Monday, May 15, 2023

Old but Not.


I've never been a joiner. I've never been 'one of the guys.' 

In fact, outside of sundry baseball clubs I played for and a phony group one such team created called 'the Zulu Roadrunners,' so we could escape from the baseball camp to which we were assigned by running five miles into the closest town, I don't think I've ever willingly joined anything.

I never belonged to a frat house while I was in college, or even went out with friends after work. Even when I used to shoot a lot of broadcast, I made it an iron-clad rule of mine not to go out to dinner with my co-workers and certainly I avoided like a true misanthrope dinner with the director and the horrors of a wrap party. Usually by the end of a 12 hour shoot-day I had had too much of too much and just wanted a salad in my room and maybe an old movie on TV.

When I was just 13, my ninth-grade English teacher, Mr. Pike, wrote a comment about me on my report card. He said, "George is quiet and diffident--almost too diffident--and it gets in his way." 

I've thought about that for 52 years now, but even that concentration hasn't been able to alter my diffidence, and that's with 44 years of fairly steady psycho therapy. (Two words.)

With that as a prelude, you'll be surprised to learn that for the past year and a half or so, I've been part of a small coterie of older advertising people organized by Bill Oberlander, founder of the nearly eponymous Oberland agency, that Bill's named "The J. Crew."

While Bill has no visible Hebraic seasonings, J. Crew is short for Jew Crew. The rest of us in this highly unofficial group, belong to one of the world's smallest and most-beleaguered religions. And an even smaller and more beleaguered group--we're working ad people in their late 50s and 60s.

While Jewishness is not a requirement for belonging and nothing we do or talk about at our every two-months or so gatherings has to do with religion, being Jewish is a vestige--as we members are vestiges--of a time in New York and New York advertising when the ad industry was fairly well-flavored with members of the world's most-hated tribe. 

What unites us in the J. Crew is not our Jewishness, but our relic-hood. 

We are the last internal combustion engines in a world that seems to have transitioned wholly to electric engines or even hydrogen-powered powerplants. We are like the ancient mariners who well-into the 19th Century still used astrolabes and sextants and the stars themselves long-after simpler and more accurate navigation technologies began ruling the Poop.

On Thursday night, at the lovely near-Gramercy home of one of our founding members, we sipped our drinks (mostly non-alcoholic--two out of five of us are teetotalers) talked about the business and then ate too much home-made spaghetti and meatballs and drank, or didn't drink, some more. And we laughed even more.

All of us to different degrees are still working. Three or the five of us are owners or CEOs, or both, of prominent New York agencies. One is an esteemed freelancer, someone who still battles the keyboard to come up with ideas to solve his clients' problems. And then there's me; as usual, I'm not really sure what it is I do--except I keep busy, I keep working with clients and I keep trying to boil things down, no matter how resistant things are to being distilled.

As you may expect, we shared a bit of gossip.

"Did you hear Alex was canned?"
"So was Jennifer."
"Something's happening there."
"Maybe they're losing XXXXX."

And there's a bit of talking about our kids.

"She's doing great at XXXXX."
"I steered mine away from the business."
"Mine needs to learn how to manage up."

But mostly, we talk about changes in the business. That quickly became introspective, lugubrious even. 

Is there no good work anymore? 
Or are we all just too old to get what good is anymore?

Last week, AI sat at the head of the table and like a good Borscht Belt tummler kept the conversation rollicking. Will generative AI be the end of the industry altogether--the end of crafted and human-made communications, or will the technology be used as technologies have always been used--as a tool, like a shovel is used--so we can dig holes with more efficiency?

We talked well into the evening. All of us stayed up long past our 8:30 or 9PM bed-times. 

Some of us believing in the creative power of AI, some of us fearing it. Me, contrary as always, I refuse not to believe that the power of synthesis, distillation and reduction is a human art--and we will, in the truncated words of William Faulkner, not only endure, but prevail.

Faulkner, though not a member of the J. Crew, probably serves to sum up best the whole evening.

Either this, from his story "Requiem for a Nun," "The past is never dead. It's not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born... Haunted by wrong turns and roads not taken...The quotidian demands of life distract from this resonance of images and events, but some of us feel it always."

Or this, which is a little less Faulknerian, though no less profound: 

"There is no was." 

OK, that's gloomy. 

Either that, or hopeful.


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