Friday, February 28, 2020

A fish story.

Since I was fired six weeks ago, I've learned a lot.

Most of all, I've learned not to panic.

Sure, the rug was pulled out from under me. And I thought, given the near-sanctity of my relationships, work and reputation, I would be spared.

Fortunately, I wasn't. 

This might make no apparent sense to anyone but me, but somehow I'm reminded of David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

"There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says 'Morning, boys. How’s the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?'"

As someone who's spent nearly 40 years swimming in various agency ponds, I never really thought too hard about the water. Maybe I was too busy doing what I thought were the keys to survival: doing a good job, raising my hand, over-delivering, and yes, helping others build their careers and portfolios.

I'm not sure I took enough time thinking about how the water was.

About four years ago, my first boss in the business, back when ECD meant you were an Executive, a Creative and a Director wrote me a note. He left the business back in the late 80s to write movies, TV shows, plays and a series of successful novels, many of them New York Times best-sellers.

"George," he wrote, "are you chasing the same dream at 60 that the 25-year-old George was chasing." That's essentially, "how's the water," isn't it?

But I was too busy being a good corporate citizen to notice the water. I was skipping vacations so I could douse a brush fire. I was skipping other vacations so I could douse a wild fire. I was giving and giving and giving. Misguidedly thinking that even under today's prevailing winds, even the most avaricious of corporate entities would be guided by at least a scintilla of the Golden Rule. 

That is, they would be good to me in return.


I know we don't get wet when it rains and we don't end our careers with black lung or in a mine disaster. Nominally we're allowed to laugh at work, we can put our feet up on our desks and wear torn jeans if that's our thing.

I never had to lift anything heavy. It's hard to wrench your back when all you do is type for a living.

That's all good, I suppose.

But when you're old like I am, and when you've been working most every week of every year for 39 years, maybe you don't realize certain things.

Maybe there are better ponds than the ones I've been swimming in. Maybe with more temperate water, a little more room to stretch, and maybe a little bit more appreciation.


I'm just an old fish.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Beethoven. Picasso. Raymond Chandler. And a set of dull knives.

A couple of weekends ago, maybe it was cold and wet outside, my wife and I stayed home one night and put our feet up. Whiskey was walked and tired, the kids are all right, our fridge was full--there was even ice cream in the house. So we stayed in.

Our apartment isn't much, but it's cozy and warm. We're not slip-cover people, or antimacassar people, or the least bit fussy.  Our place is more comfortable than stuffy.  It's perfectly acceptable to kick off your shoes, fill a glass with seltzer and just chill.

Adding to that comfort for whatever reason, my ever-lovin' has allowed me to follow my predilection and line our living room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I am never without my closest friends, my books. Friends even if a preponderance of them do involve the Holocaust, the Black Death and the rise of the theocratic right.

We were doing something all-too-rare today--we weren't watching anything. Instead we were listening to New York's only classical music station, WQXR. 

I've been listening to the station since I was a kid. My harridan of a mother always had it on. Back during my youth, WQXR was "the radio station of The New York Times," and my mother would listen to, in addition to music, the news and, more important in those pre-internet days, the closing prices on the New York Stock Exchange.

The announcers would drone on and on. "Consolidated Amalgamation, thirty-two and a half, down an eighth. Poughkeepsie Woolens, nineteen, up a quarter. Environmental Despoliation, twenty-two and an eighth up three points." And so on. 

Also doing my childhood, they would read off the casualty lists from Vietnam, which was raging. The dead and wounded tallies from the North, the Viet Kong, the South and American forces. Even as a pre-teen I could tell we were being lied to. I don't know how I knew; I just did.

This evening, however, deaths--no matter how present during our current imperial hegemony--weren't being reported on. Instead WQXR played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The simple, slow, opening notes. Transfixing.

I don't play the piano, or any other musical instrument save the ocarina, but Beethoven's score seemed so stripped down and unembellished it was as if it was being played with one hand, or even just a couple of fingers. (I'm told that's wrong. That it's a very complex piece and you need almost virtuosic skill to play it properly. That's not the way it seemed to my uneducated set of ears.) 

My wife, always an adroit observer of the passing parade, remarked on how basic and elemental the piece seemed. I asked her if she had ever seen Picasso's Bulls.

I handed her my laptop and showed her the sequence here:

To my mind, it's especially important to pay a moment's attention to Picasso's last bull. 

It's those opening notes of the Moonlight Sonata, rendered in a taurine manner.

My wife is an excellent copywriter. And since we both make a living with the tips of our fingers, we wind up talking, probably more than we should about the vagaries, the frustrations, and the rewards of our profession--or craft, if you want to get deep-dish about it.

"The simplicity," I said.

She looked at me, bored. I thought of a particular line from Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely." 

"On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks."

Nevertheless, I persisted.

"The simplicity," I repeated. "That's all you need to know about being a copywriter. Keep working until you can make it that simple."

"I suppose that's another blog post," she said. 

Then she glanced at my carotid, walked off to our expensively re-done kitchen and looked lovingly at her set of Henckels knives, nestled snuggly for now in their butcher block home.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A lot of words on words.

The best bit I’ve ever heard about the writing of copy came, probably apocryphally, from Bill Bernbach.

The story goes that a client said to him "why do your copywriters spend so much time writing copy? Nobody reads it."

Hardly a day goes by when someone--a client, a fellow creative, a planner, a boss, a spouse or even a cab-driver--doesn't declare "no one reads anymore." 

I hear it every day, and despite our purported aversion to all things written, this blog (which more often than not has no pictures whatsoever) is getting something on the order of 50,000 viewers a week.

But back to Bernbach and what he was reputed to have said to the reading-denier.

Bernbach said, "Ten percent of people read copy. That's who we write for."

These days, ten percent of anything seems like a lot.

We have so sliced and diced our ad units with dynamic creative optimization and AI generated ads that we are very nearly fine-tuning our communications to a point where they matter to absolutely no one.

It seems to me we'll run a campaign for the 27 third-generation Norwegian left-handed squash players who support the 2nd Amendment. We'll run an entirely different set of ads for the 61 cilantro-hating gamers from Williamsburg who like Ralph Waldo Emerson, hot sauce and unfitted flannel sheets.

In fact, it sometimes seems to me that we'll gear ads to just about every constituency imaginable except people who like to read, people who like information, people who want to do research before they buy something expensive.

Everyone is an important constituency except people who think. That's because most advertisers and advertising agencies don't think much of the people they're speaking to. They talk down to them. They shout at them. They insult their intelligence. Or they slather on the bullshit so thick you'd need a "Jaws of Life" to extract meaning from them.

Not too long ago a friend of mine from the business asked me, plaintively, why I haven't given it all up. Why do I keep fighting for the things I believe in? Why I don't just say, 'fine. Do it your way'?

Why, in other words, do I rage rage against the dying of the light?

Really, there's no good reason.

Except for a simple belief that I refuse to concede that I am alone in the world. I refuse to believe that I am the last person standing who cares about euphony. About a turn of a phrase. About a devastatingly light touch.

Maybe I do it because so much of what I love in this world has to do with words that were put together nicely. 

I know I'm just a copywriter. Usually selling soup or soap or hope. But I do it with words.

And I hold myself to a standard.

I will never hit the notes like the notes hit below.

But I'll do what I have always done.

I'll do my best with what I have.

I won't believe I am the only one who cares about writing like this:

Or even something "low brow" like this:

Or this, all the way through but especially from 2:50-3:00, which has one of my favorite lines from all of movie-dom.

Or this which has a ridiculousness that we all could use today:

Or this, which has Barbara Stanwyck at her Stanwyckiest:

Or this, which is meaningful today, 80 years after it was shot.

Or this, which is gendered and colonialist but, still, meaningful:

Or this, which is mesmerizing and rhythmic:

Thank you for reading these words.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

A long walk in a new city.

My old man, may he rest in peace, had a quip for every occasion. 

When we were heading cross town in the city and invariably stuck in traffic, he would say, “The only way to get across town in New York is to be born there.”

I’ve tried that line out myself on more than a few cab drivers from a veritable United Nations of countries, and though I first heard it probably 55 years ago, and it was old even then, today in 2020 it still gets a laugh. 

I know jokes and one-liners have fallen out of favor among the comedy cognoscenti (they prefer observational comedy) but that line has handed cabbies from Afghanistan to the Ivory Coast to Sudan to Ecuador a laugh. Maybe it ain't Esperanto that's the universal language. Maybe it's Henny Youngman.

Yesterday morning I arrived early at the office. I don’t have a pass to let me in--and I knew no one was there yet--so I decided, it was a beautiful spring-like day, to take a long walk along the Hudson River.

Another thing my old man used to say is that “New York would be a great place to live if they ever finish it.” I’ve been in New York since Eisenhower was president and they seem to be about a millennia from finishing the burg.

There are more construction cranes and day-glo colored construction vests on burly men balancing cigarettes, or joints, on their lower lips than there are ear hairs in a nursing home. 

1983 saw this murder and 1621 others in New York City.
It seems, since the revival of the city after it bottomed out during the default of 1975, the riots and looting of 1977, the murder sprees in the 1980s and 1990s (there were 2,245 killings in 1990; in 2019, just 318) that the city has grown new buildings like a porcupine grows quills. In fact, if you’re an old man like I am with a sixth-sense for the city, there are so many construction scaffolds, I believe I could walk ten miles through New York in the pouring rain and not get wet.
I spent six months a decade ago working with a friend who has a small agency on Christopher right across West Street from the Hudson. But during those days, I never ventured to the river.

When I was a kid, the piers on the waterfront were a scary place—a place better avoided, so I avoided the area my entire life. Now, as the prospects for the world darken, the prospects for New York City seem to brighten—at least for the affluent.

The city is safer now. And with all the mayhem and terror in the world, it’s a safe place for the megawealthy to park their narco-dollars or petro-dollars or money-laundered-dollars or any other of a number of varieties of ill-gotten gains. Their unoccupied $100 million apartments attest to this.

Sure, the city if you’re not megawealthy is less livable now. The roads are blocked by triple-parked Lamborghinis or Bentley SUVs. Mom and Pop stores are all but gone. And even Madison Avenue in the 70s and 80s is being slum- cleared so the real estate moguls can replace pre-war 15-story buildings with 37-story mirrored glass towers. They're mirrored, I presume, so the resident potentates with 7,000 square-foot duplexes can adjust their prosthetic noses, eyebrows, cheekbones and teeth, so they look just right when the paparazzi pops their razzis.

Nonetheless, none of that glitter, bothered me on an early Monday morning as I walked four miles along the river.

In the distance, Freedom Tower—symbolically, 1776 feet high. Still farther, allegedly on the Jersey side, sat Bedloe’s Island, the spit of rock that holds up the Statue of Liberty (void where prohibited.) 

Young people don't call it Bedloe's anymore--to them it's Liberty Island. Maybe they also call the Triboro Bridge the RFK and the Tappan Zee the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. 

Maybe they call Sixth Avenue Avenue of the Americas. Maybe when they get coffee they ask for a Venti or a Grande. But my tongue tangles if I try those words. I'll call Citi Field Shea Stadium for the rest of my life. And I'm not about to call LaGuardia airport anything but LaGuardierrr. It's just not right.

At least I stopped calling Shea Stadium Che Stadium, when the Rutles broke up.

The water gurgled below, green and murky and cold. A far cry from the clearness of the Hudson’s source some 200 miles a way in the Adirondacks, a brook-fed lake with the most poetic name in all of lakedom: Lake Tear in the Clouds.

A million pairs of spandex ran by, almost all of them unable to hear the roil of the sea thanks to their $200 headphones drowning out the waves. There were moms pushing strollers. There were old friends playing tennis and gaggles of kids scootering their way to too crowded high schools. Dogs barked in dog runs. Bums looked for food in garbage cans. Old men did that oldest of old man things, they read a newspaper. Not on their phones. They liked the ink smudges on their hands.

I walked and walked. By my calculation, I’ve walked nearly 200,000 miles in the city, counting the 11 marathons I’ve run here.

And while the city is my city, I’ve never stepped out into the same city twice. You can’t.

Because as my old man would have declared, “they’ll never finish it.”