Friday, January 19, 2018

Some brief thoughts on Story-telling.

I am reading Martin Puchner's new, widely-heralded book "The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization." You can buy it here or read "The New York Times'" review here.

For about five or seven years now, many people in our industry have fancied themselves as "storytellers." In truth, that appellation gives me a fair amount of indigestion.

It's not that I don't believe, as does Puchner, that stories shape our lives. The story of Jesus, for instance. Or the Flood. Or even Washington crossing the Delaware. Or Neil Armstrong stepping onto the alleged moon.

But our business, in its aggressive dumbing-down of most everything, has taken the term story-telling and applied it to nearly everything. There are a few brands, in fact, who can really tell stories. I am lucky enough to work on one of them. Nike is another one. There aren't many more. 

In fact, the likelihood of anyone finding a story about new, extra-strength Saran Wrap compelling just ain't going to happen.

Stories, of course, can shape, define and illuminate. But when I hear people talking about the story-telling value of a 728x90 banner ad, or a :06-second video-bumper, it's not that I actually feel like screaming. It's worse than that. 

I dream about going home to re-read Homer once again.

Thursday, January 18, 2018


Sometimes, and I’m not entirely sure why, I get a recollection in my head that plays out as vividly and indelibly as a scene from a good movie. Maybe this is a function of growing older—of having more years to look back on than you have to look forward to. Maybe, there was an image or an aroma that triggered something limbic in my cortex. Maybe it’s sheer chemical synapses—a connection with my past that just snapped, somehow, into my present.

This morning, a cold windy day in New York with bright sunshine, I was leaving my psychiatrist’s office. As I do every Thursday morning, as I’ve done every Thursday morning for the past 23 years, and I thought about this ball game I was playing in when I was nine or 10 years old.

It was a Little League game and the most important thing in the world to me at that point while also being of no consequence whatsoever. I remember it being a hot day and muggy, even though it was just eight in the morning. Oddly enough, my old man was there as was my little sister, Nancy.

When I was a kid, I probably played a thousand baseball games, through Little Leagues and Junior Leagues and high-school and summer leagues, and I can count, virtually on one finger all the times my father decided to watch me. He had more important things to do.

But my sister, who wanted more than anything to play ball like her brothers did, would regularly show up. She was a tomboy in those years and wanted her swings at the ol’ horsehide just like the boys did. Of course, there was no baseball for girls back in 1966, so girls, if they loved ball, were relegated to the sidelines.

I was playing 3rd base, I recall, and my sister was in foul territory down the 3rd baseline, maybe holding my old man’s hand, or maybe he was off chatting with another dad.

When I was a kid, we didn’t enjoy the same level of caution kids today are raised with. There was no fence down the foul lines, and nothing to prevent spectators from standing as close to the actual field as they could get.

A batter came up, I remember, and after a pitch or two, he hit a pitch funny and cued the ball wickedly foul at an acute angle. I remember the smoosh like a fallen watermelon as it crushed into Nancy’s cheekbone just below her left eye. I remember her screams. I remember the blood. I remember my father, who earlier that year had almost died from a massive coronary, knowing he couldn’t lift Nancy and couldn’t run for his old Ford to take her to the hospital.

I didn’t know what to do at 3rd base. I ran over to her and heard Nancy’s screams and saw the pink red purple of her face. But the adults had forced us kids away. They were taking charge.

My old man left me on the field and took Nancy to the hospital. When he brought her home two or three hours later, the left side of her face was bandaged, but, I was told, her eye was undamaged and she was going to be ok.

For the rest of Nancy’s too short and too hard life, when she smiled, as she did not often enough, a dimple formed on the top of her cheekbone where the baseball had dented the bone.

Nancy died about 11 years ago in a motorcycle crash on 12th Avenue and 52nd Street. I’ve never, truth be told, recovered from her deadness.

So I think about that dimple, as I did this morning as I was waiting for a cab to take me to work.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

In praise of slow.

If you visit this space with any regularity, you know that of all the world's writers currently putting words down on paper, the one I admire most is Robert Caro.

Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. The Society of American Historians awarded him the Francis Parkman Prize saying, "Caro best exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist."

Comparing Caro to David McCullough or Ron Chernow is, IMHO, like comparing Maria Callas to Bobby Sherman. Caro, like Callas, was touched by a god, or at least, a divine genius that makes his work--I'm not exaggerating here--Shakespearean. 

Just yesterday I read an interview with Caro in "The New York Review of Books." You can read the whole thing here; it should take you about 15 minutes.

There were a couple of things in the interview that I think have some bearing even on the sort of writing we do in advertising. 

First, there's this:

"It's a cliche today that people's attention spans are short. You know something? David McCullough's book on Truman is roughly 1,100 pages and it has sold thousands of copies. Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals" is more than 700 pages and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I'm sure Ron Chernow's "Grant" will sell hundreds of thousands, too."

Finally, in a world obsessed by "agility" and speed, there's this:

"My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don't believe this about me: I'm a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

"When I was a student at Princeton, I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I'd give him a short story I'd produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, 'Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want--you think with your fingers.'

"Later, in the early 1960s when I was at "Newsday," my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting "The Power Broker," I realized I wasn't thinking deeply enough. I said, 'You have to slow yourself down.' That's when I remembered Blackmur's admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down."

In this space and when I write copy, I write fast. But more often than not, though I write fast, I've thought about my words for hours and hours before I mark them down. It might look like I'm being rapid. But really, because I don't start writing until the words are in my fingers (that process takes time) I am slow. 

I'm slowed further by being the worst typist on earth. And I think exactly as fast as I type. At least, when I am thinking deeply enough--which I don't always get time to do.

Scary, I suppose.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Simca in the city.

We had out-of-town guests in this weekend, Jewish, and that means the almost obligatory journey down to Katz’s on East Houston Street.

For whatever reason, primarily I suppose because I have unmatched New York City parking karma, we decided, the five of us to fire up my 1966 Simca 1500 and drive down to the legendary deli.

“George will find a parking space,” my ever-loving offered. “He’s amazing, the Michelangelo of municipal meters." Feeling more pressure than I like on a three-day weekend, I shot her a glance. “No, seriously,” she continued, “George’s knack is uncanny.”

Our guests looked doubtful. The last time someone had found a parking space in Manhattan was sometime in 1963, months before Kennedy was killed. How could I possibly find one on the Lower East Side, around a place as crowded at Katz’s.

“Is it true?” our guests asked.

I looked down at my feet, self-effacing like the strong-man in the circus about to ring the bell.

“I’m pretty good,” I admitted. “Today’s a holiday. We’ll see how it goes.”

I steered the car down the FDR and exited on Houston, heading West on the broad avenue. One of my guests saw Katz’s across the street.

“There it is,” he said.

I down-shifted into second and darted right onto East First Street which runs alongside Houston just north of Peretz Square.

We pulled up to a van, and I quickly parallel parked into a perfect spot fewer than 100 yards from the Mecca of pastrami. I fed the meter and within minutes we were within the friendly confines.  

In short order, we navigated the lines at Katz’s and laden with pastrami, corned beef and Dr. Brown’s cream sodas, we settled into a table my wife had somehow secured.

One hour later, after we had each gained about a dozen pounds, my wife had the idea to show our out-of-towners the High Line.

“It’s no problem,” she blustered. “George will find a spot.”

I shot her another look. Finding a space around Gansevoort Street is like finding a Republican who believes ‘all men are created equal.’ Or, worse, that women deserve equal pay.

In any event, I eased the Simca down 12th Street and headed south past thousands of orange and white construction barriers running toward the start of the High Line. In just seconds, I slid in behind a white SUV the size of a mastodon, and the Simca shut off with a cough and then another.

I hustled up the block and tried to decipher the parking regulations written on the white and red sign. They might as well have been written in Cuneiform, but given that there was a meter there, I inserted my credit card and got a little ticket, good for two hours, to park literally spitting distance from the grooved metal stairs that lead up to the elevated park.

"How did you do that?" one of our guests asked. 

"Do what," I non-chalanted.

"The space, at both Katz's and here?"

"There's a thing in New York," I said. "It's called parking karma. You get it when you swerve to avoid hitting people, when you lay off the horn in hospital zones, but mostly when you tip cab-drivers well. Acting like a human, in other words, gives order to the universe."

We strolled, in the frigid air the High Line.

As I would have assumed, my Simca was still there when we returned an hour later.

Parking karma. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Shithole Country.

You want shithole? I'll give you shithole.
Guess which country is:

26th in the world in life-expectancy.
26th in infant mortality.
17th in educational performance.
45th in literacy.
4th (highest) in income inequality.
7th in air quality.
26th in environment.
25th in infrastructure  (behind Oman and Barbadoes.)
11th (highest) in crime.
1st in gun violence.
1st in prison incarceration.

16th (lowest) in corruption.
5th (lowest) in social mobility (among OECD nations.)