Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Searching on Second Avenue.

Columbus searched for the New World.

Pizarro for El Dorado.

De Leon for the Fountain of Youth.

This morning, despite a steady onslaught of freezing rain, Uncle Slappy and I went out in search of chicken fat.

Chicken fat is used in cooking by probably a handful of Jews in Manhattan. The people who use it are dying out, as are the meals and the recipes they cook with it.

A similar feeling must be experienced by, say, native Americans, if they need wild acorns for cooking, or a yellow-throated wood thrush.

They're things you just can't find anymore.

Uncle Slappy fastened up his galoshes. He was like Mr. Antrobus in Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." Despite all the evidence and science of global warming, Slappy was ready for the deep freeze. Maybe he sees Mastodons where I see the M15 bus.

I loaned him my ancient oilskin and foul-weather hat. These I bought 30 years ago and are more suited to a North Atlantic crossing than a short trip across town.

I buttoned up accordingly, with my second-string rain gear.

And we trudged through the downpour to Fairway. Fairway, thousands of square feet of almost everything imaginable. Literally scores of olive oils, coffees, cheeses, salamis and fruits and vegetables from every corner of the world.

But no chicken fat.

No hay graso de pollo.

Then to Park East, a small kosher emporium on Second Avenue.

There too the staff is Hispanic. Like the lederhosen-wearing Mexicans at the Old Heidelburg Schnitzel Restaurant down the block.

There too no hay graso de pollo.

Finally, a yarmulke wearing beard produced an eight-ounce container of the contraband from under the counter.

He handed it to me.

Uncle Slappy and I thanked him with the thanks of salvation.

I pulled a $20 from my slicker.

"No charge," he said, "And Happy Thanksgiving."

Joseph Mitchell in the New Yorker.

 Wordsworth had it right, ‘The world is too much with us…”

In just the past couple of weeks we’ve had beheadings, ass-annointings, and the awfulness of Ferguson. Now that Thanksgiving, and thank god, my daughters are upon us, maybe it’s time we put some of the world aside. Maybe it’s time we stopped ‘Getting and spending.’ Maybe it’s time we stop ‘laying waste our powers.’

Maybe it’s time to breathe.

Fortunately for me, the “New Yorker” arrived last night, only a day late thanks to the great good graces of the United States Postal Service. Inside were eight pages or so written by my favorite writer, Joseph Mitchell. They were never-before-published pages of his never-finished memoir. These recounted his boyhood in rural North Carolina.

Mitchell died almost two decades ago, having spent the last 30 years of his life suffering from a legendary case of writer’s block. He kept his post at the “New Yorker,” but from 1964 until his death in 1996, he published nothing.

I read, with relish, his “Remembering the South in the City,” part of his unfinished book. Here’s what I noticed.

Mitchell includes a lot of lists.

His lists go on.

They are exhaustive.

And repetitive.

They force you to slow down.

To consider.

Why, how, what, where and who.

He’ll enumerate every fruit he picked. Or every tree her climbed. Or every animal he saw in the woods.

“Early one morning last summer, around daybreak, going for a walk to the farther side of the branch, I saw a raccoon on the canal bank. It was eating a frog. A few minutes later, I saw a diamondback water snake. And then I saw an old and obese opossum crawl out of one of the ditches. It waddled along the ditch bank for a short distance and then abruptly darted through some bushes and into a hole in the base of the trunk of a dead tree. And then I saw a box turtle. And I saw a pair of muskrats. And then, passing through a grove of hickory trees, I sensed something moving along a limb far up above me, and glancing upward I saw fleetingly and out of the corner of an eye what I am sure was a wildcat or, as we call it, a bobcat. It is still possible to see a wide variety of birds in the branch, and a wide variety of insects, and a wide variety of wild flowers.”

It’s not boring.

It’s living.

We write today as breathlessly as we interrupt.

Like machine-guns, we fire off little bursts of words and then send another volley hurtling through the cyber-void.

Mitchell, you can tell, did something people rarely do today.

He spent time alone.

Not online. Or watching a video. Or the clock. Or cable.

He thought.

He thought about the world.

And the invisible forces that put a river there, an arrowhead here and a raccoon eating a frog there.

Life.






Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Protest.

I think a lot of what's happening in America right now can be summed up by the title of Neil Postman's famous book "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

A century and a half ago, Marx asserted "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Today, we have improved upon religion.

Sale-a-brations are the opiate of the masses.

Kim Kardashian's ass is the opiate of the masses.

Posting pictures of your dinner, tweeting, reality tv, sports, etc. All opiates.

We live in a strangely anesthetized age.

When a loved one dies, we're supposed to come to terms with it. We're supposed to "put it behind us."

When banks bring down the Global Economic System, we're suppose to applaud their demonstrations of largesse, like their sponsorship of stadiums and outdoor theater. We're supposed to smile along with the actors in their inundating commercials.

And now, with Ferguson, like with Trayvon before that, we're supposed to go home and protest quietly.

We live in an era where we're encouraged to go gently into that goodnight.

Where we're NOT supposed to rage against the dying of the light.

No, we're supposed to tsk and tut and change our Facebook profile picture, as if that's enough.

I don't know how to protest.

No one does.

You can't do what Thoreau did protesting the Mexican American War and not pay tax. Our taxes are withheld automatically.

You can't throw stones or Molotovs through plate glass.

We drink our drinks,
And watch our shows,
And turn out the lights,
And so it goes.

Ferguson.

William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi, the inventor of Yoknapatawpha County and its many inhabitants--white and black--famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Over the past twenty years or so, we in the media business have tried to live lives and careers that abnegated Faulkner's wisdom.

We have lived through--and accepted--myriad savants, geniuses, futurists, Shingys and others, who have assured us that "this will change everything." That the old ways--the interruption model, the relationship of brands and consumers, that marketing itself, is dead.

Last night America's "past" showed its true colors.

Our nearly 400 years of acceptable, codified racism asserted itself.

A white police officer who shot an unarmed African-American teenager a dozen times was acquitted. It's easy, if you have a sense of history, to flashback to Scottsboro, or Emmet Till, or Bull Conner.

Charles Blow, op-ed columnist for "The New York Times," believes that the antipathy that so many feel toward President Barack Obama comes from their view that "he's not one of us." He's an outsider. Read his column here.

Of course, the "that will change everything-ites," were quick to herald America as "Post-Racial" just six years ago. When in fact, it appears we're barely post-1920.

We have spent my lifetime, as a culture, putting a linoleum pan-gloss on the dark underbelly American life. I'd bet you that nine out of 10 people under 20, if not more, don't know who Lt. William Calley was, or the aforementioned Bull Conner, or Emmit Till, or Church bombings in Alabama.

There are scores of people on my various social-media feeds that protest Genetically Modified food. Not that many are protesting Historically Modified truth.

We don't like the truth.

We prefer sit-coms.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A childhood memory.

The closest beach to New York City where they allow dogs to swim is about two miles from where I grew up. My wife and I have taken to driving up to this beach on early weekend mornings so our golden retriever can have a couple hours a week of fun in the surf. As a consequence, I get to visit some places from my youth, or at least drive by them.

Of course in the almost 40 years that have elapsed since I left Westchester for Manhattan, things have changed in both places. Still, seeing my childhood haunts often brings back a flood of memories. Not all of them rose-colored.

This Sunday as we were driving my wife remarked that a liquor store we were driving by was, in her words, “huge.”

My memories went back to 1967 or so when the liquor store was a Gristedes, a local supermarket. I was running home from Johnnie Auletta’s house one cold Sunday afternoon and a kid named Glen Hall tried to mug me.

Hall was one of the tougher kids in town and for whatever reason—it couldn’t have been money because, well, how much could I be carrying? decided he wanted to beat the shit out of me. He was a tough kid, Glen Hall, one of the few black kids in town.

I was cutting across the Gristedes’ parking lot which was enclosed by a four-foot-high chain link fence, and he charged at me. I was hemmed in by the fence and not looking forward to my beating. Suddenly, something clicked, and instead of playing the victim, I grabbed at a shopping cart that had been left unattended in the parking lot. Maybe someone had wheeled their groceries home and returned the cart after Gristedes had closed.

In any event, I ran full-tilt at Hall with the cart as a battering ram and scared the shit out of him. He looked at me like I was absolutely out of my mind.

I suppose he said ‘fuck you’ to me, or something of that ilk and then he high-tailed it out of the parking lot.

I recounted the story, briefly, to my wife. And then said, “I’ll tell you what I learned from this.

“When you’re in a fight with someone, it makes sense, it’s smart in fact, if they think you’re a little bit crazy.


“Chances are, they’ll give you wide berth.”  

Uncle Slappy arrives for Thanksgiving.

Uncle Slappy and Aunt Sylvie arrived last night on the 4:40 non-stop from Boca, which put them in to LaGuardia at just after 7:00. Uncle Slappy called me on his cell and I pulled the Simca around to waiting area "C." Before long, they and their luggage were settled in and we were heading West on the Grand Central toward Manhattan.

"Mort Gershman," Uncle Slappy began, "now he's a man who knows how to get ready for Thanksgiving."

Aunt Sylvie looked out the window. After 56-years with Uncle Slappy, she's used to having him hold court.

"Who's Mort Gershman," I asked, innocently enough.

Slappy answers as he always does, "He lives two units down with a view of the pool." If you ask Uncle Slappy, two-thirds of the world's remaining Jewry lives two units down with a view of the pool. "He was an attorney in New Brunswick. He's a bit of a trombenick," Slappy said.

"A trouble-maker," I clarified, not sure how my Yiddish would fare against Slappy's.

"Yes, a trouble-maker. All last week by the pool he was helping the alte-kockers get ready for Thanksgiving. He was selling drugs by the pool."

"Mort Gershman is a pusher?" I asked.

"He was walking around the deck with loose Prilosecs in a baggie. Selling a single pill for $5 or three for $10. 'This will make your Thanksgiving fantastic,' Gershman said. By all accounts, he was doing a land-office business."

"I have persistent heart-burn myself," I added, "Prilosec works wonders."

"That's what you think," Uncle Slappy corrected.

I skirted through three lanes of traffic on the Grand Central and exited on Hoyt Avenue, the last exit in Queens. From there, I sped down 31st Avenue and made my way to the Queensboro Bridge--now named for ex-New York-mayor Ed Koch. The Queensboro is free whereas the quickest route, over the Triboro--now named for Bobby Kennedy--costs $5.17 with E-Z pass. It offends Uncle Slappy to pay the toll.

"Every once-in-a-while a customer would tell Gershman that Prilosec does nothing for him. He's still got heart-burn like Vesuvius. Well," said Uncle Slappy, "Morty was prepared for that."

We were clacketing over the Queensboro Bridge. My 1966 Simca doing all she could to hold onto her nuts and bolts.

"Gershman had taken Tums and turned them into powder with a small mortar and pestle. Then he mixed the Tums with baking soda and put a few grams into small celluloid envelopes."

We headed up First Avenue, hitting the lights just right and making it all the way from 60th to 82nd without a stop.

"'Smoke a little of this,' Gershman would advise. It's crack for stomach-acks."

I pulled into our garage and helped Sylvie and Slappy out of my car. I lifted their valises from the trunk.

"Tums cut with baking soda. Crack for your stomach-ack."

Slappy put his arm around me as we walked through the garage into my building.

"Don't tell Sylvie," he whispered. "I've got two bags with me."

"Two bags," I repeated.

"You wouldn't happen to have a pipe, would you?"

Slappy padded into the guest room. Leaving me shaking my head.




Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols and Digital Natives.

I’ve seen a fair amount of Advertising want ads of late seeking, for various positions, “digital natives.” I am staggered by the wrong-headedness of that classification.

For one, it seems obvious, there is inherent age-discrimination implied. Digital natives would be by definition people born after a certain date, after the rise of the Internet. This is not only wrong, but it’s also stupid.

My main qualm with those seeking digital natives, however, occurred to me when I read Mike Nichols’ obituary.

Nichols, like many great “American” artists, was not born in America. He wasn’t even born Mike Nichols—his given name was Americanized from Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky.
In fact, Peschkowsky was a double-immigrant, having first fled Russia, then Germany, for our teeming shores. Yet somehow, though he wasn’t an “American native,” he produced archetypical “American” work. You don’t have to love his movies, his plays, or his comedy, to credit him with being a keen observer of American life—perhaps America’s keenest observer over the last 60 years or so.

Outsiders seeing what insiders can’t is not new in the world of art or commerce. Homer saw the Greek world better than the Greeks. Though he was blind.

Hollywood was built by outsiders, usually Jews from Central Europe, who in short order went from shtetl to Keystone Kop, or a flophouse in London to “Modern Times.” Billy Wilder was writing Oscar-winning screenplays just a year or two after arriving in America knowing virtually no English.

Outsiderness, not nativeness, often leads to insight. You see things from a different point of view, perhaps more sardonically and more analytically, both. Distance creates vision.

It’s why we talk to therapists. And why, often, our friends can give us better advice than we can give ourselves.

Surely, there are things Digital natives see that I never will. But, likewise, there are things they take for granted that I think are spectacular and stunning.

Perspective, most often, is gained by distancing yourself from what you’re viewing. Being too close sometimes results in blindness or myopia. And perspective is what prospective employers should be looking for.

Not just sight.

Insight.



Thursday, November 20, 2014

The curse of recency.

How did cronuts shove the world's many wars off of the front pages?

How did Kim Kardashian's nether regions become more important than corruption in the global economic system, the warming of our planet and a toxic gas leak that on Monday killed four workers?

It's not enough to just say that the world's dumbed down.

There's something else destroying our minds.

The curse of Recency.

Recency, or if I want to get all deep-dish about it, the Availability Heuristic, is the all-too-human tendency to assign more importance to events and conditions that happened recently, as opposed to things that happened a while ago.

It's why if you ask people for the greatest writer in the world, more people are likely to say Stephen King than Geoffrey Chaucer.

The ad business has been especially waylaid by Recency.

Everything we've learned about communication and persuasion is, these days, overwhelmed by the au courant trend, joke, trend or fillip. Worse, because the only adjective we now value is "award-winning," we are under the sway of awards shows that celebrate recency and therefore bring more recency on.

That's a fancy way of saying there's no originality. Most creativity today involves little more than imitation of work that's already won awards. (Perhaps the most creative aspect of most awards shows is the invention of new award categories.)

Recency has gotten us away from persuasion.

It's gotten us away from the core of what our business is about.

There are those, of course, who will use the recency of a new application or a new website or a new belch of wearable technology, and then they'll glibly assure us that "this changes everything."

This palaver will be repeated down the hallways and conference rooms of a thousand agencies around the globe. We'll hear about agencies that are leading the industry because they have a "wearable" department. They'll win awards as the Wearable Agency of the Year. There will be a new award called "The Wearies."

We've seen this sort of thing a dozen times over the last dozen years.

It's all recency.

What we should be thinking about is something deeper than merely recent.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Information Age.

Maybe they call this "The Information Age," because it's damn near impossible to get any information.

I recently bellied up to the bar and had to buy a car for my younger daughter who, as I said in a previous post, has flown the parental coop.

I don't take spending $20,000 lightly. I throw nickels around like manhole covers. I wanted, before I put cash on the barrelhead (whatever that means) to know that the car was safe, that it was reliable and that it was large enough for my daughter and her friends.

"Consumer Reports" helped narrow the field as did the safety ratings of the National Highway Transportation Safety Board. But ads and websites and brochure and dealers were almost completely useless. Virtually every statement in any of those "channels" was a parity claim.

Nothing took the car apart for me and put it together again.

No one thought I'd be interested in customer-satisfaction scores and repurchase intent. No one thought I'd like to know about the relative thickness of steel, the aggregate number of airbags, the 60-0 braking distance. And dozens more things.

I see the same everywhere, whether I'm buying a new camera, carpeting for my apartment, a new computer. Even in financial services, perhaps the most data-sensitive of all purchase decisions, we tend to see well-fed people shaking hands with other well-fed people, usually through plate glass.

There's no information.

The only thing brands seem to want to tell me is that impossibly attractive people smile when they use their brand.

I can already hear the push back.

Nobody reads.

Purchase decisions are emotional, not rational.

Etc. etc.

I'm not buying it.

Even if you're impossibly attractive and smiley.

-
BTW,  I'm particularly frustrated by this because brands use information like mad to have their messages follow us around like heat-seeking drones. That's the one hand.

On the other hand, they think we're too dumb or disinterested to make wise purchase decisions.

There's a Volvo spot running now trumpeting theirs as the "connected car." It is so devoid of ballast it's like cotton-candy infused with helium. In a market that is up 8%, Volvo sales are down 6%. They are over 40% below their peak annuals sales figures. They need to help me consider Volvo. Volvo resides in the most competitive segment of the car industry. Knowing that I can listen to Pandora while I drive? No.

Uber uber alles.

The hipster community is up in its well-tattooed arms about a taxi-cab service called Uber. Uber is perfect for the said hipsters because via its well-designed app, it puts those hipsters at the center of the universe. To that center cabs are dispatched which can whisk those same hipsters to the next center of the universe.

Because of Uber's ability to do this, it somehow has a valuation of 13-times "The New York Times," perhaps the finest and most influential newspaper in the world.

Uber, however, is succumbing to what many companies fall prey to as they grow. They see their customers gush over them. They see their market-cap soar. They see their faces festooned on the covers of magazines. They see themselves on various 40 under 40 lists or 30 under 30. They see all that.

And they begin to think their shit doesn't stink.

They believe their press.

They become in a word, arrogant.

The trick in our bubbly era of start-ups, technopreneurs, maker-culture et al is eschewing arrogance. It's not seeking to smear detractors as an Uberite proposed doing. It's actually being good now that you're big.

I think many darling companies are struggling with this.

Agencies too.

They believe their press.

They think they are unassailable. They think they are gods.

It's Calvinist, really. These corporate titans believe they are chosen by some sort of deity. That the rest of us are pond scum. And they act accordingly.

I don't think it's much of a trick to find success.

The trick is to be successful and humble.