Friday, October 30, 2015

Casey at the Bat.

One of the things I did when I was a young father and raising my two daughters was to try to give them an introduction to what I consider "foundational" stories.

I fairly bludgeoned them with the Greek myths, with the Iliad and the Odyssey, with Dr. Seuss and things like E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and the Trumpet of the Swan.

But the thing I hit them hardest with was "Casey at the Bat--A Ballad of the Republic Sang in 1888."

As the World Serious (as Ring Lardner's busher would say) returns tonight to New York, I think you could do worse than taking a couple of minutes and reading Thayer's poem, or listening to it out loud, or reading it out loud yourself.

I've included Lionel Barrymore's rendition here. But there are plenty on You Tube and you can find your own. You might like Disney's version narrated by the great Jerry Colonna, or James Earl Jones' stentorian recitation.  (BTW, my one issue with Barrymore's version is the variations he introduces into the text. But his reading is so, to my ears, perfect, that I enjoyed it.)
We talk a lot in our daily orbit around the sun about story-telling. But we take damned little time listening to great stories, much less writing our own.

So like I said, maybe when you're watching the game tonight, turn off the volume during a commercial break and listen to the above instead.

Not a bad way to spend six minutes. Or 12. Or 19.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


The other day, though buffeted by the daily sturm und drang of work, I woke up with a tune in my head, an ear worm I could not shake.

Into the shower I went singing lyrics to a song I haven't heard for literally 45 years.

Meet Cathy, who's lived most everywhere,
From Zanzibar to Barclay Square.
But Patty's only seen the sights
A girl can see from Brooklyn Heights --
What a crazy pair!

But they're cousins,
Identical cousins all the way.
One pair of matching bookends,
Different as night and day.

How is it possible, I thought that I still remember this?

Then I thought some more.

I remembered all of this, too:

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship

The mate was a mighty sailing man
The skipper brave and sure
Five passengers set sail that day
For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.

And all of this:

Green acres is the place to be
Farm livin' is the life for me
Land spreadin' out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside

New York is where I'd rather stay
I get allergic smelling hay
I just adore a penthouse view
Dahling I love you but give me Park Avenue.
And even this:
There's a hold-up in the Bronx,
Brooklyn's broken out in fights,
There's a traffic jam in Harlem
That's backed up to Jackson Heights.

There's a Scout troop short a child,
Khrushchev's due at Idlewild,
I thought some more and wondered. Is there some splendor in a child's amygdala--or somewhere in his grey matter that endows him with a Watson-like memory? I thought about my struggles with learning Latin and Spanish and even Hebrew. No, my memory of these ditties couldn't be attributable to a super-human memory.
Why we remember these things is exactly why we remember commercials and taglines from long ago, and forget the ones we saw between the 4th and 5th innings.
As an industry, I believe, we have forgotten the power of repetition.
We change messages, campaigns, ideas, taglines too often. We fail to use mnemonics, jingles, memory signposts that would make our work enduring and, yes, memorable.
We change because we are bored.
We change because clients need to justify their jobs.
We change because that's what we do.
I'll bet if you wrote down five taglines now that you like, three of them would be 30 years old.
There's a tremendous amount of wind blowing about what sort of marketing "works," what channels are most effective, how we can use embedded fucking content to inveigle our way into the hearts and minds of consumers.
There are all sorts of theorists who will spout all sorts of theories. Theories usually predicated on getting something for nothing. Earned media my ass.
As an industry, it seems to me, we never think about what makes Top 40 radio so pernicious, or memes so memorable.
We never think about Marilyn Monroe's dress billowing or Bert Lahr dressed as the devil saying "Betcha can't eat just one."
Effective communication isn't small. It isn't cheap. It isn't once.
Effective communication is like the songs I cited above,
It repeats itself.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Someone somewhere sits in a giant office.

A giant corner office.

A giant corner office with an outer office.

A giant corner office with an outer office that has an outer office.

This someone has decided that throwing a couple hundred people in an open floorplan is a good idea.

He's figured it all out.

He has his talking points.

It's good for openness.

It       f   a   c   i   l   i   t   a    t   e   s       conversation.

It encourages collaboration.

I invite that someone to my desk.

I'm always there.

A lot of the time looking at my new app.

A decibel meter.

Uncle Slappy and Tillie Tickets.

I got home late last night--late enough to have missed the first seven innings of the first World Series game. It was another frustrating--perhaps futile day at work--but I had no time for that. The land line was ringing and that could mean only one thing, Uncle Slappy was on the phone.

I don't know why people of my generation still have land lines. The only ones that call us on it are telemarketers, high-priced telemarketers (aka politicians seeking office) or even older loved ones like Uncle Slappy.

Slappy, in fact, does have a cell phone, but like many of his ilk, he leaves it turned off lest he rack up ungodly charges. He doesn't quite understand how the billing of the things works, so to be on the safe side, he abjures from using it at all.

"Boychick," he poked, as soon as I picked up the blower. "Boychick," he said by way of 'hello.' "Have I ever told you the story of Tillie Tickets?"

I turned the Mets game on the TV and turned the volume off. I settled into my favorite chair, and made myself ready for yet another episode of the Uncle Slappy Show.

"Tillie Tickets," I answered dumbly. "I don't believe I've heard of her."

"Tillie," the old man harumphed, "like much of the Upper West Side in the 70s was a widow in a seven room apartment with a river view, a rotary phone, a cat and a threadbare Oriental rug, was living on a fixed income. An admixture of about $90 a week from Social Security and $120 a week from when she was a teacher in the Bronx before it changed."

"Not a lot of live on," I observed.

"She made do. That's how Jews have survived for 6000 years. She wasn't eating filet mignon, but she wasn't eating cat food either. Besides, Tillie Tickets found a way to supplement her income."

"Go on," I added unnecessarily.

"The two things the elderly did in those days to scrape by were 'bruised fruit Tuesdays at Fairway' and free samples at Zabar's. By the way, I was in the service. I've been in combat. You've never seen hurly burly like bruised fruit at Fairway. Do you know what it means to an alte cocker on a fixed income to get a slightly bruised cantaloupe for only 19-cents?

"In any event, it was at Zabar's where Tillie Tickets earned her fame. At the fish counter, where they give out the free samples, she noticed a lot of people, frustrated by how slow the lines moved, would leave their 'now-serving' ticket on the counter and abandon their wait.

"Tillie would grab these tickets and sell them to the highest bidder. Sounds stupid, right. But when the 'now serving' sign is on 19 and you have number 79, no question you'll slip an old lady a fiver for a 26 or three bucks for a 32.

"Before long, Tillie Tickets was pulling in a good $20 a day re-selling discarded tickets. This in addition to all the free samples of lox she was getting."

At this point the old man took a pause. I took a sip of my soda water and bid him go on.

"In the end," Uncle Slappy continued, "Saul Zabar, the owner of the place, got wind of it. And justice came down hard on Tillie."

"He called the cops?"

"No, worse. He barred her from the store on weekdays."

"Exiled to the Gulag Delipelago."

"However, Saul Zabar is a mensch, and it all worked out."

I breathed a long sigh of relief.

"Each Monday to her apartment he had delivered a dozen bagels, assorted. A pound of lox, sliced thin. And..."


"A cantaloupe. Unbruised. A mensch," he said, hanging up the land line.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

One night in Chicago. Long ago.

When I was 20, just before my senior year in college, my parents moved from New York to Chicago, and it was decided, against my will, that I would go with them.

My first order of business upon arriving in the City of Broad Shoulders was to find a summer job. To that end I bought a copy of the Chicago Tribune and went through the want ads. I quickly found two jobs that were close to my parents' apartment and required neither skills nor brain-power.

One was a clerk in a newsstand at a near north side hotel. The other, the one I got, was a cashier at a prominent liquor store, across the street from a whore house, on Rush Street, just north of the loop.

My first weeks at Bragno's, I worked the night shift, from 4PM till midnight and I quickly got an education. There were the daily bottles who would come in every day for their 86-proof sustenance and a bit of cashierial conversation.  There were the parking lot attendants who would, every night, buy another pint or half-pint of Hennessy or Remy Martin, to warm themselves through the Chicago chill. There were the cops, glomming a free case of Old Style beer, and the hookers buying a bottle or two for medicinal purposes.

I took it all in. It was, as they say, all in a day's work.

One evening, I suppose around seven or eight, the shop was quiet and I was sitting behind the counter reading a book. I heard the front door bells tinkle and then a booming voice.

"What are you reading, young man?"

It was Orson Welles.

I was reading something Snopesy by Faulkner, "The Sound and the Fury," maybe.

"Faulkner," I replied, showing him the paperback.

"A lightweight! A misbegotten fool. A dabbler in words. A nothing. A non-entity. Wasting your time in the fourth greatest city in the world, a city of Lucullan excess, a sybarite's dream, and you, a miserable little clerk, working on your hands and knees, with the audacity, no, the TEMERITY to read the the second-rate ramblings of a second-rate mind."

I put the book under the cash drawer and stood up.

"Young man," he roared. "I would like a steak. Rare. Smothered in onions and mushrooms, two baked potatoes dripping, no oozing with butter, and a bottle of your finest port.

"A simpering simpleton. A pusillanimous profferer or putrid prose. A plodder. A nodder. A dodder. The idiot that tells the tale."

"Mr. Welles," I stammered, "I can help you with the port, but this is a liquor store. Not a steak house."

He looked deflated, crushed. He scanned the premises.

"So it is, boy! A steak, bring me my meat and some mutton, a big shank of mutton."

He left cradling like a baby four bottles of port.

"I will be back with funds," he shouted. "But for now, I bid you farewell."

I never saw him again.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Thoughts on the future.

There are people out there who believe.

They believe in an always on, driven by data, written in code, interconnected future where your doctor will ping you if you have a bacon cheeseburger or take a shortcut during your seven mile run and all the terabytes you generate will be fed to a supercomputer which will tell you to lose two pounds, or barring that, will summon a tiny sewing robot to let out your pants.

There are people out there who believe.

I must confess....I want to believe.

I want to believe in driverless cars and getting hot food delivered in an instant and speedy internet and superbrains that have access to all the information ever-generated and curing leukemia will be no more difficult than curing bacon.

I want to believe.

And then.

Then, you get to work early, for a conference call with Bangalore.

And of course no one is on-time.

And then 31 people dial in, and it's echo-ey, as if all 31 people were inside 31 buckets and talking simultaneously and you can't understand a word.

So beep beep beep, all 31 people hang up and hold-music hold-music hold-music, all 31 people dial in again, and  now there's a sound like a busy signal so you can't hear a thing, much less yourself think.

I want to believe that the future will be a seamless place of never-ending bliss, where things just work.

I want to believe we'll make more intelligent decisions and be able to discover and learn and communicate like never before.

I want to believe all that.

But in reality, I believe that the future will be like the world's always been.

Full of dumb mistakes.

Missed connections.

Beeps and echoes and static.

Where we believe the future will be better.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Mets. 1969.

In 1969, when I was just 11, the New York Mets suddenly became a good baseball team. This was their eighth season in the major leagues and they finished last in six of their seven previous seasons, and next to last in other.

But this year the league expanded to 12 teams and broke into two divisions. The Mets, behind the arms of Seaver, Koosman, Gentry and a young Nolan Ryan, somehow won their division, the East, and now were facing the Atlanta Braves, the champions of the West.

(BTW, the Mets were 9 1/2 games behind the Cubs on August 13th of that year.)

Somehow, my old man (who was a young man at the time) had wangled tickets to game three of the Mets versus the Braves in Shea Stadium.

I don't remember anything about the game itself, except that, extraordinarily, the Mets won and won their first pennant with it.

I was standing next to my father as after the last out,  the assembled stormed the field. Finally, my father released me and I, too, got to climb over a low fence or two and run around on the field.

It was mayhem. People quickly began literally stealing the bases and tearing up the turf. I managed to rip up a six-inch square of the infield. I also, in my typical oblivious fashion, started aimlessly walking around the field, not watching where I was going.

Before long, I found myself almost on the steps of the Atlanta Braves' dugout, and almost face-to-face with its lone occupant. Hank Aaron was sitting on the bench, smoking a cigarette and taking in the scene.

There he was, Hank Aaron. Smoking a cigarette. Not as shocking as say, Willie Mays shooting heroin, but still.

I walked closer before one of New York's finest grabbed me by the arm and guided me away.

From there, I found my father, or he found me, and we headed home, to the sedate dumbness of my parents' suburban home.

It was a decade before I threw out my souvenir turf.

Friday, October 23, 2015


Long ago and far away when I played third base for the Saraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League, I spent a year traveling from city to city through the dust and grime of various Mexican bergs with about 40 other young men as we bused from game to game.

These were the days before Walkmen and iPods, before even boom-boxes. These were the days when we were lithe and alive and full of hope about the future.

It's a common thing today for people to say they want to change the world, they want to make an impact. They want to make pollution-free cars, or traffic-free cities, or cold-fusion warm toast or they want bring clean water to remote villages in something-or-other-stan.

I've never harbored any such illusions. And certainly did not 40 years ago when I was just 17 and more interested, of course, in the rewards of the flesh and in, perhaps, slamming a clean double down the line. Those two pursuits were more than enough for me.

There's a Jewish notion called Tikkun Olam--repairing the world. I could be wrong, but I've always interpreted it this way: If you help one person, if you've saved one person, if you've raised one person, loved one person, you are doing the job, your job of repairing, repairing the world.

If everyone was a decent sort, doing kindnesses, doing--in the parlance of today--a solid, well the world would be a better place.

When I played ball, I never tried to hit a grand slam when no one was on base.

I never tried to win the game with one swing. I just tried to move the runner over, or get on base, or put wood or leather on the ball. Maybe by doing my job, in as exemplary a manner as I could, I could make the guys ahead of me or behind me in the line-up do their's.

Maybe by raising children who are good citizens of the world, and loving, caring, human beings to boot, maybe that's how you heal the world.

I find it's the same at work.

So I do my best. My best according to my brains and my skill and my craft and my judgment. I can't and won't browbeat others into doing the same. I can only control what I can control.

I write my copy, rag my rags, read my proofs.

And maybe repair what needs repair.