I, probably like most of white America, had never heard of Martin Luther King until the day he was shot.
We didn't know who Dr. King was.
I was only five when he was speaking about "being to the mountain top."
I, probably like most of white America, had never heard of Martin Luther King until the day he was shot.
I never went to Vietnam and don't know what combat is like against men trying to kill you with essentially homemade weapons, but I learned a lot about the sturm and drang of fighting for your place in the world.
I learned that life is a struggle. There are 24 other guys on the team and half of them hate you at any one time for this reason or that. Maybe you put more wood on the ball and took someone's starting job. Maybe you inadvertently left your spikes on the bench near someone's locker and with them the detritus of dust, grass and sweat. Maybe they just didn't like that you were the manager's favorite.
Then there were the hundreds of unshaven men on the other teams who were playing this game as a living, not a lark. They knew that buckling your knees with a wicked curve or freezing you with a chin-mariachi fastball wasn't a game at all, it was a way of feeding themselves and their family.
We were in Aquascaliente playing the Rieleros. The game was theirs--or almost theirs with two down in our half of the ninth we were down by two. But then Garibay came up for us and blasted a homer bringing in "Brutus" Cesar who had walked. Those runs tied the score. Then Salome Rojas, our first sacker, who was having a career-year came up and skied one to right that went 300 feet high and 301 feet out--one foot further than the fence.
When I came up we weren't down anymore, we were leading 4-3 and their arm was pissed. With no preliminaries whatsoever he threw a curveball at mi cabeza that decided not to curve and it plunked my hard plastic helmet on the earpiece also plunking a bit of my left jaw.
I had been taught for all my 17 years to never show pain to another human, and when I got up I dusted off my pants and trotted down to first. I was beaned and pissed and knew I'd be eating dinner through a straw for three days or five.
That night, after the game, a dozen of my teammates and I went to a collection of broken wood near the stadium that the locals called a bar. It was lit solely by the green, blue and red neon of half-a-dozen cerveza signs. The Rieleros were there already when we arrived. And they, too, were pissed at losing when they should have won.
I sat in a booth with three teammates and a muscled arm came over the back of the bench I was sitting on. I pushed it back like I was in a 42nd Street moviehouse and it belonged to a pervert.
In a moment I found out the arm belonged to their pitcher, the guy who purposefully plunked me, Barrios.
In another moment we were standing chest-to-chest jawboning at volume.
I had four-inches on Barrios, but he had ten years and forty pounds on me. He had what I've always called old-man-strength. The stubbornness to exert your will on any physical obstacle no matter how big or impossible it seemed. It’s how I can roll out a carpet in my apartment by myself that it took two workmen to carry in.
I was never much of a pugilist but I learned a few things along the way about barroom brawls. 97-percent of prevailing is denying the other guy the room and leverage to slug you. Unless you're fighting Rocky Marciano, most guys need a wind-up to generate power.
So I moved in on Barrios, despite his punches, and hooked my left wing around the back of his neck, pulling him close to me like he was my catamite, not my enemy. I then rabbit punched him with my right, and when he tried to break I pushed him hard against the booth where the whole donnybrook had started. Once there I did what you do in a fair fight: I made it an unfair fight--it's too easy to get your face Picasso'd following the Marquis of Queensbury.
I kneed him twice in his reproductive arsenal.
He went down.
I didn’t stick around for ethical recriminations or allegations regarding by cowardice. I walked out of the bar and back to the rooms the Seraperos were staying in that night.
I'm thinking about a friend of mine as I write this, a friend who happens to run, very successfully, one of the better agencies in the world. A shrewd gentleman. I'm thinking about him because he's one of the few who like me understands that for all the mannerly shit people are taught to do, for all the current mania about plasticine smiles and teamwork and collaboration, nothing is as important in life and in business as the will to win.
Our time on this planet is about distinguishing yourself. About, in the parlance of our business, burying your clients' competition and making sure it's your ideas that did it.
We don't have to be bastards about it, like me that night 47 years ago, or Barrios. But we need that will.
Congeniality is great. Friendships are dear.
This is business.
We play to win.
I have a close friend who's a poet.
Sure, he does other work to pay for his Upper West Side aerie and his well-art-directed "cabin" in the Berkshires and his SUV that's larger than most Madison Avenue art galleries, but in his heart, he's a poet.
He not only reads poetry--he translates it from about six or seven of the languages he's fluent in. And he writes poetry, too. He's serious about it.
While I was always an Ogden Nash gnashling, Fritz was always serious about the art. Sharing poems with me, frankly, that I could hardly understand. Certainly not on first reading. They required that rarest of all gerunds, they required "thinking."
LELAND We'll be on the street soon, Charlie - another ten minutes. BERNSTEIN (looking at his watch) It's three hours and fifty minutes late - but we did it - Leland rises from the chair, stretching painfully. KANE Tired? LELAND It's been a tough day. KANE A wasted day. BERNSTEIN (looking up) Wasted? LELAND (incredulously) Charlie?! BERNSTEIN You just made the paper over four times today, Mr. Kane. That's all - KANE I've changed the front page a little, Mr. Bernstein. That's not enough - There's something I've got to get into this paper besides pictures and print - I've got to make the "New York Enquirer" as important to New York as the gas in that light. LELAND (quietly) What're you going to do, Charlie? Kane looks at him for a minute with a queer smile of happy concentration. KANE My Declaration of Principles - (he says it with quotes around it) Don't smile, Brad - (getting the idea) Take dictation, Mr. Bernstein - BERNSTEIN Can't take shorthand, Mr. Kane - KANE I'll write it myself. Kane grabs a piece of rough paper and a grease crayon. Sitting down on the bed next to Bernstein, he starts to write. BERNSTEIN (looking over his shoulder) You don't wanta make any promises, Mr. Kane, you don't wanta keep. KANE (as he writes) These'll be kept. (stops for a minute and reads what he has written; reading) I'll provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. (starts to write again; reading as he writes) will also provide them - LELAND That's the second sentence you've started with "I" - KANE (looking up) People are going to know who's responsible. And they're going to get the news - the true news - quickly and simply and entertainingly. (he speaks with real conviction) And no special interests will be allowed to interfere with the truth of that news.
The hero would naturally see his actions as nothing special. His pulling ol' Barney out of the way of the out-of-control car was just him doing a-what comes naturally, but of course ol' Barn couldn't let it go, and pledged himself to serve our hero forever until the end of time.
There are hijinx along the way, of course, and somehow the situation is all rectified at the end. The hero goes back to being nothing special, just a hero. And ol' Barn goes back to being himself, a goofball of the highest and/or lowest order.
I've probably seen this plotline a couple dozen times, and you probably have too. Watching it is like drinking cheap jug-wine to get drunk for the first time. It doesn't take much and you're off your ass but quickly you recover and not all that much harm is done.
The thing about having your life saved--not in a lifeguard way but in a normal course of existence way, is that the person doing the saving usually doesn't even realize he saved you. He just did what had to be done at the moment. Gave you some advice, slipped you a little wisdom, or imparted the tiniest bit of courage when you needed it most. Like William Carlos Williams once wrote, "So much depends upon" shit like that.
The young man who saved my life 47 or so years ago died at the end of December, just two weeks ago. He was 64 and had been battling multiple myeloma for the last 12 years of his life.
Fred and I were friends from the moment we met in the hallowed halls of an elite private school in equally elite Westchester county, just outside of New York City. Neither of us belonged there, so quickly we belonged to each other. A bit of Damon and Pythias amid the high-end neighborhoods where they didn't much like Jews or Black people with points of view.
Fred and I were teammates and mischief makers and soulmates for most of our lives. By luck we went to school together after college, our girlfriends met, they became our wives and we all stayed friends. Fred helped me with problems along the way, and I tried to help him. Sometimes help did little more than take the form of a one-liner that would set us laughing and get us away from that too-familiar slough.
Back in 1974 or so, I was the leading fuck-up in my eleventh-grade class. Though teachers always complained that I was goofing around too much, and nobody ever sat me down and gave me a talking to. The administration gave me an IQ test to see if I had gotten into the school by mistake--but they never sat me down and said anything to me.
Of course, my parents didn't either. They were too busy not paying attention. As I liked to say--even back then, I was growing up in the House of Atreus, but without all the eye-gouging and with fewer olives.
One night, Fred and I were standing in the bleachers watching a hockey game. In private schools in those days, sports like soccer, hockey and lacrosse were the cool kid sports. More conventionally popular sports, football, basketball and baseball were regarded as plebian. Even though Fred was the star of the basketball team and I of the baseball team, our athleticism didn't allow us entry into the cool kid circle. At the hockey game, those kids, the ones in the cable-knit sweaters driving their parents' BMWs were in another set of bleachers. Fred and I stood alone.
We were doing what kids do and have always done. We were talking about our classmates and the bullshit that comes along with them.
Somehow out of the blue, Fred said, "you know who's the brightest kid in our class."
"I dunno, Miles? Carmen? Trish?"
"No," he paused. "You."
"Me? I get all 'Ds.'"
"That's because you don't try."
Fred was the first person to tell me I was smart. To sit me down and tell me I was smart. I really didn't know it before that. My parents never told me. No one had.
I say that moment changed my life because from that moment I started to try. I started to work. I started to break what had become a habit of self-destruction by way of laziness.
It was a two-minute conversation.
I mentioned it to Fred probably 30 years later. And he remembered. I thanked him. And that was that. No sitcom shenanigans, though I might have paid for dinner that night.
You never know who's going to change your life, save your life, make a difference in your life. If it's ever going to happen or never. You never know whose life you've changed or touched or helped or who you've given a boost to.
These are things you can't plan for. You can't adopt some code of chivalry and drive around the neighborhood looking for perilous Pauline tied to the railroad tracks or a broad and muscled back that's waiting for just the right pat.
You just have to live. And try to be decent. Try to think about people. And be there. Maybe with a kind word when a kind word is what's needed most.
Thank you being there and for listening.
Since Monday, my wife and I have decamped to Turks and Caicos for our first vacation since the plague began. Of course, Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie are in tow. And along with them, a cooler bag stuffed with the New York pastries and things Sylvie and Slappy cherish. It was small feat getting rugelach and such through customs, but my wife has her comestible wiles and she succeeded.
Uncle Slappy slept late today and did not emerge from our the second bedroom in our suite and start clanging dishes in our kitchenette until 4:15AM. Like all members of the withering Tannenbaum clan, we are early risers. Many of us, myself included, have done a day's work or more by the time most people are finishing their second cuppa Joe.
Uncle Slappy, always quick with a bon mot or two puts it this way, "I have the sleep habits of a Gloucester fisherman. And the aroma." That's good enough for me and there's no sense trying to top that most seminal of the Delphic maxims: "Know Thyself."
As Uncle Slappy was pouring his first cup of viscous black coffee, I pulled up a chair and sat at the table. Early morning talks with the old man are a currency that surpasses in value Etherium, BitCoin or even S&H Green Stamps.
"Boychick," he began between bites of his first of three cinnamon rugelach. "An idea I have for a new business. Something we could do together. Have fun with during our waning days as visitors to this benighted planet."
"I'm not too crazy these days about Earth either," I said. "As Preston Sturges wrote in "Palm Beach Story," 'That's one of the tragedies of this life. That the men most in need of a beating up are always enormous.' I'm thinking of course of people who shall remain nameless."
"But," Uncle Slappy said while rugelaching, "I have a solution. We open a room--I'm thinking East 23rd Street Area, or Murray Hill..."
"How is Murray?" I interjected.
"On the blackboard, we write one word. The word of the day. Anyone who wants to play, pays $10 or $20. And we kibbitz about that word or topic. The whole thing is filmed. We upload on YouTube. Boom. A billion subscribers."
"I'm not entirely following," I admitted.
"Say it's Wednesday. I write on the blackboard the word 'screen door.' The kibbitzing that day is all about screen doors."
"My wife's cooking is so bad, the flies in the backyard are chipping in to repair the screen door."
"How can you tell a Polish submarine?..."
"We embrace the ethnic joke?"
"Yes," Uncle Slappy said, ignoring the very idea of self-censorship. "The Polish submarine is the one with the screen door on the conning tower."
"The subject du jour is screen doors."
"Yes, then a guy like Medium Murray takes over. He could keep an audience rapt for thirty-minutes with a screen door story."
Uncle Slappy had three friends named Murray. Medium Murray is the medium-heighted of the three.
"He is a good storyteller," I admitted. "And he's no stranger to the art of the digression."
"The next day, we change the topic. We kibitz that day about indoor-outdoor carpeting. I promise you, we could fill a day. Easily."
The old man paused for a moment. He took a large bite of a rugelach and then a long sip of coffee. The pause was as well-timed and dramatic as anything by Shakespeare's Lear or Macbeth or Iago or Portia.
"If push comes to shove, we change the topic to wives."
He paused again.
"That might be good for a month. Please.”
Some weeks ago, I drove my 1966 Simca 1500 about twenty miles south from my rickety cottage by the sea and visited the offices of a new client. I don't have many in-person client meetings these days and there's a lot to be said for the convenience of Zoom but there's still nice about seeing people in person.
I don't care if that violates the belief-system around the Metaverse, that virtual can be regarded as indistinguishable from real-life. I'm just not buying it. In fact, if you ever again go to see a baseball game in a proper ballpark, try to notice the moment you walk out from underneath the stands and see the verdant green of the playing field. I have to believe that even among the most-jaded there's a micro-second of jaw-dropping wow. Like seeing a hawk making lazy circles in the sky or a dolphin clearing the brine.
My client is a brainy guy--and we talk a lot about the nature of science. About how things are discovered, coalesced and made palpable to viewers. I said something about how there's a lot we could all probably learn from the past almost-two-years with Covid and I started knocking off points. He asked me to send him a list and I did.
A few days later, I read my list again, and found I liked it. I posted it on Twitter, and people I respect said I should write a post around it. Here goes:
Six Things We've Learned about Life from Covid.
1. Never underestimate the unknown--disease or otherwise. Small things have a way of becoming big things. Likewise, young people have a way of becoming older. Assess things and people on what they are--not your preconceived nothing of what they are. Look at all variables. And try to consider as many possible variants as you can. It's amazing how lack of prejudice frees people and the world.
2. Unintended consequences are usually more severe than you'd like. I read something not long ago that brought the notion of unintended consequences into sharp focus for me. Some futurist was talking about how life with self-driving vehicles will be so grand. Commutes will be less arduous. Crowded cities, less crowded. You can play video games in your car.
Then someone responded, what about spreading urban-sprawl even further into the country? And so on. About 50 years ago while at the agency Carl Ally, Ralph Ammirati wrote an ad that asked, "What happens now that the car is causing more problems than it solves?" The technology mantra, "move fast and break things," is monstrous. It does not consider what could happen. You can't really just hope the butterfly effect away. Butterflies don't listen.
3. There are no isolated cases. If you've ever seen geese at random and then forming a V, or fish who gather themselves in a vortex for protection, you realize that all living creatures are connected somehow. Even in the cyber world, there are no "air-locks" between machines that can stop incursions and attacks. What happens to one, happens to many. Basically, humanity can act one of two ways: YOYO--you're on your own. Or WITT--we're in this together. Only one is right. Though a different one is popular. The more we look out for the other, the better we'll all be. The sin of the modern democratic party is that it doesn't brand the un-modern republican party as the party of past--of narrow roads, leaking pipes and 19th century infrastructure. Make the stark choice starker.
4. The more testing, the better. This does not mean I recommend "quant" and "qual." It does mean we'd all be better off--and our industry would be better off if we thought through things, if we tested them in our own heads before accepting even the Gospel as gospel. Not too long ago prevailing marketing wisdom told us to try to get Facebook "likes." They were a barometer of marketing success.
97-percent of being a creative person is looking at the same things other people look at but working--testing, turning them upside down and torturing them until you see a side of them no one has before noticed.
It makes sense to do that with just about everything you encounter. Try saying "prove it." In short, be like Shane.
Look for problems with all five senses. By this I mean, don't look at things in a cursory manner. Really take them apart and examine problems from all sides. Who would think that the logic of vaccination--an operation that's probably saved literally billions of lives would become a political issue. But today, I suppose, destroying the planet is a political issue as well.