Friday, June 7, 2019

Mad Man

I was in advertising.  An ad man.  Or, more romantically, a Mad Man. In the 1980s, I worked for two of the most illustrious ad agencies of that era, Scali, McCabe & Sloves and Ally & Gargano. These names probably mean nothing to you.  Why should they?  But to ad people, it's like saying to a basketball player that you played with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers when they were at their peaks.

Except it was advertising. Not basketball. Which means I was a hooker.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I did this willingly.  There was no advertising pimp forcing me to turn ads and give him the money:

"Listen, go write that ad for Splenda or I'll kick your ass!"

"But I don't believe in this product!"

"I'll believe you if you don't write me some ads soon."

No, I was an ad worker of my own free will.  I made good money, and when you're young and living in New York City, this is very appealing. You can hardly find a better time and place to spend $$$ than when you're single, in your thirties, and living in New York City.  Plus, the money allowed me to go to therapy, which I desperately needed, mainly to assuage my guilt for being in advertising.

Still, I was a hooker.  I used my God-given talent as a writer to do exactly what someone told me to do in exchange for money, not for love or belief.

I can best explain this by saying that if I were writing ads for, say, Colgate toothpaste, I would do my utmost to convince you this was the best toothpaste in the history of mankind. And that you should purchase it.  But if, suddenly, my ad agency lost the Colgate account and, by some miracle, got the Crest toothpaste account the next day, I would then do my utmost to convince you that Crest was the best toothpaste in the history of mankind. And that you should purchase it. The simple fact that both toothpastes can't be the greatest--not to mention that neither of them might be--wouldn't hinder me at all.  Allegiances change literally on, and for, a dime.

I used to joke to my literary friends that my biggest decision of the day was to choose which fishnet stockings I should wear that day.

From time to time people would ask, "What kind of ads do you write?"

I'd reply, "You know those newspaper ads that say, 'Pork Chops $1.85 lb.?'"

"Uh, yes, I guess."

"Well, I was the first person to put a tilt in that ad."


"You notice those ads--including ground beef and chuck roast--are all titled." Here, I would pause dramatically.  "That was me."

People used to ask me if copywriting helped in any way with my creative writing.  It's all about words, isn't it?  No. It didn't help me at all.  The two have nothing in common.  It's like saying doctors and heroin addicts have a lot in common because they both use hypodermic needles.

At the end of the day, that is part of who I was, and I look it straight in the eye.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Hateful Things

The 11th century Japanese writer Sei Sh┼Źnagon wrote something called "Hateful Things" in which she listed things that, well, she hated.  For example, "One is in the middle of a story when someone butts in and tries to show that he is the only clever person in the room."

On a more contemporary note, the great John Waters, in his book, Crackpot, has a chapter titled, "Hatchet Piece: 101 Things I Hate."  One is, "Obnoxious mimes who think they're poignant." John, I agree. The other 100 things he hates are just as satisfying.

Yes, I know about 19th century writer William Hazlitt's essay, "On the Pleasure of Hating." But it's boring.

This has prompted me to create my own brief list of hateful things.  I recommend you try it for psychic cleansing.  I'm not going to include the obvious, like our orange-maned prez, because what's unique and idiosyncratic about that?  So, without further, etc.

I hate:

The way waiters and waitresses approach your table every three minutes and ask, "Are you enjoying your meal?"

When people drop the "g" at the end of a word in order to appear folksy.  Sarah Palin does it every fifteen seconds.  As in "We're savin' America."  And, sorry to say, so does Michelle Obama.

The way when you're in a group there's always one person who makes decision-making laborious and time-consuming.

The way vegetarians can be arrogant.  They somehow think their refusal to eat meat is angelic.  They come to your house for dinner and expect you've prepared a special meal for them.

When people put their drinks on books.

Here's an obscure one for kicks.  I hate the way New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin refers to Alice Waters, the California restauranteur, as, simply, "Alice," as if we knew her personally.  

How people, often salespeople, take your name as you've given it to them and call you by a nickname you never use.  As in, me: "I'm Richard."  Salesperson: "Great to meet you, Dick."

People who make you run for the door they've opened for themselves when you're about forty feet behind them carrying stuff.


People who throw paper towels in public urinals and sinks.

People who cut in line, especially the ones who do it as if they didn't.

People who are consistently late for meetings, dinners, anything, who act as if it's desirable to be late.

When someone you loan a book to doesn't return it.

The way men use a handshake to demonstrate how strong they are by crushing your hand.

People who can't laugh at themselves.  They take offense if you tease them about something they did or said, looking sour or huffy.

The way people talk on their cellphones in parks--or anyplace in nature. Actually, there's so much to hate about cellphones, I probably need to write an entire post about that.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Thief of Dreams

With every new Donald Trump announcement or proclamation that draws on the worst in us, I think about my daughter.

She’s young, only twenty-five. Her life is really just beginning. She’s at the age where you create dreams about the future, think about the life you will lead, let your hopes and aspirations wander as they will. Anything is possible. All doors are open. This is a moment we cherish for our children and try our best to prepare them for. We had such moments when we were young. They only appear once, and they are glorious, full of exciting uncertainty and potential. In those moments, we can be anything, do anything. Why not?

I had that freedom to dream, that open chance at optimism, when I was young.  Now that I’m not young, I know well how precious that dreaming was.
But every morning I get up to some new haughty, unsettling declaration by Donald Trump that I know must infringe on those freshly minted dreams my daughter and others like her are making. His denial of climate change is possibly the most arrogant of his declarations.  With that, he commandeers the safety and well-being of our planet and its people.

WBUR in Boston reported recently on the growing problem of climate anxiety.  I have had conversations with younger people, some of whom have decided not to have children because of the precarious state of our future.  What about the many of us who do have children? What of those young people who, despite the times, want children?    

It’s hard to build dreams, those most delicate of bridges, in such an atmosphere of darkness.  I am so angry at Trump. I am angry at him for many reasons, but mainly I am angry at him for stealing the future.

How dare he. How dare he pollute the ability for young people to plan their futures in serenity and peace and with hope. I’m calling him out for the thief he is.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The open-hearted, naive, child-like beauty of Sherwood Anderson

Garrison Keillor, when asked what book he felt was overrated, said, "'Winesburg, Ohio' by Sherwood Anderson."  He elaborated, saying the book "is pretty dreadful, and it inspired a whole lot of bad books about sensitive adolescent males needing to flee the philistines of their hometowns."

Well, Garrison, disagree with you there.  Not to mention there are moments when your Wobegon tales sound an awful lot like they take place in Winesburg.  Never mind.  Another story.

This story: Winesburg, Ohio inspired, and still inspires, because it's the truth. For those who haven't read it, it's a series of linked stories--was he the first to do that?--about a small, provincial Ohio town and its denizens.  Published in 1919.  One character, stand-in for SA, George Willard, appears in all the stories, sometimes fully, sometimes cameo.

The prose is basic, simple, direct, honest.

Sidebar.  Anderson helped both Hemingway and Faulkner considerably.   He gave EH letters of introduction (to Gertrude Stein, for one) when H went to Europe as a very young man.  He got Faulkner's first book published.  Later, both turned on Anderson.  Jerks.  At least Faulkner apologized later.

Back to the book.  There's one haunting story that should be anthologized everywhere.  "Adventure." It's about a woman, Alice Hindman, who, when she was sixteen sleeps with a young man named Ned Currie.  She falls hard. Ned has larger ideas than the small town of Winesburg can contain.  He moves to Cleveland, vowing to send for Alice.  He never does.  She, though, never gives up, and, slowly and agonizingly surely, enters a fantasy world of her own making in which Ned will send for her any day.  Her behavior becomes strange. The story culminates in her stripping down and walking naked out into the rain in her small town.  She shockingly realizes what she's done, runs back inside, takes to her bed, and....the story ends this way:

“When she got into bed she buried her face in the pillow and wept brokenheartedly. ‘What is the matter with me? I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,’ she thought, and turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”

I know people like Alice.  I may be Alice some day.  Difficult to read.  True.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


I was living in New York City. 1999. I wanted a dog for myself, but I also wanted one for my six year-old daughter, as well. I wanted her to live with a dog, to see how wonderful they can be, feel comfortable around dogs and to learn from them.

I got him from a small shelter. They told me Chester had been beaten by his former owner, a brute who lived in the South Bronx. When I first met Chester, he shivered and slunk. He lowered his head deferentially. His tail was as far between his legs as it would go. I'd never seen a dog so afraid.

I took him home. He sat in a corner. I told him about my daughter. I told him how beautiful and sweet she was, and how much he would like her and how much she would like him. I told him that we would both love him and that he would feel safe. He seemed to listen. When my daughter saw Chester for the first time, she was in heaven. It wasn't long before Chester lost his shyness and, as dogs miraculously can do, triumphed over his wounds. And that's how he entered our lives. He became Chester, the dog he was meant to be. He was as sweet as sweet can be, and everyone who met him, adored him. I tried to learn from his ability to forget the past. He was better at it that I was. But he was always there, with his dog smile and floppy ears, ready to tutor me.

And, yes, my daughter did learn to love dogs, one of the gifts Chester and I gave her that I am most proud of.  Because what creature gives more without taking than a dog?  What animal so readily and intimately teaches you more about the natural world?  And as a companion, someone who knows you and waits eagerly to greet you, who consoles you and never complains--you cannot ask for more.  I can still see my young daughter and I playing catch inside my apartment with a rubber ball.  Chester leaping high high high trying to snatch the ball out of the air as it arced above him.  Never tiring, almost getting it with that eager mouth until we finally took pity and threw the ball low enough for him to grab it.  Is there any fun as simple and exhilarating as that?

I had him for ten years.  You tell yourself, he won't age in that disproportionate way dogs do, but of course he did.  He grew old. It seemed impossible to me that this exuberant, playful dog would ever age. But he did.  And one day, a day seared in my heart, when he was too sick to enjoy life any more, I took him to the vet and came home without him.

It's been years.  I'm still trying to learn from him.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Books & Co., RIP

Some people mourn movie theaters that have closed down. Some, amusement parks by the sea. Some, those old fashioned drug stores with counter service. Some, race tracks.

I mourn the passing of bookstores. I lived in New York City for thirty-five years, and I saw many of them close. Some of these privately-owned bookstores were marvelous, too marvelous for words. When they closed, it was hard on the heart. Take Books & Co., which was located on Madison Avenue and 74th Street.

The place was a two-story gem with rust-hued brick walls, one of which had an astonishing floor-to-ceiling selection of books that stretched on and on. Exploring that wall of titles, you felt like Howard Carter when he looked into Tutankhamun's tomb for the first time and was asked by those behind him if he saw anything. He replied, “Yes, wonderful things.” The place had a staff of seasoned book sommeliers who paired you with the right book for your particular taste of the moment. You could give them the barest direction, and they'd come up with something delicious for you. It was impossible not to make a discovery there.  I spent many happy hours in that store browsing, imbibing titles, finding wonderful things.  
Books & Co. staff with Jeannette Watson, owner, center

In doing some research for this post, I discovered that a book has been written about the store and its owner, Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co.  Who would have thought? I remember seeing Jeannette Watson, slim, with bright blonde hair, always dressed immaculately, obviously proud and pleased of her bookstore, as well she should have been. She was a hands-on, caring owner who, for twenty years, offered New Yorkers the most exquisite experience of the mind. As far as I'm concerned, Jeannette Watson was a saint, if there ever was one.
Jeannette Watson (center) with Erica Jong

The store closed twenty-two years ago, in 1997. Before it did, there were efforts to save it, but they were futile. It was learned later that Ms. Watson had yearly put about $100,000 of her own money into the bookstore to offset losses. The rent was too high, though. Remember the neighborhood, one of the toniest in the world. So, we lost it. But for twenty years, those of us fortunate enough to have lived in New York at the time had something unique.  

The loss of a great bookstore leaves a special kind of ache. In some metaphorical way, those of us who loved Books & Co. are still wearing black.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Whole 30 Terror

I blame my sister.

Over the Christmas holidays she told me about the Whole 30 "experience."  It's a regimen that cuts out almost all foods--except water--for thirty days.  Well, that's an exaggeration, but not by much.

I am now about two-thirds through this despotic diet, and I can report the following emotions: rage, resentment, hallucinatory behavior, deviousness, loneliness and dreams of butter.

I should've suspected something when my sister said, "It's only for 30 days.  Even you can do that."

In fact, the author of this diet comes at you like a Marine drill sergeant, "Don't you dare tell me this is hard.  Beating cancer is hard.  Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard."  It's as if a Catholic priest married a Jewish mother.  There is enough guilt here to spread over a million bagels.

You're not allowed to eat much of anything that makes you happy.  No pasta. No bread  No wine--not even to cook with.  No sugar.  No milk or cream.  But wait, there's more.  No beans, peas, peanuts and even all forms of soy, including tofu.  No tofu!  I always considered tofu the single reason to avoid health food.  Even that tasteless block of bouncy nothingness isn't good enough for this diet.

The other night three of us on this diet had dinner at a restaurant.  Naturally, the choices were limited.  Of course I couldn't help reading the other, "non-compliant" selections on the menu.  That caused me to go into a crazed reverie, just like one of those World War II movies where two guys are in a foxhole and one of them starts dreaming of home.

"You know what I want?" I said.

"What?" a fellow Whole 30 sufferer at the table asked.

"I want a huge slice of home-made apple pie, just like my mom made in Brooklyn where I grew up."

"You're not from Brooklyn," the other Whole 30 pilgrim said.

"I am now.  That pie will ooze juices from the apples, and the crust will be buttery, and the edges will be crisp and brown."

"Stop it!"

"And my ma will put an enormous scoop of vanilla ice cream on it, the best vanilla ice cream in the world, and it will be creamy and rich."

"Shut up, Richard!"

"And that cold delicious ice cream will start to melt, and it will begin to drip into the pie."

"Stop it, or I'll come at you!"

"And before I take my first bite I'll lower my nose to the pie, and smell the crusty apple beautifulness and feel the coolness of the ice cream."

"I'm going to shoot you!"

"Then I'll take my fork and cut into my ma's great homemade apple pie, and I'll put an enormous portion on my fork with a big portion of vanilla ice cream, and I'll slowly bring it up to my..."

NOTE:  The post stops here for some reason.  Obviously something terrible went on in that restaurant at this point.