Tuesday, January 31, 2017

To see the sea. A daughter's journeys.

When I was a kid, I had no ambitions whatsoever to go into advertising.

I wanted to be a writer, but knowing you can't really make a living that way, my fall back was to get a Ph.D. and teach English, preferably at a leafy ivied college in New England with buxom co-eds.

My parents, of course, objected to this plan. And did everything they could to get me to go to Law School.

Most people, even those who know me fairly well, don't realize I am the most stubborn person--stiff-necked, to use an Old Testament appellation--on god's no-longer-green earth. I resisted my parents' imperative but after a year of grad school my money ran out and I was shit out of luck.

I abandoned my dreams of Chaucer and co-eds and went to do the only thing I really knew how to do--write ads. In short order, I put a book together, and while the Sharpies were still drying, I got a job working at the in-house agency at Bloomingdale's department store for the legendary John C. Jay, of Wieden & Kennedy renown.

I bring all this up because my younger daughter, Hannah, is leaving me today.

She's flying to Trinidad. 

There, with two friends, they'll pick up a 44' sailboat, sail to St. Maarten, then from St. Maarten through the Panama Canal, across the South Pacific to the Marquesas in French Polynesia, on to Tahiti, then the Cook Islands, then to Australia, then onto Auckland, NZ.
The Marquesas in French Polynesia. 

There's no way I couldn't be thrilled that my kid has the confidence and emotional wherewithal to undertake such an adventure. Of course, I am steeped in the lore of the sea.

I've read Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Two Years Before the Mast, the Mutiny on the Bounty Trilogy, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Captain Singleton, the entirety of C.S. Forester's epic series Horatio Hornblower and dozens more. 

It's not easy to picture your little girl in a little boat in the great big sea.

I worry about freak waves, storms, pirates. Even maggots in the hardtack, like in the Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein.

But, to sing an old song, She is Woman, Hear Her Roar.

And roar she will. Over 8,000 nautical miles. Through the aforementioned freak waves and storms.

Truth be told, I couldn't be prouder.

I taught my kids (I'm bragging here) well.

No lives of quiet desperation for them. No dopey mini-desk work space and dealing with 291 copy changes in a single day.

No, Hannah is sailing the seven seas.

She might, in six months or a year, settle down to a tamer life, go to graduate school, maybe, heaven forfend, get a normal job.

There's a time and a place for normal.

She's just, thank god, resisting it for as long as she can.

A phone call from an old friend.

A friend of mine from days gone by called me yesterday on my desk phone. In the three years I've been in my current job, my desk phone has rung three times. I figured I had done something horribly wrong somewhere and this was the way they were going to can me. 

But, no sweat. It was my old friend, Craig. We were partners in the 1980s, and unlike so many relationships in life, we've stayed friends though we haven't seen each other for two decades and haven't worked together for three.

"George," he said, "I don't understand anything anymore. We get elaborate briefs with big ambitions."

"That's good. Big ambition is always good."

"I'm talking about a brief that says our job is to reverse two-decades of declining sales and loss of marketshare. These are the briefs I've been waiting my whole career for."

Again I said, "That's good."

"But wait," he temporized. "Then I get to the part of the brief where they lay out the creative deliverables."

I hate the word deliverable, so I clarified. 

"You mean the stuff you're supposed to make."

"That's right," he said. "So we have this big ambitious brief meant to shake up an established market and reach new prospects."

At this point there were some people hovering around my desk and I needed to move the conversation along. Modern productivity as interpreted by an open-plan office means it's impossible to have a proper conversation.

"Then I get to the stuff we're supposed to make. The stuff we're supposed to make to reach a target that has more ad-blockers than President Trump has too-long ties. The stuff we're supposed to make to promote a new product. The stuff we're supposed to make to reverse a sales decline. The stuff we're supposed to make to have impact."


"A rich media banner, a page takeover, some 300x250s, a Facebook carousel and some 728x90s."

I laughed. But only to keep from screaming.

"You know what I've learned after almost forty years in the business?" Craig said. "You can't get something for nothing. If you want a big impact, you need a big platform."

"Didn't we learn that in 3rd grade," I asked, plaintively.

"They teach it in 3rd grade. They just don't teach it in business school."

"Fuck," I said sagely.

"I gotta go," Craig said. "These 728x90s won't write themselves."

Monday, January 30, 2017

Keeping tabs.

A bad year.

With the horror of Trump/Bannon upon us, it's all to easy to think that these are the worst of all possible times and the nadir of our nation's history.

I am scared, truly scared. Scared most of all, by his attacks on the press, most especially "The New York Times." This is classic fascist behavior. And, worse, as Pulitzer-winner Anne Applebaum points out, what's scary is not what Trump supporters believe, but the fact that they live in an entirely different reality and under an entirely different set of facts.

There's nothing wrong with a nation having a difference of opinion. But not sharing a common reality, well, that is truly terrifying.

That said, when I get really despondent, I plumb the recesses of my memory and go back to 1968.

Now that was a year.

We had 500,000 troops on the ground in Viet Nam and lost 17,000 boys, more than were lost in our Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos over their ten year durations combined. We also killed 250,000 Vietnamese.

There were riots in over 100 American cities including Wilmington, DE which was occupied by the National Guard for more than six months, Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, DC, Louisville, Kansas City, MO and more. 

Bobby Kennedy was shot as was Dr. Martin Luther King. There were riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago. And arch-racist and segregationist George Wallace won almost 50 electoral votes in the south, including Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and one vote in North Carolina.

Then, we elected Nixon as president. A man who allegedly conspired to continue the Vietnam war because stopping it would likely have cost him the election.

Not to mention that we had about twenty-thousand nuclear warheads aimed at the USSR and they had about twenty-thousand aimed at us. Oh, and China just exploded their first thermo-nuclear device just a few years earlier.

That's just stuff I remember, as a ten year old. 

Racism. A brutal colonial war. Assassination. Blood in the streets. The spectre of nuclear annihilation.

I am not one to put a pangloss on Trump/Bannon. But it's worth remembering, I think, that America has always had tremendous travails, and has almost always fallen short of its promises and ideals.

I think of the line by Gandhi.

When asked what he thought of Western Civilization, he is reputed to have remarked, "I think it would be a good idea."

Friday, January 27, 2017

Nobody asked me, but....

"Nobody asked me, but...." is my periodic tribute to the great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon. Cannon churned out sterling prose for the old "New York Journal-American." When, after plumbing the depths of his mind, he found nothing to write, he'd put together one of these.

Nobody asked me, but....

I could give a rat's ass about the new Chief Executive Officer of the Publicis group.

I think agencies that get the trade press to write about their office space always wind up looking ridiculous.

Everybody's new office space looks like everybody else's new office space.

Wake me when I have a private office again, with a door.

The Super Bowl is nine days away. If America lasts that long.

I've never taken an online quiz or survey and not felt like I've been duped or I'm an imbecile afterwards.

Unless you sell chopsticks for a living, there's no reason to ever spend any time creating a 728x90 banner.

As Woodrow Wilson was followed by Warren G. Harding, so Barack Obama is followed by Agent Orange.

There might be good that comes from this. Perhaps after whatever disaster he brings, we will see, once again, the rise of progressive liberalism.

Trying to read someone's copy in an open plan office is even worse than trying to concentrate while writing copy.

I have a small pile of rocks on my desk at work, in case I need to throw something.

Speaking of desks, the minute I clean mine, I can't find something I need.

I'm twice the man at 9AM that I am at 9PM.

It's never good for your keyboard when you type while eating Thai food.

For all the sadness in the world right now, maybe it makes sense to go back to read William Faulkner's Nobel Prize Acceptance speech.*

His phrase "the last dingdong of doom" always makes me think of Shakespeare's line, and Orsen Welles' movie "The Chimes at Midnight."

By the way, you'd be better off reading Faulkner, or Shakespeare, or watching something by Welles, than reading this.

Of course, nobody asked me....

* Faulkner's speech, abridged by me, for the Age of Twitter:

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it……He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid;… I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking….I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail….The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Laborare est orare.*

I have a Facebook friend, someone I knew vaguely a long time ago from one job or another, who built in his garage a wooden boat. A sturdy New England wooden boat, a dory, I guess, of the sort New Bedford whalers might have manned as they hunted cetaceans almost to extinction.

Every day, or every other day, he would post a picture on Facebook showing his progress. The wood he would plane, the joints he would seal, the ribs of his boat. 

Over the course of a year or so, I got to watch the boat being built. It was like watching one of those old National Geographic documentaries on a foal being born on some farm somewhere.

I've always envied people who have skill in their hands and mechanical knowledge in their heads. As I write this, for instance, my friend Chris has taken apart his ancient washer and dryer, which apparently were neither washing nor drying.

He's posted pictures of various parts of his machinery spread all over his linoleum basement. In a day or so, if I know Chris, his appliances will be up and running, probably better than when they sprung from the Maytag factory twenty years ago.

I think about things like this and look at my own hands with disappointment. As far as dexterity goes, it's all I can do to double-knot my Cole-Haan's.

Then, yesterday, we had, as usual, an unusual lot of pressure at work. A raft of television spots had to be written in a short amount of time.

To be completely honest, though I have been doing this for a long time, it was pretty daunting. I take great pride in my work, and the work I do has to meet a terrifically high-standard. My own, my agency's, my clients'.

That could be a prescription for emotional paralysis--when you have too much to do and you're not sure if you can do it.

But then I realized I was building my equivalent of a small wooden boat or putting together a washer-dryer.

I had to plane one board at a time. I had to be careful and methodical and structural and construct some things I realize I had built with my hands and my brain a thousand times before.

No matter what people say about the nature of work in a world marred by pernicious income inequality, there is something wonderful and fulfilling about working.

Even if the boats I worked on yesterday never get to sail.

* Laborare est orare. Latin for "To work is to pray."

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A long walk home.

There's something, I'll admit, that I like about really lousy weather. 

There's something I like about cold and wind and rain and puddles in the street and visibility that makes it impossible to see the peaks of even middling buildings.

There's something I like about battening down my personal hatches and steeling myself against all that the gods can throw at me. 

Maybe it's hubris, that most heinous of all crimes, but I like staring down the gods. I like proving over and again that I am tougher than the toughest.

That said, I realize that I am no Ernest Shackleton. I am no Sir Edmund Hillary. And I'd probably have ordered in for pizza and four-cheese dippin' dots if I were a member of the Donner party.

Last night, I worked late and by the time I left my office-less pile of bricks, the wind was larruping out of the west and off the river at 30 miles per or more.

The rain was beginning to freeze and pelted me like small stones thrown at a sinner. 

I had on my English-made winter coat--a tightly woven woolen affair made for the hardy northerners of the remoter British isles. It was made, my jacket was, for places like the Scapa Flow, or the Faroe Islands, or faraway places like Unst, or Yell, or Funzie.

I imagined that I looked like Trevor Howard in an old Carol Reed movie, long-faced and world-weary with the heavy wisdom of the ages.

I pulled my woolen cap down over my ears and buttoned my topmost button around my neck, so I had less of my face showing to the night than I have had if I were wearing a burkha. I had my hands thrust deep into my pockets and braved the evening.

I thought of some Kipling I had remembered from my childhood, when I took the time to memorize things like Kipling, only this was about hot weather, not cold, but it was the best my feeble mind could do:

Ship me somewhere East of Suez, where the best is like the worst
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea
On the road to Mandalay, where the old Flotilla lay
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay
O the road to Mandalay, where the flyin'-fishes play

An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay.

I walked home, four miles, through the night, through the pelting sleet and rain and frozen air.

Like I said, there's something I like about lousy weather. There's something I like about a good nor'easter. Something that tells you what, deep down, you're made of.