Monday, August 20, 2018

Some thoughts on trust.

The other day I got a text message from someone I didn't know. It was a politician texting me, without my permission, on my personal device.

I knew that political "leaders" had exempted themselves from marketing strictures and rules like Do Not Call lists. I didn't know that they had also granted themselves carte blanc when it came to texting.

It all got me thinking about trust. And perhaps why there is so little of it.

When I produce an ad, whether it's a banner ad or a big national spot, lawyers have to approve it.

This is almost never easy.

We in advertising are paid, not to lie, but to put a sheen on things. To make things sound good.

And clients, and networks, exist to be careful. To guard their companies and their brands. To protect them from a copywriter's enthusiasms.

Of course, political leaders subject their ads to none of the scrutiny that an ad for a detergent or a paper-towel would be subject to.

People who control multi-billion or multi-trillion dollar budgets can say what they want with no checks on the truth.

I wonder if part of the reason for the public's lack of trust in government stems from the out and out lies they tell in their TV commercials.

Most political ads--attack ads--portray one's opponent as a step down from child molester.

There are a lot of ways our industry can, slowly, begin to restore its reputation. We can be stricter on ourselves. We can agree to a set of standards.

But we must also make our so-called lawmakers adhere to the same principles. Or the ugliness of what they do will spill over and make what we do ugly as well.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Sitzfleisch, continued.

Many years ago, my therapist of a quarter-of-a-century suggested I see another therapist.

Not because he was done with me, or sick of me (it's not unusual for people to get sick of me) but as a second pair of eyes, an outside perspective to see if we were on the right track.

We had a famously-expensive double session in an Upper East Side office that looked more Vienna than Manhattan. That was fine with me. I am never happier than when I am talking to wise old men in a roomful of wise old books.

My temporary therapist taught me a word: Sitzfleisch. It's a word--it's German and it literally means, Sit Flesh, figuratively it's the ability to sit on your ass and persevere, to see things through, to get the job done. 

The opposite of Sitzfleisch is the Yiddish, schpilkas. Which can be best translated as having ants in your pants.

This week up in Provincetown at my writers' workshop (is it writer's or writers'?) has shown me the power of my Sitzfleisch.

In the past ten years, I have written--not for my job, but for my writing--about one-million words. Not all of them are great words, but the accumulation, the work, the day-in-and-day-out-ness has helped me become both a better writer and a better person.

Sitzfleisch.

I notice after class, or even after a meeting at work, everyone rushes off to their next thing. I usually need ten minutes or twenty of thought and reflection, of writing, to make sense of where I just was.

We are all, always, in such a rush. 

I'm 97.3% sure that's not a good thing.

We are all always, like addicts, looking for our next high. 

I know that's not a good thing.

Think, maybe once in a while, of where you are and what you can get out of your presence if you're really present.

Maybe you should focus on the ad in front of you, or the story, or the job, instead of rushing off to the next one.

Maybe 20 extra minutes, or the ontological equivalent--Sitzfleisch--will make all the difference.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Cape Cod views.

I am staying, during my sojourn on the Cape, at what must surely be one of its most run-down motels. This is entirely my fault. I was so nervous about coming here that though I signed up for my workshop back in March, I didn't get a room for myself until July.

So I found a place appropriately named the Outer Reach. Maybe I chose it because of its name. Because of its name and the fact that it was about half the price of the other motels I looked into.

The one thing the Outer Reach has going for it is its view. It is built into the Cape Cod National Seashore, and it's hard to think you'd find a more spectacular location, even if you didn't wait til July to look for one.

My ten-foot-square cottage is on a high bluff half a mile from the bay. The houses on the bay, especially when I get up in the early morning and throw my dark blue shades open, have a perfect Edward Hopper light on them. If you don't know what that means, you really shouldn't be reading this.

I know Hopper was here almost a century ago. He came for the solitude. The beauty of a lonely home standing on a windswept hill. And he came for the light.

Walker Evans, the great photographer was here too. Taking interior views in 1930 that remind me of my motel in 2018. 

Though it's not as clean as I wish it were, and they don't replace the little bottles of shampoo when you run out, you could do worse than stay in a Walker Evans room with an Edward Hopper view.




Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A dark well-lit night in the Tempus Fugit.

The other night, like so many other nights, I was visited, as I so tiresomely am, by my almost daily nightly visitor, Dame Insomnia. She has no manners, Dame Insomnia. It matters not a whit to her if I had been up late the night before or if I have a big presentation in front of a big group of people the next morning. When she decides to descend (or is it ascend?) and rustle my shoulder into wakefulness, well, there is nothing I can do, no pill I can take, no warm milk I can drink that will hasten her away.

I have learned of her persistence through a thousand and one nights and a thousand and two visits. So, past being prologue, I do not resist. I throw on last night’s clothing—usually a ratty old tee-shirt and a pair of blue jeans, I be-collar Whiskey, my six year old golden retriever, and I head up-town to the dim incandescence of the Tempus Fugit.

The Tempus Fugit sits in an old warehouse amid the high-rise splendor of the ever-gentrifying Upper East Side, where Verizon—the omnivorous telephone company—keeps its trucks at night. During the day those same trucks roam the streets, looking to pull out necessary cables and wires, just because their true task, their true monopoly is the one they have on disruption and frustration, not cable, internet and what they call voice.

Back through a dozen hall-ways, up and down an Escher’s-full of stairways, through a silent-movie’s worth of old galvanized-steel doors opening and closing synchronized like a well-rehearsed routine, sits the Tempus Fugit as it has sat unchanging since it opened (it has never for a second closed) in 1924 as a speakeasy during Prohibition.

I walked into the dim, squinted to find my seat—one stool in from the end—and assumed my position. Whiskey lay down at my feet, and the bartender, as quick as a sprite drew a wooden bowl full of cold-water and placed it in front of my pup. Back behind the bar, he pulled me a Pike’s (the ALE that WON for YALE!) which he serves, as beer should be served in a six-ounce juice glass, so the liquid doesn’t go warm or flat.

I scanned the premises and noticed one other solitary lumpen about four stools to my left, shrouded in pipe smoke with a dusty bottle of brandy in front of him.

“Who’s the mug,” I said to the bartender. Though he and I had made a pact to never introduce ourselves to each other, less our intimacy impinge upon our intimacy, I still wanted to know the story of who I was drinking virtually alongside of.

“Who’s the mug,” the man spoke, clearing the veil of pipe effluvia as he did and pulling up the stool next to mine.

“I am death, I am the destroyer, I am the crevices of your soul that remain, and will remain for all-time unillumined, deep and lightless as a nun.”

I checked over at the bartender. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. He gave me a wink, and with it a second glass of Pike’s. He shifted a wooden bowl of salted Spanish peanuts in my direction. I lifted the Pike’s to my lips, and pushed away the nuts with my other mitt. “A pound in every nut,” I said, patting my burgeoning mid-section.

“I sir, am Herr Professor Doctor Carl Jung. At your service.”

“Dr. Jung,” I said with my usual sagacity.

“And who are you? Some protoplasmic mass of anxieties, some hater of one’s parents, some dull portent of hunger and doom. Some lonely, lonesome nobody chasing his tale of oblivion deep into nothingness.”

I shifted uneasily in my stool, looking at the darkness of the Tempus Fugit around me. I saw not the incandescence of the few watts that lit the place, but the dull red of Jung’s pipe-bowl and the tip of the bartender’s half-smoked, half-eaten cigar.

“Actually, I couldn’t sleep. I came up here to chase my demons away with a Pike’s.”

“Ah, I underestimated you, my boy. Here, have a brandy.” He poured me a snifter from the ancient bottle in front of him.

“You are someone who knows it is not the light that enlightens us. The darkness does.”

“I’ve always been partial to the dark,” I admitted.

“It’s from the dark that lightness emerges.”

The old man downed his drink, felt the burn, then patted me twice on the shoulder and slid back down the row of stools to his.

I stared down at the brandy he poured me, drained my remaining Pike’s and shoved two twenties over to the bartender.

He shoved them back.

“On me,” he said.

And I walked home in the lightening dark.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My early days in the Mexican League.


When I was just 17, I did what none of my friends did. I didn’t graduate high school and head to college.

I had graduated high school early—I had skipped from fourth grade to sixth, so I was a year or more younger than most of my classmates. And while I had gotten into college, I was to attend Columbia University about 14 miles from my parents’ home, I decided to defer my admission for a year and try to play professional ball in Mexico.

My parents fairly bludgeoned me for my decision. Telling me they wouldn’t support me, and that I was ruining my life—their lives, too, somehow. They went months without talking to me. Then worse, they went months of talking to me. We would have heart-to-hearts incessantly. All to get me to see the world their way, the right way.

Nevertheless, I had saved three-hundred dollars and taped it inside into an old pair of tennis shoes and ran-away down to Port Authority on 42nd and 8th, the world’s epicenter, in 1975, of bestiality and other carnal offenses, not to mention drugs, crime, prostitution and god knows what else. From Port Authority, I took a 42-hour bus-ride  to Corpus Christi, Texas.

From Corpus Christi, I took a Mexican Greyhound, the painted dog on the side of the dusty streamlined bus wore a tilted sombrero, to a small city called Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. Saltillo had the worst team in the Mexican Baseball League (AA), el Seraperos de Saltillo, the Saltillo Serape Makers, and I had figured if I could play anywhere in the Mexican League, I could play there.

Worn out when I arrived in Saltillo, I found a small dusty room with a full-sized bed and a ceiling fan missing one of its three blades. I checked in and paid a month’s rent, $35, and then got directions from the cigarette at the front desk for the Estadio de Beisbol Francesco I. Maduro, Francesco I. Maduro Stadium, where the Seraperos played.

I banged on the clubhouse door, the entrance from the street, and in my bad schoolboy Spanish coaxed my way past the guard and into a tryout. I had had a letter of recommendation from coach Babich, my high school coach, translated by Senor Cowan my high school Spanish teacher.

I introduced myself to the manager and handed him the note. It told of my success in el Norte, how I was one of the best high-school baseball players in New York. It said I was a big, strong boy with power and speed who listened to his coaches and had a good work ethic. The manager told me to grab a bat and he would see what I could do.

Barely in Mexico for six hours, not counting the long bus ride through the desert, I changed into an old Seraperos away uniform, then found a Hillerich and Bradsby, a 32-ouncer like the bat I used in school. I dug in against their batting practice pitcher.

The first pitch he grooved over the plate and I put it deep into left-center, on a line and it bounced against the old maroon-planked fence.

“Mas rapido,” said Hector, the manager to the batting practice pitcher. “Mas caliente.”

The ball came in like an aspirin and I corkscrewed around on a swing and a miss. Some of the Seraperos were watching, like they’d watch any newcomer, and they laughed a bit. There’s something funny about a swing and a miss. The futility in public. Another pitch came in and this one I tipped—a small victory—back into the backstop.

Finally a third bullet came in, a bit up and out, right in my power, and I lined it hard, swinging from my heels, just over the low right field fence.

“Su nombre,” Hector said, calling me over.

“George,” I said.

“Jorge,” he corrected.

“Tannenbaum.”

“Christmas tree,” he said in English, “Arbol de Navidad. Su nombre es Jorge Navidad.”

“Jorge Navidad,” I tried it out.

“Su posicion?”

“El rincon caliente,” I answered. “The hot corner—third base.”

Hector sent me out for some infield and I did well enough. I knocked down everything in front of me, a dove to my right to catch a screamer hit down the line on one hop and still made the long throw to first.

“Jorge Navidad,” he said to me.

Hector walked me into the club-house and he sat me down in his small cinderblock office. I signed a contract that would pay me $200 a month, plus two chicken dinners a week at Tino’s just two blocks from the stadium.

Batista, our third-string catcher, bus-driver and equipment manager handed me a Seraperos-aqua duffle bag with a couple of sweatshirts, a home and away uniform, some sliding pads and a few other necessities. They gave me a locker on the end—there was an empty one next to mine, below a leaking pipe.

About a month after I arrived in Saltillo, Mexico, after having played just 25 or 30 games for the Seraperos (and doing fairly well in the offing) I got a telegram at the stadium that my old man needed to speak with me.

One of the many reasons I had sought to play ball south of the border was to get away from parental demands like these. My parents, when they wanted something from me, could be as oppressive as a sauna in Houston in August. Now, obviously, my father needed something from me—was demanding something.

“Son,” it read in telegraphic terseness, “call me at work, person to person. Dad.”

“That’s funny,” I said to myself. “I never thought of him as a person.”

But I called. I had to. I was raised to be obedient, to be the Good Son, so I followed his imperative.

“Your mother has left me,” he said when I finally reached him.

I was in the middle of a short hitting streak to start my professional career. Like I said I was tearing up the league. After my first month, my line looked like this:

G         AB      H          R         2          3     HR      RBI     BB        SB      AVG
27       114      40        19        8          0      4         21        11         3      .342

“Where is she,” I asked.

“I need you to come home. I need you now.”

“Dad, I can’t come home, I just got here.”

“Baseball isn't your future. What are you making down there?” He said caustically.  “$200 a month.”

I corrected, “$200 a month and two chicken dinners.”

He begged, the old man did and I hung up the horn.

I scanned the 8’x10’ room I was flopping in. It wasn’t much to look at. I slept on a tiny cot and had my few belongings stuffed willy-nilly in a cardboard bureau. There was one small window girded with some ratty brown plaid curtains.

“Nothing to stay for,” I said aloud.

I threw my shit back into my duffle bag, put a dog-eared copy of Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” in the back pocket of my Levi’s and I walked to the Estadio de Beisbol Francisco I Maduro—about two miles from my small rented room. I figured I would pick up my glove, my spikes and say goodbye to my manager, Hector Quesadilla. Then I would take the bus—whenever the bus came—to Corpus Christi, and then make it home from there.

I arrived at the clubhouse—it was three hours before game time—and Hector was there. He came over and put his arm around my shoulder. I’ve never been much of a hugger, not then, not now, but I took Hector’s arm in stride.

He must have seen me with my duffle and put two and two together. We had just started a homestand and weren’t due to travel for at least a week.

“You no go,” he said.

In my rudimentary Spanish—I’d yet to pick up the language—I tried my best to explain what was going on. Not only was I needed elsewhere, well, this was the end of the line for me baseball-wise.

Hector knew all this. Somehow.

He took my duffle from me and brought it to his office.

“You will stay. You will stay en mi casa con mi esposa.”

“Si,” I answered.

Hector led me into his tiny office and pointed to his phone.

Hector stood beside me as I sat in his chair and called my old man.

I told him to go to hell and hung up.


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