Wednesday, August 31, 2016

George Orwell and your new shower.

Ever since I "joined" Facebook about ten years ago, I have refused to take part in any activity that would allow some app or gizmo to comb my data. I have also gone deep into their connivance of security settings and tried to make myself as anonymous as possible.

Until about three weeks ago, I was successful. I seldom if ever received an ad while on the site. But since then, they have broken through and even though I click on the drop down that says "hide this ad," the ads follow me like herpes follows a homecoming queen.

Facebook has 1.71 billion members and a market cap of $365 billion. My math says, then, that are getting approximately $215 per member from the data they collect and sell. Ever-voracious, however, they must beleaguer us with irrelevant messages to squeeze us even more. (I am about one-week away from giving up my account, though it's good for my business and as an anti-social user of social media, it keeps me in-touch with far-flung friends.)

Believe it or not, however, extortionate marketers are not the subject of today's post. 

Cliches and jargon are.

I was set off by the ad I pasted above.

Mostly the line about "disrupting" the shower market.

This is all so hyperbolic and dumb.

So banal and trite and pre-packaged.

I know, I know.

We live in an age of disruption.

But disrupting the shower market?

What does that even mean? Even if 10% of the population got a new shower each year and 50% of those new showers were "Nebia," that would amount to only 5% of the shower market.

That's not disruption. That's what Solly Mendik, the plaid garmento used to call 'a good year.'

My point isn't about showers, of course.

It's about using cliches. Beating people over the head with them until we get to the point where most of our language is all but meaningless.

Sometimes I feel like every agency has a word cyclotron that spews out meaningless morphemes like renegade neutrons. 

Of all my posting through the years and re-posting (and I am rapidly closing in on my 5,000th post) what I've repeated most is George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

It should be required memorization for anyone who makes their living in or around words.

Orwell condensed it all down--a long essay down--to six points.

Following Orwell would be way more disruptive than a new shower.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous
By the way, if you can't remember the list above, Orwell and I have condensed it down to one line.

George Orwell wrote: In a time of universal deceit--telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

George Tannenbaum re-wrote: In a time of universal cliche--clarity is breakthrough.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Monday, August 29, 2016

A trip up North.

We traveled north, which is the best direction to travel at least in the summer. Before long, we had outstripped the traffic and were heading into the greenery of southern New Hampshire.

The weather was postcard-perfect and our 1966 Simca 1500, given an overhaul and new points and plugs by Lothar, our Croatian mechanic down in Toms River, New Jersey, was running like a top.

It's a small car, the Simca, and years ago when I bought it, Lothar put a 3-liter BMW straight-six engine in it. It now out- accelerates nearly anything on the road, and while the car's electrical wiring sometimes has a mind of it own and shows me going 120 when I'm really going closer to 80, I enjoy the car and its quirks.

What's more, Lothar, a denizen of the old school informed me some years ago that the Simca was a car built for the aristocracy. 

"She Psimca have a highest roof line," he mangled. "The proper aroosticrat will wear while driving a black felt homburg. It has a dignity befitting the accomplishment of the automobile." It was then he presented me with a black Borsalino homburg with a grey and green feathered bouquet at the side.

"When you drive," Lothar demanded, "wearing this you will be. The Psimca responds to authority and will better go."

We made it up to New Hampshire in about four hours and saw Sarah, our 29-year-old receive the last of her graduation certificates, this one from her doctoral internship program. 

Sarah was all smiles and so were we. After something like 26 years in school, she has her doctorate. She is on her way to the vocation that has called her.

We left the ceremony and drove south to a town called Rye, New Hampshire, which sits on the state's 12-miles of coastline. We checked into a massive old hotel on the water, a Victorian castle built in 1879, painted white and gleaming in the sun. It was there we would spend the next four nights--making short trips to Portsmouth for dinner and to various swamps, marshes and beaches so Whiskey could chase her duck decoy through the high grass and swim in the cold sea.

In all, there was peace in my world. 

There was the usual and to-be-expected onslaught of emails coming north from my office. But except for an occasional dashed response, I ignored them like I ignore street-corner Santas before Thanksgiving. 

We had quiet in the north. We took long walks with Sarah and swims with Whiskey in the frigid sea. 

They seemed far-away: The flesh-pots of New York. The burning lakes of Hieronymous Bosch. The mammon of the 21st century. And the cacophony of a dumbed-down world.

We had headed north.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Three days off

My 29-year-old daughter, Sarah, is a serial graduator. Today, my wife and I venture north to join Sarah in her graduation from her Doctoral Internship. This is about the third or fourth ceremony we've attended in the past year. But that's fine. And we couldn't be more proud.

My wife had the car out yesterday. Commuting to New Jersey on assignment for her agency. 

On her way home, as I was getting ready to leave, she called me, somewhat frantic.

"The car is shaking," she tremolo'd.

I tried to calm her down as husbands do so effectively by yelling.

As she further described the problem, I grew more and more concerned. We were planning to leave for New Hampshire first thing in the morning.

"Should I take it to the Shell station on 117th?" she asked.

"No. I'll call up Lothar." Lothar is our Croatian mechanic, and probably the #1 Simca repairman in the northeast. 

He's probably the only Simca repairman in the northeast.

And the northwest.

And the country, continent, hemisphere. Perhaps the world.

I ran to Port Authority and took the long bus ride to Toms River, New Jersey to meet Lothar and my wife.

I was there already when my wife drove our 1966 Simca 1500 into Lothar's garage.

He listened as she drove in.

"A spark plug and coil in the third and fourth cylinders," he said. He had his tools out before my wife had stopped the car. 

In short order, Lothar had the Simca running like a top. Or at least as much like a top as you can expect from 1966 Simca 1500. 

My wife and I drove home without incident. And now, fewer than 12 hours later, we are on our way to New Hamphire.

Wish us luck. 

More important, wish the Simca luck.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Bad mood Tuesday.

I think the central problem with much of American life--at least life depicted on TV or in political campaigns is one of cognitive dissonance. That is, we show a reality dramatically different from what's really real.

During the Olympics I saw a horrible commercial for United Airlines about 100 times. Even if it were good, I'd be exhausted by it after 100 views. But this spot was so mind-numbingly overblown and dumb--so divorced from the reality of air travel that it made me hate the brand even more than I did before the spot ran.

Every action, every fake smile, every element and scenario depicted in this blight is an affront to anyone with taste and a sense of what air travel is really like. If you put it on a continuous loop--which they essentially did--it could serve as some sort of Clockwork Orange torture inflicted on serial miscreants. The advertising equivalent of waterboarding.

The un-ending BMW spots were almost as pervasive and pernicious. Worst about them was they have such a great product in such a competitive market and they were able to say nothing. Worse they said nothing with such overblown pomposity that they made me think Little Lord Fauntleroy should be their brand's spokesperson.

For those of us old enough to remember the great BMW advertising done by Ammirati & Puris, it was like Hamlet acted by the cast of Duck Dynasty.

There were too many more to mention here. The overblown spot for someone--a sporting goods store, a brand of sugar water, that told us how trace amounts of gold are in our hearts. Some McDonald's spot that showed us how love blooms via chicken McNuggets.

You know the tripe.

You can only ask.

Is this the best we can do?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Uncle Slappy and the Olympics.

I was doing what I like to do most this Sunday evening. I was listening to classical music—something by Gonoud—when she asked me to turn off the radio and turn on the closing ceremonies, aka, the closing commercials of the Olympic Games in Rio.

Knowing what I know about marital felicity, I, of course, complied. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about flags, smiles, bombast and pomposity, the closing ceremonies were it.

Fortunately at the very moment my head was about to spin 360-degrees around and I was to start spewing green vomit and commence with the incantation “Bob Costas, Bob Costas, Bob Costas,” the land line rang. That can only mean one thing, Uncle Slappy was calling.

I quickly ran into our bedroom, picked up the phone and closed the door against the Hellenic blather.

“Boychick,” the old man began. “You are not watching the closing pheromonies?”

“Frankly, Uncle Slappy, I’ve had more than enough.”

“I’ve had more than enough since the 1964 games in Tokyo. And they’re only worse today with all the commentators and the commercials. They’re like hemorrhoids for your mind.”

I laughed at that and gave him the courtesy of a long pause.

“Besides, an Olympic medal is ok. But it’s not the top award in the world.”

“No, I suppose that’s the Nobel Peace Prize,” I offered.

“Not even close. With Aunt Sylvie watching so much of the Olympics, I went down this afternoon to “From Schmear to Eternity.”

From Schmear to Eternity is the bagel place and deli about two strip malls from Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy’s condo complex.

“They are revamping their menu. They are honoring people by naming sandwiches after them. The Sol Schuster is corned beef, chopped liver and a slice of red onion on pumpernickel.”

“You’re making me hungry,” I admitted.

“The Norma Weintraub is roast beef, turkey and swiss cheese.”

“Not my cup of tea, that one, but I suppose it has its appeal.”

“Even Soupy Weinstock has a sandwich named after him. Turkey, tongue, pastrami, cole slaw and Russian dressing.”

“That sounds like something Soupy would eat.”

“Would eat and would make you pay for,” Uncle Slappy clarified. “The man never met a check he decided to pick up.”

“How about you, Uncle Slappy? Were you so honored?”

“Me, I got the best.”

“Corned beef, pastrami, brisket with cole slaw. The Uncle Slappy.”

“That’s it,” the old man said.

“Sounds delicious.”

“It’s better than delicious.” I could swear I heard him sample a bite. “It’s positively Olympian.”

And with that, he hung up the blower.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A long week's journey into Friday.

My 29-year-old daughter, the PhD., is training for her first marathon. Last weekend, in the crushing heat and humidity, she woke up at five in the morning and did a 15-mile training run.

She called me afterward. She likes to talk. And you get only one old man. 

"Dad," she said, "It was rough."

"Like the Bataan Death March, I assume." Using a reference her generation--probably anyone born after me, would find abstruse, at best.

I explained the death march. Where in blazing heat and humidity the Japanese marched 60,000-80,000 Philippine and American prisoners 70 miles through the jungle, watching thousands of them die along the way.

Sometimes, work feels like a death march. There's too much to do. Too many people. Too many assignments. Too many opinions. And certainly too many deadlines.

Of course, this is melodramatic. I sit at my desk most often, in a lovely air-conditioned space. I can spin in my chair and see the beautiful Hudson and an occasional wistful sail-boat sliding by.

Nobody hits me. 

All things considered, I'm competitively paid.

Still, in weeks like the past one, you can often feel like you're at the wrong end of a shooting gallery. That no matter how many hours you burn, or how expeditious you are, well, the bullets just keep coming.

But now, now, it is Friday.

It's still just before 9 and virtually no one else is in. At least up here on the creative department's floor. And we've made it to Friday.

Of course, we'll have work this weekend. email to read, things to review. Eyes to dot and tees to cross.

But we've made it through another week-long death march. And we have a small bowl of rice to savor.

Happy Friday.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The future. And how not to avoid it.

I love my job.

I love to write, and in this job, I get to write in what sometimes seems like dozens of channels. I get to write TV commercials, print ads, websites, banner ads, social tiles, tweets, speeches, and more.

But like many people who make their living with words and who care passionately about them, I worry. 

I worry about the future of words.

Most specifically, I worry about print. Especially the efficacy of print as an advertising medium in a world where it seems no one anymore reads an actual paper newspaper.

Last night, I walked east, to Eighth Avenue and The New York Times building, where I attended a panel discussion called "Journalism of the Future."

Given that title, I was hoping for a comprehensive look at various techniques on how to engage readers in the digital age. I was hoping for, maybe optimistically, some advice about changing reading habits.

What I got was a 90-minute POV on the Times' pioneering use of Virtual Reality in their paper. The panel, lead by Jake Silverstein, Editor in Chief of The New York Times Magazine, included Sam Dolnick, who's in charge of the Times' digital transformation, Jenna Pirog, who's journalism's first "Virtual Reality Editor," and Graham Roberts, a Senior Graphics Editor.

I've always been skeptical about virtual reality--I am a traditionalist by nature, and, as a reader of the Times for almost 50 years, I hold the traditions and the standards of the paper almost sacrosanct.

But the panel convinced me.

They could put you among refugees in South Sudan. They could bring you to Pluto--or to the Kabaa in Mecca. They could show you the place on the Mexican-American border where a border patrolman shot a Mexican kid to death through a chain link fence.

Virtual reality, to hear the Times' panel tell it, is essentially a word-less medium. Which worries me. But that doesn't mean it isn't backed by the standards of the Times and a certain writerly fastidiousness.

I, for one, will never hold a cardboard box to my face to consume my journalism. Like I said, I am no early-adopter.

But I left the Times' building last night at a little after 8PM, feeling that something new is happening, something big and important.

You can learn more about it here.

And you probably should.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Remember those great Volkswagen ads?" The Movie.

About 60 years ago, DDB and Volkswagen showed the world how to do advertising.

They created, without question, the greatest advertising ever created. The greatest copy ever written.

(We have forgotten, I'm sad to say, almost everything DDB taught us. We are back to bombast, complication and decoration. But I digress.)

Some years ago, my friend, John O'Driscoll, published with Alfredo Marcantonio and David Abbott, a book every lover of advertising should own...and maybe memorize:
Remember those great Volkswagen ads?

On Monday, John sent me a link to an 18-minute documentary with the same title. It features Helmut Krone, the original art-director, Julian Koenig, the original writer, a little too much George Lois and several British advertising luminaries, including Dave Trott, Sir John Hegarty, Sir Alan Parker, and both John and Alfredo.

Do you have 18 minutes? You can see the entire movie here. 

It's not an over-promise to say you will be a better creative for having watched.

And maybe, even, a better human. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Ghosts, my sister and Choo Choo Coleman.

I don't really believe in ghosts, but I do believe we get visited by vivid spirits or visceral memories from our past. These spirits don't haunt me. Now and again, however, they do drop in to give me some words of advice or to just squeeze my hand with a reassuring grip.

Even my father, whom I was never close to, and certainly not "touchy" with, has come by--it's been 15 years since he died. The other day he put his arm around my shoulder and then he left as quickly as he came.

My sister, Nancy, however is more social. Nancy died in a motorcycle crash in 2007 at the age of 47. She comes by about once every two weeks.

Last night at 2:47 she woke me up and told me to go read the newspaper. She pointed me to the obituary you can find here of one of the worst players to ever play in the major leagues, Choo Choo Coleman.

Roger Angell wrote of Coleman in "The New Yorker." "He handles outside curve balls like a man fighting bees.” 

Nancy was born on Valentine's Day in 1960 and the New York Mets sprung into life in April, 1962--bringing National League baseball back to New York after the desertion by the Polo Grounds' New York Giants and Ebbets Field's Brooklyn Dodgers.

Quickly the Mets emerged as the worst team ever to play the game. In their first two seasons they won a total of just 91 games--a total that many more respectable teams could amass in just one season.

I don't remember a lot about Nancy when she was a baby. I was only two years older than she. But I remember that some of her first words mentioned the player pictured above: Choo Choo Coleman. 

There was something about the name that made children laugh, and Nancy was no exception. I remember her at the age of two or three, in 1962 or 1963, running around our little tilted house singing, "homerun Choo Choo Coleman."

My parents were inveterate Phillies fans, so it's likely that Nancy's words took place after a Mets loss to the Phillies exactly 54 years ago on August 15, 1962. Coleman hit a homer that day off of Art Mahaffey. Box score.

Nancy probably imitated the excitement of an enthusiastic radio announcer.

"Homerun Choo Choo Coleman."

Run home Nancy Tannenbaum.

Monday, August 15, 2016

A summer's day in New York.

For about the last five days, the city has been under siege by a lump of warm, humid, almost fetid hot air. The heat, the oppressive heat, sits upon us like a fat man sitting too close in a crowded subway car.

The heat, the oppressive heat has slowed the city down. Last night, after a heavy half-hour rain storm that didn't cool things down, I went out with Whiskey for her evening walk.

There's a Puerto Rican family down the street who live in one of the old tenements that were occupied by the Irish and German and Italian and Hungarians before them. They are a fixture on the block, as are Whiskey and I. We don't really talk, but we say 'hello,' and we comment on the weather, or whatever is going on on the block.

They were in foreign territory yesterday, on the other side of the block, in a group of about a dozen, sitting in cheap beach chairs in the well-regulated gush of a dog-stained fire hydrant. They had brought out old buckets of various sizes and were filling them and throwing water at each other. Their laughter was the loudest noise of a quiet New York.

Alongside them, next to the hydrant sat a giant black New Foundland dog who probably weighed 150 pounds. Her broad pink tongue, bright against the black of her fur, rustled from her panting moving in and out of her broad mouth like the sleight of hand of a boardwalk magician.

Whiskey and I walked east, toward the river, looking at the huge stratocumulus turning salmon in the sunset. Other dog walkers were out and moms pushing strollers returning from the park with their kids, and dads with kids on their backs like chimpanzees.

We stopped after five blocks or so, with Whiskey looking at me and seeming to say, "don't you know what the real-feel temperature is?"

I ignored her, refusing to go home until she completed everything a dog is supposed to do in the evening. Finally she finished the uglier of her tasks making a significant deposit next to a woman who was sitting on a stoop talking on the phone and smoking a cigarette.

The woman was too languid to move and simply smiled at her predicament. I removed the offending detritus and made my way home, to the cool of central air-conditioning that cools my apartment even against the vector of my wife's surpassing but near incessant cooking.

Whiskey settled at the foot of my chair. I put the Rio Olympics on the television set, drew a glass of seltzer and finished, finally, this week's edition of the Sunday Times crossword.

I hardly broke a sweat.