 15 or 16, I taught her to drink espresso as it should be drunk. Let a drop on your tongue, like ambrosia, and let its flavor spread over your palate.

That's how I feel about Roth's sentence. Each word or phrase is perfect and evocative. Let it sit on your tongue for a while.

Achy Monday.

On Thursday afternoon, after what seemed like 96 straight hours in this giant brainstorm somebody deemed a hothouse, I felt a itchy in my throat and a burning in my eyes. By Friday this had advanced into a full-blown summer cold and by the time I woke up this morning, I was dizzy, disoriented, sick as a dog and dreading the 65-step ascent to the particle-board table I am working at with four or six other people.

I'm not sure who conceived of the idea that four or five dozen people in close confines in an unventilated apartment rife with too much noise and too few bathrooms would be conducive to productive thought. But it probably wasn't a person charged with doing the thinking. I'm 99% sure the people who come of with innovations like these never have to live with innovations like these. And more often than not, no one has the nerve to tell them that the wretched little creatures suffering under conditions like these are none-too-happy about it.

Nevertheless, I made it here, sweaty and achy and fairly disoriented at 8:20. There are just a couple more days and nights of this. Of course they promise to be late and riven by the effects of this illness that is having its way with me.

That's all right, really.

It's life and work and all that.

Still, I wish, as they say, I coulda stood in bed.