Thursday, December 31, 2015

Heavy shit. (New Year's reflections.)

In between fending off feints and jabs from the tireless Uncle Slappy, I have spent a good amount of time (though not enough) with my nose, this vacation, buried in an e-book. 

Reading, as I've grown older and more world-weary, provides me with what my long-standing therapist calls "my restorative niche." No matter what crap I have to deal with during the day, no matter how asinine and too much with us the world seems, no matter how impending the threat of ISIS terrorists or dirty bombs, I find succor, yes, that is the word, inside a book.

I'll often say goodnight to my wife by saying, "I'm leaving now for the 16th century." Some time or land or situation far away from kitchen renovations and insipid, insidious and invidious work politics.

I've just finished James Rebanks's new book, "The Shepherd's Life," which Michiko Kakatuni of the "Times" called one of the year's ten best. 

Kakatuni writes, “James Rebanks’s captivating new book about his family’s small sheep farm in England is also a book about continuity and roots and a sense of belonging in an age that’s increasingly about mobility and self-invention. It’s a book about a way of life essentially unchanged for centuries in an era that’s all about change and flux. And it’s a book about a farming family whose history has played out in the fields, hills and villages between the Lake District and the Pennines for at least six centuries.”

If you know me, you can see why those sentences and the book, too, might appeal to me. And they did.

But now, I have switched gears, years and fears and find myself with Ishmael sailing the seven seas.

I haven’t read, I confess, “Moby Dick” since grad school and I am a weaker, dumber, less-thoughtful man for having ignored it these last 35 years.

In a word, it is transporting.

If New Year’s is for you a time of reflection, you could do worse than reading Melville’s Chapter 60, “The Line,” which I’m reprinting here.

Melville utterly, totally and completely fails in that most-American of all literary criteria: he is NOT easy to read. There are times I have to pause after each sentence like I’m eating too-spicy food and need a break. But no one is Melville.
And, maybe, no one is more worth reading

CHAPTER 60, The Line

With reference to the whaling scene shortly to be described, as well as for the better understanding of all similar scenes elsewhere presented, I have here to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line.

The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapored with tar, not impregnated with it, as in the case of ordinary ropes; for while tar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, and also renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common ship use; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-line for the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen are beginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope’s durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss.

Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirely superseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable as hemp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (since there is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold.

The whale-line is only two thirds of an inch in thickness. At first sight, you would not think it so strong as it really is. By experiment its one and fifty yarns will each suspend a weight of one hundred and twenty pounds; so that the whole rope will bear a strain nearly equal to three tons. In length, the common sperm whale-line measures something over two hundred fathoms. Towards the stern of the boat it is spirally coiled away in the tub, not like the worm-pipe of a still though, but so as to form one round, cheese-shaped mass of densely bedded “sheaves,” or layers of concentric spiralizations, without any hollow but the “heart,” or minute vertical tube formed at the axis of the cheese. As the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off, the utmost precaution is used in stowing the line in its tub. Some harpooneers will consume almost an entire morning in this business, carrying the line high aloft and then reeving it downwards through a block towards the tub, so as in the act of coiling to free it from all possible wrinkles and twists.

In the English boats two tubs are used instead of one; the same line being continuously coiled in both tubs. There is some advantage in this; because these twin-tubs being so small they fit more readily into the boat, and do not strain it so much; whereas, the American tub, nearly three feet in diameter and of proportionate depth, makes a rather bulky freight for a craft whose planks are but one-half inch in thickness; for the bottom of the whale-boat is like critical ice, which will bear up a considerable distributed weight, but not very much of a concentrated one. When the painted canvas cover is clapped on the American tubline, the boat looks as if it were pulling off with a prodigious great wedding-cake to present to the whales.

Both ends of the line are exposed; the lower end terminating in an eye-splice or loop coming up from the bottom against the side of the tub, and hanging over its edge completely disengaged from everything. This arrangement of the lower end is necessary on two accounts. First: In order to facilitate the fastening to it of an additional line from a neighboring boat, in case the stricken whale should sound so deep as to threaten to carry off the entire line originally attached to the harpoon. In these instances, the whale of course is shifted like a mug of ale, as it were, from the one boat to the other; though the first boat always hovers at hand to assist its consort. Second: This arrangement is indispensable for common safety’s sake; for were the lower end of the line in any way attached to the boat, and were the whale then to run the line out to the end almost in a single, smoking minute as he sometimes does, he would not stop there, for the doomed boat would infallibly be dragged down after him into the profundity of the sea; and in that case no town-crier would ever find her again.

Before lowering the boat for the chase, the upper end of the line is taken aft from the tub, and passing round the loggerhead there, is again carried forward the entire length of the boat, resting crosswise upon the loom or handle of every man’s oar, so that it jogs against his wrist in rowing; and also passing between the men, as they alternately sit at the opposite gunwales, to the leaded chocks or grooves in the extreme pointed prow of the boat, where a wooden pin or skewer the size of a common squill, prevents it from slipping out. From the chocks it hangs in a slight festoon over the bows, and is then passed inside the boat again; and some ten or twenty fathoms (called box-line) being coiled upon the box in the bows, it continues its way to the gunwale still a little further aft, and is then attached to the short-warp- the rope which is immediately connected with the harpoon; but previous to that connexion, the short-warp goes through sundry mystifications too tedious to detail.

Thus the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction. All the oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions; so that to the timid eye of the landsman, they seem as Indian jugglers, with the deadliest snakes sportively festooning their limbs. Nor can any son of mortal woman, for the first time, seat himself amid those hempen intricacies, and while straining his utmost at the oar, bethink him that at any unknown instant the harpoon may be darted, and all these horrible contortions be put in play like ringed lightnings; he cannot be thus circumstanced without a shudder that makes the very marrow in his bones to quiver in him like a shaken jelly. Yet habit- strange thing! what cannot habit accomplish?- Gayer sallies, more merry mirth, better jokes, and brighter repartees, you never heard over your mahogany, than you will hear over the half-inch white cedar of the whaleboat, when thus hung in hangman’s nooses; and, like the six burghers of Calais before King Edward, the six men composing the crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say.

Perhaps a very little thought will now enable you to account for those repeated whaling disasters- some few of which are casually chronicled- of this man or that man being taken out of the boat by the line, and lost. For, when the line is darting out, to be seated then in the boat, is like being seated in the midst of the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine in full play, when every flying beam, and shaft, and wheel, is grazing you. It is worse; for you cannot sit motionless in the heart of these perils, because the boat is rocking like a cradle, and you are pitched one way and the other, without the slightest warning; and only by a certain self-adjusting buoyancy and simultaneousness of volition and action, can you escape being made a Mazeppa of, and run away with where the all-seeing sun himself could never pierce you out.

Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play- this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, everpresent perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

We arrive with Uncle Slappy in Maui.

We flew out of Kauia yesterday at 1:00 and landed in Maui just 40 minutes later. By the time I manhandled luggage for four and schlepped it all onto the Alamo rental car bus, and then secured a rental car, and then piled Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy and my long-suffering wife into said car, it was 2:30.

Record time for all that. And amazing when you consider that back when the Hawaiian Islands were called the Sandwiches, such a journey would take a whaler two days or maybe three. But now, thanks to the many splendid appurtenances of the modern world, we were--the alte-cocker four--on the road again in Apple Pie Order.

For whatever reason, maybe it was the influence of my ever-widening mean-streak, I selected a bright red Camaro convertible as our chariot of choice. I spatula'd the old ones into the rear and hit the road with a six-cylinder throat making its presence known.

Ah, Maui. Mountains. Verdant fields. And the sea. We drove and drove, Uncle Slappy glowering in the rear, wanting a bit more action than the ride was affording him.

"Stop at a Cynic Overpass," he urged. "Stretch my legs I need to."

"A Scenic Overpass?" I inquired, taking his well-hooked bait.

"No," he once-again glowered. "A Cynic Overpass. Where there's nothing to see. And it doesn't matter anyway."

I pulled into a strip mall's lot, ran into a deli for some cups of coffee, and everyone began to feel better. We once again reacquainted ourselves with our too small seats for our too well-upholstered obliquities and we, the four of us, completed our short journey to our hotel.

We are staying, thanks to the points-accumulation-prowess of my ever-loving wife, for free at one of Maui's finest, the Grand Wailea. In most cases adjectives like Grand are mere puffery, but the Grand Wailea seems from a different era. In mere moments we were be-decked with leis, be-drinked with cocktails and be-escorted to our tennis-court-sized rooms.

I helped Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie into theirs, adjacent to ours, and hoisted their luggage up on those folding luggage racks so they could unpack.

In a trice Uncle Slappy was two sheets to the wind in the king-sized bed.

"A nap I need," he said. "Never again with the Camaro, Mr. Second-Childhood Schmendrik."

Aunt Sylvie also turned in for her nap. I kissed her on the forehead and tucked the 800-counts under her delicate maw.

Uncle Slappy left me, as he often does, with a typical zinger.

"I called for turn-down service," he asserted. "And they said 'no.'"

Monday, December 28, 2015

Let the games begin.

Much to my dismay, if not pique, on this, our last day in Kauai, they shooed us out of the pool early--at 3:30 to be exact. Starting at 4 on the dot, the World Championship of "Marco Polo" would be taking place, a round-robin tournament pitting the planet's best fives against each other.

Serious Marco Polo doesn't attract much attention in our part of the globe, but in places where the Union Jack once flew--Down Under, the sub-continent, Jamaica, Sri Lanka and, of course, Merrie Olde--Marco Polo is serious business.

If rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen, and football a gentlemen's game played by hooligans, Marco Polo--real Marco Polo falls somewhere on that spectrum, with hooligans and gentlemen cavorting in the chlorine and placing some well-hewn "its" on their opponents.

The first match I witnessed was the veteran Australian "Green" team versus a vigorous but over-matched Sri Lankan team. As you may or may not know, Giles Thorpe--the Down Under's captain was, for six years a professional ventriloquist. His ability to "throw" his Polo in response to the hapless Sri Lankan Marcos misdirected that squad, thoroughly discombobulating the island quintet.

Next Great Britain's Red team, the favorite going into the afternoon, was up against a squad of Indian Ghurks. Bad blood there that spilled in the arena.

The Ghurk Marco called bravely out, and the Brits confounded him. "Polloi," responded one wag. Another came back with "Poltroon," and a third replied "Polymorphous." In short order the verbal barrage thoroughly addled the Indian who began flailing about in the pool bravely searching for a fitting Polo.

No dice, the Ghurk was clobbered about the head and shoulders by a Brit responding "Pondicherry," (an absolute mockery, I must say) and the game was quickly ended with the Brits advancing a bracket.

Next came the well-weathered Kiwis always up for a fight, against those from the land of the Pure, the Pakistanis. In two well fought rounds, the games ended in a tie, necessitating a sudden-death Polotime with the Kiwis just edging their valiant adversaries.

The final game of the afternoon pitted the Rasta five of Jamaica against the Bangladesh squad, but alas, my wife called me in for dinner. (We have a 6 o'clock reservation and surely can't be late.)

If you've never seen a really good go at Marco Polo you're missing a great sport. Nothing at all like the silly game we played as kids, but a ripsnorter, as they say.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Uncle Slappy goes whale watching.

At 4:35 yesterday morning, Christmas morning to be precise, I was quietly scratching at the door of room 919, right next to ours, hoping that Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie were getting ready for the day's affairs.

Uncle Slappy was awake, of course, sipping magma-hot coffee he had somehow procured, and Aunt Sylvie was putting the requisite finishing touches on her face. My wife had decided that it would be fun to go whale-watching off the Na Pali coast an hour and a half from our hotel, and accordingly, we had to hit the road by 5 or 5:15.

I was happy to see that Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy were quickly accoutered accordingly with shorts, hats, sunglasses and acres of sun screen.

"It's SPF 2000," Uncle Slappy informed me in a trice. "Safe for the surface of Mercury."

We flip-flopped our way to the valet, and drove through the darkness lit by a full Christmas moon as well as the headlights of our rental Chevy Impala. Which Uncle Slappy kept calling a Chevy Imposter.

Before too too long we had arrived at the gift shop that often fronts events like whale-watching excursions. Such businesses probably make more money selling last minute necessities like wind-breakers (it was cold yesterday) and motion sickness pills than they do from the actual tickets to their activities. Nonetheless, in a short while we piled onto a 66-foot catamaran with four dozen other tourists and set out in search of cetaceans.

Soon we were out in the open Pacific and we ran across the first wildlife of our journey--a horde, or is it a pod, or was it a couple of pods of spinner dolphins. These are sleek, three-foot mammals who leap from the water to breathe and often pirouette while doing so--ergo their adjective. Disney-like many of the adult spinners had calved and were accompanied by mini-me's who were already adroitly 360-ing in the cool morning air.

"Spinner dolphins," said Uncle Slappy. "I remember when you danced like that," he poked at Aunt Sylvie. "I think you won a silver loving cup from the Nevele for that."

"That was a Lindy-hop contest. And it wasn't the Nevele, it was Grossinger's."

Chastised, Uncle Slappy returned to his seat and scoured the horizon looking for whale spume.

Someone spotted said spume not far from the horizon--too far away to investigate and we kept plugging north.

In short order the sea looked like an artillery range. There was whale and pacific bottle nose dolphins breaching and fluking everywhere. Uncle Slappy was silent as he took in the dozens of whales frolicking within 'spitting distance' of our boat.

"That was something," he said. "Nothing at all like the times I went out to the Pacific Northwest to go lox watching. We would hold out bagels and the lox would jump right onto them."

"Lox watching," I said, taking his bait.

"Ooniwanahooni, in Tlingit," he continued. "The leaping of lox onto cream cheese."

We turned around to head back in to port but first the captain stopped the boat so we could snorkel. Aunt Sylvie demurred, but Uncle Slappy--forget that he's 87 was in the water in a flash. I stayed vigilantly between he and my wife and in moments we spied an old leatherback turtle making its stolid way among the tourists.

Uncle Slappy swam close to get a good look.

"I have a pair of glasses like that."

And then he left the sea.

And went to sleep.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Uncle Slappy on the history of rock 'n roll.

En route to two weeks in Hawaii, we stopped off in LA for two days, to see friends and family and to meet up with Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie who would be traveling with us to the sunny isles.

As much as part of me would rather a sojourn to the tropics without the old ones, I realize that at 87, neither Aunt Sylvie nor Uncle Slappy are getting any younger. What’s more they were like parents to me when I was growing up, it’s only fitting I am like a son to them now.

We saw them last night as we drove to Palos Verdes Estates south of LA to see cousins Brian and Kelly—the doctors--and their three lovely and breath-takingly well-adjusted teenagers.

We did, of course, what you do in LA, we went out for Mexican food, a new restaurant built on the site of an old Sizzler steak house. LA is a metro-area of some 15 million people, and fully 40% of it is built on the site of an old Sizzler. There are, in fact, even new Sizzlers built on the site of old Sizzlers. It makes no sense, it’s just what they do, like Maori painting their faces or Apache hunting buffalo.

We finished dinner and Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie climbed into one of the teenage-driven cars to go back to Brian and Kelly's for some coffee and dessert. The radio was on, of course, and it was jet-decibles too loud.

Uncle Slappy let loose with one-liner 10744.92. “You’d prefer listening to this rather than music?” he asked his young and distant cousin, Noah—who’s waiting to hear from Yale.

“Uncle Slappy,” replied the teenager, “it’s Pink Floyd,” as if that explained everything.

“Listen,” Uncle Slappy said. “Pink Floyd Schmink Floyd. I’m personal friends with Pink Phil.”

With the timing of a master he let that one settle in and roll around the mini-van.

“Pink Phil lives two units down. He was an actuary in Massapequa Park. He and his wife Tilda moved down when the complex opened. The whitest skin he has that you’ve ever seen. Five minutes in the sun and poof, Phil Abrahmski is Pink Phil.”

It was all Noah could do to stop from driving off the road he was working so hard to restrain his laughter.

Fortunately, we arrived at Brian and Kelly’s house for dessert and everyone piled out. I put my arm around Uncle Slappy as we entered the stucco agglomeration roofed with faux Mediterranean tile.

“Pink Phil?” I asked him.

“You’ve got to keep the young ones on their toes,” he said. And he laughed quietly, almost to himself.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A very bloggy Christmas.

Blogging, if you don't actively do it, is an amazing thing.

I starting writing in this space nearly nine years ago. Since then, 4,500 posts later a few things have happened.

One: I've become a better writer. Better for the discipline of writing everyday.

Two: I've built something of a following and a POV.

Three: I've made friends across the country and, in point of fact, on three or four continents.

One of those friends, Rich Siegel, 44, of the round seventeen blog, I just met for breakfast. Rich is svelter and healthier than I imagined. He ate his scrambled lightly and his fresh fruit plate. Think Truman Capote.

On the other hand, I wolfed down my bacon and like a sailor on shore-leave.

We both of us, I suspect, have appetites like long-shoremen. But Rich, 44, was elegant in restraining his.

Breakfast was getting to chat.

Talking about our trials and travails in the industry.

And the Manichean battle between the light of freelancing and the darkness of staff.

Despite what you may have heard, he's a nice guy, Rich, 44, is.

He and Bob and Terry and Dave and Jenny and Neisha and a few others are friends I've made along the way. Thanks to blogging.

Christmas is almost upon us.

I wish all my blog family well.

Breakfast, dinner, or a's on me.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

I cry a tear. I cry a torrent.

I think we need to decide, as individuals and as an industry, if we are serious or not.

By serious, I don't mean grave and unsmiling.

I mean that we help clients solve serious business issues in measurable and material ways. Or, put another way, we impart useful information in an executionally brilliant way.

Most businesses, imho, don't really know what they sell, what they do, or why they deserve to be part of people's lives.

Our job, I believe, is to get deep inside companies, to understand their soul, if they have one, and create a soul, if they don't.

Spectacles and stunts and, frankly, one-offs don't accomplish those august tasks.

I'm pissed this morning.

Not an unusual state of mind for me.

Perhaps the greatest agency that ever was has produced this ostensibly in service of their brand.

In one or two generations we have gone from this ad to a drunken shit show that disparages or ignores what had once made an agency or industry vital and important.
Sir John Hegarty wrote that "advertising has retreated to the fringes."

Yes, it has.

And not just geographically.

We are no longer important enough to be on Madison Avenue, Michigan Avenue, Park Avenue.

We're only five years from re-lo-ing to Queens, I bet.

We are about stunts, drunks, and spectacles.

And then we seek personal publicity and award ourselves for it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Found copywriting.

Spotted this on 47th between 11th and 12th. You know, from somewhere out in Jersey.

Cantankerous Wednesday.

This morning was cool, clear and crisp in New York, with rosy colored dawn streaking over the Triboro Bridge. (City officials changed the Triboro's name about a decade ago to the RFK Bridge. But no one, no one, no one has ever or will ever call it that. Just as we'll never call the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel the 'Hugh Carey Tunnel,' of the 59th Street Bridge the 'Ed Koch'. This is the bullshit elite politicization of everything. And anyone with half a mind will abjure from the whitewashing and brainwashing. I refuse to go to a publicly-funded sports stadium named for a bank or insurance company, and you should too. Think about that next time you drive through the Verizon Lincoln Tunnel or the Time-Warner George Washington Bridge. The encroachments of corporatism and politics--which foists corporatism on us--are more and more pernicious with each passing day. Next they'll be printing logos on our dicks and sponsoring our sex lives. 'This schtup brought to you by Allstate--the good hands people.')

Anyway, like I said, the morning was cool and crisp and clear and the East River was roiled and blue. I walked along the river with Whiskey this morning and I thought, as I so often do, about mutability.

The grey granite lighthouse at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island (formerly Blackwell's Island, formerly Welfare Island) was lit again. In times like ours, I find this reassuring. The lighthouse was knocked out during hurricane Sandy and the city had more important things to do than to get it illuminated again. It took about a year for things to get back in working order.

But now it is back in working order and it's as if it were never out. I find that reassuring. Something like Mussolini declaring that he'll make the trains run on time.

Politicians, advertising agencies, wars, terrors, crazies with guns, come and go. Your job, my job is to be like a lighthouse.

Put roots down.

Stand firm.

Shine a light.

And be there as often as you can.

Oh, and maybe, on a beautiful morning like today, or on a rainy morning, or on no morning in particular, read Shelley's "Ozymandias" now and again.

You could find worse ways to spend ten minutes.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"I have an idea. Let's do something ridiculous."

I saw another one of those videos.

You know, the ones where a major brand does something absolutely asinine in the hopes that the video will go viral.

This one had a bunch of women crocheting bowl covers that resemble Christmas sweaters for Chex Mix.

It was ugly. Stupid. Poorly produced. And, oh yeah, pointless.

No, that’s not right.

It did have a point. The Chex Mix people make so much money that they can blow a few thousand subjecting us to this. And Chex Mix’s agency, is so desperate for that money, that they’ll produce crap to get it.

By the way, since it went live three weeks ago, the Chex Mix crochet video has received 5,060 views.

It saddens me that the advertising industry has been so “stunted.”

Where the OIFA (one idea fits all) can be boiled down to “do something ridiculous.”

Do something ridiculous does not, I’m pretty sure, do anything for your brand or your sales.

It just says you’re out of ideas.

That you believe the consumer is an idiot.

And that you have no self-respect.