The Locker (5)

April 10, 2020


You carry in the latest load, one piece at a time, careful not to strain your back. Even with all the work you’ve done in the gym, lifting and hauling boxes was perilous. The only thing worse than doing this task would be hurting your back while doing it. You place a stuffed reindeer on top of the highest ornament box, a mighty stag overlooking his domain! You place a pair of small, antique lamps in a section devoted to miscellaneous items. The nicer of the two once resided on a mission style desk in your home office, in the Victorian you and Sarah proudly rehabbed in Chicago. The beloved room became a nursery when Remy was born. Much as your ‘66 Mustang convertible became a Honda Odyssey. You’d given all that up willingly, as any father would.

The shoebox nearly topples on your head. You recognized it instantly. You had first discovered it while helping your father go through his mother’s belongings just after she died. It contained bundles of letters between your Grandmother and Grandfather, many from before they were married. Inscribed almost a century ago, her delicate script resembled what one sees on historical documents. The “J” in “Dear Jack” reminding you of John Hancock’s iconic signature, sweeping and florid yet elegantly true. Grandpa Jack’s penmanship was cruder. Understandable for a depression-era shopkeeper, yet still a far sight better than yours or most any other man that you knew.

To be continued…

The Locker (4)

April 8, 2020


On the right side were the holidays. Green and red tubs filled with Christmas ornaments. The orange crates held Halloween. Easter didn’t have a container, so you’d put the toy rabbits in a clear plastic bag along with three pink vinyl baskets, one for each daughter. You flash on the many mornings your girls ripped open packages under the tree or mad scrambled to collect candy-filled eggs. Sarah would put a ten-dollar bill into three golden eggs, hoping each child would find only one. The odds of that happening were not good and so you had to whisper clues to each daughter. The night before, after the children had gone to sleep, you and Sarah filled the eggs with candy then hid them. Your wife stayed up super late arranging baskets on the couch, creating a perfect still life overflowing with chocolate bunnies, American Girl accessories, iPods and so much more. You always thought she went too far, spent too much. Now a dead spider was stuck in its own web on the porcelain statue of the Easter Bunny.

To your left were neatly stacked opaque, plastic containers filled with Sarah’s green glass collection, still bubble-wrapped from the previous move, as well as other platters and vases and pottery that will never be opened by you or Sarah again. The hoarding and collecting phase of your marriage was a good one, when you were building a nest together. History now. In twenty or thirty years your daughters might open these tubs looking for treasure…for answers. More likely they won’t give a shit. Somewhere in the stacks is the wedding china; a frilly ornamental pattern neither of you would ever chose now. Picking it out had meant the world to Sarah; so much so she’d made you take off work and go to the department store to see it. She had been so excited it made you excited. Sadly, that phase of your marriage was over.

To be continued…


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Chicago from my hotel, a visitor now.

How are you with personal nostalgia? I’m definitely Love/Hate. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I’m not always a fan of tripping down memory lane. Some people dig visiting their old haunts, getting misty eyed at the sight of myriad firsts (kiss, drink, apartment, job, etc) but I’m not one of them. I usually experience the passage of time as melancholy. The good parts are gone forever and the bad parts linger like ghosts. Either way, it’s kind of funky.

As many of you know, I left Chicago last year to be ECD of gyro, San Francisco. Save for one hotel-bound visit last summer, I have not been back to Chicago at all: not for business and certainly not for pleasure.

Until now…

A global meeting and the Business Marketing Association (for which gyro is a huge supporter) delivered me back to my Sweet Home Chicago. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this post from the fabulous 14th floor of gyro’s Chicago office.

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“Selfie” at gyro, Chicago. All smiles.

From my perch before its many windows I can see both my former companies, Leo Burnett and Euro RSCG (now Havas). I also see parts of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where I was born as well as my daughters. Ah, and there’s the ugly, iconic Marina City Towers. I recall a blowout party…

Shit. I’m waxing nostalgia.

Or it’s waxing me? That’s the thing about returning to one’s hometown. Everywhere I’m bombarded by memories. Yet, maybe they aren’t all misty and sad. Maybe I do enjoy the echoes. It’s kind of like a time machine. My brain processes familiar images as icons. Those “firsts” I made fun of in the first paragraph are unavoidable and indelible.

I’m reminded of Don Draper’s now famous “carousel speech” from an early episode of Mad Men. In it, he exploits the profound human desire to recreate the past based on romantic memories. If you’ve not seen this bit, watch it. The writing and execution are flawless.

Don tells his clients nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” I won’t deny seeing my last former workplace didn’t dredge up some crap. That of a mission not wholly accomplished. The guilt. My anger. A person or two I did not punch in the mouth (but maybe should have). On the other hand no one punched me…

Euro RSCG… Havas… fading fast

But then I see Michigan Avenue, what tourists call the Magnificent Mile! I’m instantly transported back 25 years heading south from Oak Street to my first big day of job interviews. There’s J. Walter Thompson in the John Hancock building no less! Then Foote, Cone and Belding. Followed at last by the most famous Chicago agency of all, Leo Burnett…where I would ultimately work for the next 18 years!

Clearly, I chose wisely. The other two firms aren’t even here anymore. Not really. And let me tell you back then NOTHING compared to having an LBCO business card in your wallet. It made my brother envious. My mother proud. And the chicks dug it.

Today, I’m a proud and happy card-carrying member of gyro –an agency built for the 21st century. All told, I’ve been and continue to be a very fortunate man. Gratitude. That’s a good lens for viewing the past as well as the present.

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Or as my kids call it, a “flat bowling ball.”

Our foyer, in the gloaming.

This weekend I returned to Chicago to pack up my house in anticipation of my family’s move to San Francisco. As some of you know, I took a new job in the City by the Bay, ECD of gyro. I’ve been in that position for almost half a year. Time flies when you’re having fun. As I’ve written numerous times, the job has indeed been fun. And rewarding. During my relatively short tenure we’ve won a new piece of business and improved the creative product on clients we already have. For me the acid test is long over. I’ve found my calling.

Yet, while I was away, my family remained in Chicago. During that time my girls finished up their school year and embarked upon the many joys of summer vacation. For much of it my wife was subservient to them. No easy task. But she handled it with aplomb.

However, summer is in the final turn and now it’s time to address the many stressful tasks associated with moving. Fortunately, the most important matter –buying and selling real estate- has been taken care of. We are now the proud owners of a lovely home in Mill Valley, California.

Which brings me to our house in Chicago. The new owner takes possession in a few days. The movers come today to help us pack and the trucks pull away from the curb on Thursday.  The weekend was the calm before the storm. Soon chaos reigns.

I spent Saturday boxing up my office and mowing the lawn one last time. Both activities allowed me ample time for reflection. Something, in this case, which brought more sadness than delight. I am not wired for nostalgia. Saying goodbye to my house, not to mention this city, is bittersweet at best.

The ghosts of Christmas Past, all in Snuggies.

Ours is a pretty home. So much so the Chicago Tribune once shot pictures of it for their Sunday magazine. And now it will belong to another. A couple I have never met with a child who will have his pick of my children’s bedrooms. The man, a lawyer I’m told, will sit in the very spot I wrote this and do whatever it is lawyers do when they’re at home. I was tempted to scratch a message into my (his) built-in desk. “Steffan was here.” But then he’d have probably sued me for damages.

Whatever. Best to let go. But letting go, I’ve found, is a hell of a lot easier when I’m in San Francisco. There it’s all about the future. OMG, we will raise California girls! They will have tans all year round. My wife will wear white pants in October. With any luck, my agency will prosper as well. And seldom will I have to look back, remembering Christmases and Easter mornings and listening to the Cicadas trilling away in August. Like I am (was) now.

Goodbye house. See you later, Chicago. You’ve been good to me and mine. And I’ll miss you. But not the shoveling of snow and walking dogs when it’s ten below. That will be another man’s job. And he can have it.

Yearning for what came before…

Retromania is the title of a new book by Simon Reynolds. I haven’t read it but it’s about “pop culture’s addiction to it’s own past.” Indeed, most new pop music does seem awfully familiar. Like a lot of people over 30, the first time I heard Lady Ga Ga’s “Born this Way” I immediately thought of Madonna. Looking at her does nothing to dispel the notion. What’s going on? By definition isn’t “pop” supposed to explode…out of nowhere?

I’ll never forget something my former creative partner, Mark Faulkner once told me in regard to his preference for modern architecture over older forms: “Why would anyone want to live in the past?”

It’s a good question (and one pertaining to far more than living arrangements). And the answer is a lot of us. The other day I read a story in the Chicago Tribune (the paper version) about four different area trend setters who make their hay on antiquated, lo-fi technology: buttons, magazines, cassettes and vinyl recordings. Trendsetters living in the past…

Owen Wilson pining for a “Movable Feast.”

The surprise sleeper movie of the summer is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a love letter to Paris but also to the recent past, in this case the Paris of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. The main character in the movie, played by Owen Wilson, is a jaded screenwriter who yearns for a more romantic time in the most romantic city in the world. He wants to uproot his highly lucrative career in Hollywood (writing crappy blockbuster movies) and move to Paris, where he might finish his novel (not screenplay) about the caretaker of a nostalgia shop. There are layers and layers of “oldness” in the synopsis alone! Woody Allen, by way of his protagonist, pines for the “good old days,” or as Michael Kammen put it “history without guilt.”

This is not the first time Woody Allen has explored better times (Zelig) and it won’t be the last. Allen adores the past. And so do we. Though the contemporary (and mostly unfortunate) trend of reality TV is manifest, many of us make special exceptions for shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. The clothes were better. The sex was better. Men were men and women were women. And so on…

Nostalgia makes us feel good. And the examples are everywhere. I myself live in a renovated Victorian home. Unlike my former partner, I like the feel of old wood and the way the sun looks coming through a stained glass window. Parked on the street out front are Ford Mustangs, Dodge Challengers and Chevy Camaros; all cars that experienced halcyon days decades ago but are now back with a vengeance.

2011 Dodge Challenger (8-track not included)

The first blockbuster movie of the summer: Super 8.

In marketing parlance, we sometimes call this “retro chic.” At least that’s the phrase I used when talking about campaigns we did for Altoids and Johnny Walker. For GM, I wrote: “This is the new generation of Olds.”

Fetishizing the past for commercial purposes is big business. Fashion mines the 60’s and 70’s for its bold prints and collar shapes. A perfect pair of imperfect Levis can cost several thousand dollars. We all have and wear favorite tee shirts emblazoned with logos and messages from the recent past. Seeing us an alien might think Led Zeppelin and Adidas were modern things. And the alien would be right…sort of.

Adidas, more trendy than ever…

This could easily turn into a college dissertation. As a matter of fact here’s an excellent essay on the topic from the University of Virginia.