Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Another early morning.

Once again I am up before the sun, with the milkmen, as if there are any left, with the farmers, as if there are any left.

Sometimes, I admit, I wonder, how much of me is left.

I think about all the things I have to do at work, and all the books I want to write and, more-so, all the books I want to read and then I look at the money I have saved through the years, and consider the money my wife has saved, then I think about the value of our almost-paid-for apartment--three bedrooms--on the Upper East Side, and I say to myself, "really. Really, must you?"

Then maybe I close my eyes for another 20 seconds and think about how my wife has long-life in her family and I don't want her destitute and eating Little Sheba at the age of 97, and I peel myself from beneath the 800-counts and hi-ho, it's off to work we go.

This is not to say I don't love what I do. Even the berating by infamous directors, even the long days and longer nights of 'do it over again,' or 'it's not right, yet,' or 'there are seven more things to do.'

I do love all that, and even the tedium, that feels like staring at a cellblock wall sometimes and counting chalk lines that mark the long passage of time.

So, as Con Ed--the electric company--used to post everywhere as they dug up and rewired the New York I grew up in, "Dig We Must," and so, I grab a shovel, which in my case is a late model Mac Book and head down into the mines.

Yes, I will never get black lung.

But these black moods? 

Those I can do nothing about.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Longing for Longfellow.

I had intended to take the day off today--I am in Boston with my eldest daughter--but work reared its ugly rear.

So I am sitting in a hotel room (a nice one) waiting for my colleagues to arrive. Then we will spend the next 48-hours or so banging our thumbs with hammers.

However, through the fastidious good graces of my wife, we did have an hour this morning off the clock. We drove to Cambridge and visited the great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's house.

Longfellow lived there in the 1840s through the end of his life. And wrote those poems I had bludgeoned into me as a child within the house's well-appointed four walls. "Paul Revere's Ride," "The Village Blacksmith," and one of my old-man's favorites, "The Children's Hour."

In a previous incarnation, the George Washington had made the house his headquarters during the Siege of Boston in 1775 and 1776.

There was a lot of history and lore there.

Of course, while sightseeing, my phone was ringing off the hook like a drop of water on a red-hot griddle.

There's no rest for the wicked.

Maybe I'm too much like Longfellow's Village Smithy.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 1807–1882
59. The Village Blacksmith

UNDER a spreading chestnut tree
  The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
  With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms         5
  Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
  His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
  He earns whate'er he can,  10
And looks the whole world in the face,
  For he owes not any man.
Week in, week out, from morn till night,
  You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge  15
  With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
  When the evening sun is low.
And children coming home from school
  Look in at the open door;  20
They love to see the flaming forge,
  And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
  Like chaff from a threshing-floor.
He goes on Sunday to the church,  25
  And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
  He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
  And it makes his heart rejoice.  30
It sounds to him like her mother's voice,
  Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
  How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes  35
  A tear out of his eyes.
  Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
  Each evening sees it close;  40
Something attempted, something done,
  Has earned a night's repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
  For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life  45
  Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
  Each burning deed and thought!

Friday, February 24, 2017

On death and dying.

Yesterday, I read another one of those stories in what’s left of the advertising trade press, this one was about a young strategist working at Ogilvy in the Philippines who literally worked himself to death.

Worked himself to death.

Who hasn’t felt at times that we’re all working too hard, too long, too fast and we’re under too much pressure?

Who hasn’t felt like there are too few people doing too much work at too rapid a pace?

We heard from candidate Bernie Sanders in the late presidential campaign about income inequality—but we hardly realize the ramifications of that inequality. And Sanders kept income inequality as an economic woe--he did little to express the concept in human terms.

For the agency machine to generate the revenue and margins necessary for the malefactors of great wealth at the top of the holding companies to collect $100 million compensation packages, people have to die. Or get sick. Or get sick and die.

I don’t think we visualize—and think about—the sacrifices we all have to make so a few can make almost incomprehensible amounts of money.
"How was your day, honey?" "Fine, how was yours?"
 It’s really no different from how Carnegie or Frick or Rockefeller treated their workers a century and a half or so ago.

Think of mine cave ins—due to unsafe working conditions—because money that might have been spent on safety were instead spent on paying the few at the top their Croesus-like salaries.

I’m afraid a parallel of such peril is happening in our business. People working untold (and uncompensated) hours.

So a few can get rich.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Notes from the Underwhelmed.

It’s been said that the Inuit people have something between 50 and 100 words for ‘snow.’ I think I might have at least that many ways to describe the mental-chaos of my day yesterday.

My day started early, as my days usually do. I was hoping, getting in early, that I’d have the time to do some of the things I relish doing—that is, actually write.

I was given a jumble of briefing documents and asked to write from that paper-cacophony two 250-word-stories about particular business cases.

I love doing things like that—to take something fairly chaotic and unfocused and bring some order to it. I knocked out the first of the two cases in short order.

I had a moment—this was still before any of my co-workers had arrived—and even had time to re-read and nip and tuck what I had written.

Then, the meetings began.

One after another after another after another. Along the way I picked up two or three other little warheads of copy that had to be written on such-and-such a deadline, or re-written because some lawyer somewhere was worried about something.

Each of these “to-do’s” was probably an hour’s worth of work. But since work today is meetingicide (death by meetings) it took me about four hours to find an hour’s worth of concentration--in three or four minute spasms of isolated time while others are chit-chatting.

The meetings ended finally around 7:30PM. About 12-hours after my day started.

About once a week I say to a group of people, “You know the funny thing about our lives is that before Microsoft Meeting Maker, we didn’t have meetings. I’d been working maybe 20 years before I got a daily calendar assigning me to windowless rooms for an hour of this or half-an-hour of that. Today, we make so many meetings because making meetings is so easy.”

I say this and whomever is listening considers my blasphemy for a moment, and then they go back to what they should be doing—which is not listening to me. Rather it’s wondering what meeting they have next.

About ten years ago when I was a big wig and the lead creative at an enormous and insipid agency, I tried to institute a policy of having one-day-a-week meeting-free.

People looked at me—from low wage account people, to corner-office MBAs with more education than sense—like I was like Kakfa’s Gregor Samsa, as if I went to sleep one night and woke up the next day as a meeting-cancelling giant cockroach.

That’s all for now.

I have to run to a meeting.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Long days and longer nights in the Mexican League.

Even though we played something like 120 games in about 135 days, when you play baseball for a living, as I did some 42 years ago, you remember less about the games you played—the hits, the catches, the whiffs, the wins and losses—and more about the space between games.

You remember the dripping water pipe that ran just under the ceiling and past your locker, dripping on the bench that ran alongside the row of cubbies. You remember the hours in the clubhouse, slowly getting ready for another game—a game that might not begin for two hours or four. You remember the late nights alone in a strange city, with little to do but get into trouble. You remember the eleven hour bus rides through forgotten towns and rutted roads to a new city and another ballpark where the morass of timefulness—that is, the state of having too much time on your hands—could sink you like a cherry pit being washed down a dirty drain.

In Mexico City, where we played the Diablos Rojos in their giant stadium before their ardent fans who would throw coke bottles at us if we got a hit or stole a base, I found, one afternoon in a tourist hotel, a small library of abandoned books that guests had, across a span of years, left behind. Finding a book in English, a silent companion that would travel with me during those long silent bus rides was like magic.

I had brought with me to Mexico just two paperbacks in English. “Look Homeward, Angel” by Thomas Wolfe and “Moby Dick,” by Melville. In my preternatural alone-ness, I finished the two in about a week, and searched everywhere for something written in English.

Those were, of course, pre-internet days, and most every town had a bookstore I could browse in, but Spanish only. And most every hotel, except the really seedy ones, a small cigarette stand they called a gift shop. But finding books in English, well, that was like a desert caravan finding water.

In that hotel library with two rickety bookshelves, I found an English edition of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.” I found a dog-eared copy of “A Clockwork Orange,” with the glossary sliced out with a razor blade, and a heaven-sent copy of a 900+ page compendium called “Three Novels of Old New York” by Edith Wharton that contained “The House of Mirth,” “The Custom of the Country,” and “The Age of Innocence.”

A month’s worth of reading. Twenty bus trips between Mexican cities. And 30-nights alone in a cheap hotel.

Many of the others, I’ll admit, were whoremongers. They would no sooner leave one city, say Aguascalientes, or Torreon, when they would find the red light district of the next town. There they would find a place and draw the curtains and with some girl who never knew their name, would find an hour or two of un-loneliness.

Julio Romeo, a back-up infielder was the worst of a bad bunch. He made little more than I did, maybe $225/month and would spend it all on girls and salve—the salve for after he came down with the clap, and before Hector insisted he see the team doctor who shot him through with miracle drugs and made him promise to be more careful next time, only Julio never was.

Still on those long trips or long hours in the clubhouse, Julio would sing:
My name it is Pancho
I live on the rancho
I make two dollars a day
I go and see Lucy
She give me some pussy
And take my two dollars away
My name it is Pancho
I live on the rancho
I make two dollars a day
I go and see Nelly
I bounce on her belly
She takes my two dollars away
Many nights it seemed all of the boys, even the married ones, would head out whoring. And often they beckoned me to go along. And some nights I did, but only to have a cerveza with Gulliermo Sisto at the cantina in front, and never to go to the back behind the plastic beads or the nylon curtains with a fat girl who would love me very much.

Sisto and I would drink our beers and the boys would pick their girls and then Sisto and I would leave—before the drinking and the fighting, and worst of all, the cops would come to settle things down.

We would walk back through the quiet town to our hotel, Sisto and I, and talk about the game, and our lives and loves, and even our dreams.

Sisto was a good but not great ballplayer who had played for a fame that never came. “My name,” he said by way of self-deprecation, “was never engraved in bronze or on a marble plaque in centerfield. It was engraved instead on a block of ice that sits outside in the August sun. My fame will not last long.”

I told Sisto of a girl at home that I loved but who no longer loved me, the most painful of pains—even at 17.

“Ah, but now you have Karmen,” he reminded.

And yes, I had Karmen, but I also had college and New York and growing up calling and that negated all the cervezas and the chatter and the whoring and the fighting and even negated Edith Wharton and negated Karmen, too.

We found another bar, this one without girls, and we had together yet another silent beer. I watched Sisto empty his, and he watched me empty mine and together we emptied the sadness out of the evening, and returning to our hotel rooms, we found a newsstand and bought a paper and read of that day’s game and checked the standings just to see if we were still in the league.

Sisto went to his room.

“A letter I will to my father write. I have not for a month written,” and we shook hands goodnight—as men did in those days. I walked up two flights to my bed and I read until I slept and another day would once again begin.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


My nine months of dental surgery hell are fast coming to an end. 

Yesterday morning at eight, I had my next-to-last appointment with one of the two yankers I have been seeing bi-weekly since July. 

I arrived, as I so often do, at my appointment 30 minutes early. I figure if I can get in early, I can get out early. And there's nothing I'd rather do than get out of my dentists' offices. 

Next door to the building my dentist is housed in, I noticed a small, old-timey pharmacy. The kind of place that is not part of a larger chain of stores, and chock-full of off-brands of elixirs, lineaments, salves, lotions, notions and balms of the sort you don't usually see.

I walked into the store. There was a pretty pharmacist standing behind the pharmacy counter.

"Do you have a styptic pencil?" I asked her.

She looked at me like I was asking for some exotic sex toy.

"It's a small pencil that stops the bleeding when you nick yourself shaving."

She had no idea.

Then I saw one hanging on the wall. I pointed to it and she handed it to me.

It was a large pencil-shaped index finger-sized styptic. 

"That will last me the rest of my life," I said to her.

She was in no mood to kibbitz. 

"$3.49," she insisted.

I think the last time I bought a styptic pencil was 1979 and it cost .79 cents.

I suppose it is another relic of the world I grew up in, a world that is now all but gone. Gone is Vitalis, Pepsodent toothpaste and statements like I said the other day at work when the elevator stopped on every floor, "This is a real milk-run," I said, not realizing that milk-runs have gone the way of liberal democracy.

It's hard sometimes to have a memory of things past--a memory of what was, to me at least, a simpler, saner time.

I don't know what people do these days when they cut themselves shaving. Those little nicks can bleed like a sonofabitch and a small piece of toilet paper just doesn't do the trick. 

So, I'm sticking to my old ways.

I'll staunch my blood with styptic. Watch "Citizen Kane" when it's on TV. And listen to Ma Vlast by Smetana whenever I get the chance, or anything by the Beatles, if I'm feeling a bit more contemporary.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Presidents' Day. (I'm taking the day off. This is a repost from 2011.)

When I was a kid, and I'm not exactly sure when all this changed, we didn't have a "Presidents' Day." We had off February 12th for Lincoln's birthday and February 22nd for Washington's. In school, we even had lessons about these particular presidents and we had to do reports on them, so the holidays actually had some meanings.

My mother was strict when I was growing up and didn't want to settle for what my brother and I were taught in school. She gave us two-cents for each state capital we could memorize (that earned us a dollar) and two dollars if we could memorize each American vice president. I remember her memory trick for memorizing William McKinley's first vice president Garret Hobart. We were told to remember "attic coffee grinder." After all a garret is an attic and my mother's coffee grinder was made by a company called Hobart.

It's stupid, I know, but a time will come in which I will have lost all my short-term memory, when I have a hard time remembering where the bathrooms are in my New York apartment. But I will never forget Garret Hobart.

These days of course we have Presidents' Day off, but we don't think about presidents at all, much less vice presidents. The day is an excuse for a long weekend or for 40% off sales. In truth, in America, everything is always 40% off except for things you want. It seems that Presidents' Day is a particularly good time to buy a mattress from a "mattress professional." Sleepy's, who have the "largest selection in the world" have proclaimed this "President's Week," and everything is 50% off, plus I can get a free pillow and e-reader with a purchase of $399 or more.

Bloomingdale's is having a "Big Brown Sale" and a great selection of merchandise is now 25%-65% off. Victoria's Secret is having their "Oh, Happy Rays" sale. You can save $15 on purchases of $100, $30 on purchases of $150 and $75 off when you spend $250.

I remember reading when I was a little boy about Lincoln walking 20 miles to return a borrowed book. I don't recall ever reading anything about him buying a mattress. And I'm pretty sure Washington never bought a bra.