Thinker or stinker?

I went to a cocktail party the other night. Given I don’t cocktail anymore I’m pretty much there for chips and the occasional conversation. That means most every social gathering is, for me, a chore. Especially without the social lubricant. But, honestly, I wasn’t socially adept even when I was drinking. Neither a good time Charlie nor a brawler, I tended to hop from person to person nervously trying to make a connection. Failing that I would drink until it was time to go home and pass out, hopefully in that order.

Thing is I’m in an introvert. For myriad reasons –good and bad- I’m more comfortable living in my own head than most anyplace else. Consider my passions: reading, writing, running, cinema, working out, fishing; things I can and do all by myself.

Maybe “comfortable” is the wrong word. Frankly, my head can be a bad neighborhood. It gets pretty scary in there. Yet, I’m used to it. And it’s been my M.O. since I was a boy.

So, I’m at this party and I notice one of the children shying away from the pack. One of the other kids asks the little girl to play. She shakes her head no. Then the child’s mother intervenes. “Go on, sweetie, you’ll have fun.” Her daughter is having none of it. As I was nowhere near the adult party (see above explanation), I walked over and ask what’s the matter.

The mom says what moms always say when her child’s behavior is called into question: “She’s just tired.”

“I wonder if she’s an introvert,” I offer.

Aghast, the mother ruefully denies the possibility. It’s as if I accused her daughter of being abnormal.

Feeling guilty for exacerbating things, I tell the woman that I’m an introvert too, and that, after all, the world needs introverts. “Who would write all the books,” I joked, “if everyone were outside playing?” Not the best argument but it seems to make the mom feel better. Which makes me feel better, especially given how infrequently I add value to a conversation. I also think most art requires looking inward.

Driving home I thought about the incident and introversion in general. Tough being wired the way I am and having a large family. Moody and introspective, I am often seen by them as the bad guy: anti-social and self-centered. I’m working on it but isolating is a hard habit to break –even with loved ones, especially with loved ones.

At work, I make it a point to walk the halls even though my every instinct would have me in front of my laptop with the office door shut. Thankfully, I trained myself long ago to be more than capable presenting work, to the point where I genuinely adore this facet of the job. But it wasn’t easy.

No surprise I love email. With it, I can communicate without actually socializing. I’ve taken to social networks for much the same reason. My guess is the creators of many social media platforms are introverted, perhaps trying to get out! Certainly Mark Zuckerberg is.

While at times I rail against it, clamoring to be socially awesome, I am and always will be an introvert. And if that little girl’s fate is to be one too here’s hoping her mother cuts her some slack. After all, the little one might have some very big ideas cooped up inside.

Threatening skies?

The last few days in Chicago have been unbelievably gorgeous. 70 degrees with a cloudless sky the deep blue color of a mailbox. Stunning, perfect weather unlikely bested anywhere in the world. Alas, we Chicagoans know how fleeting these days are. Like Rod Blagojevich, bad weather is never far from Chicago.

But back to those mailbox-blue skies. Unfortunately, for me (and I imagine a lot of people) they are also evocative of something deeply sinister, especially in the context of an urban landscape. It breaks my heart to write this, but the first thing I thought of when I gazed upon the John Hancock building today, silhouetted against such a sky, was September 11, 2001.

The weather here and in New York was equally brilliant that day.

My second daughter, Colette had come into the world four days prior and was only in her new home one day when the world changed forever. At the time, we lived downtown, on East Walton Street, literally in the shadow of the John Hancock Building. I’ll never forget seeing my wife, her new baby in one hand, trying to close the shutters in the event Chicago’s iconic high-rise was destroyed. She thought it would keep the dust out. I didn’t tell her not to bother, that if “they” hit the Hancock we would need more than wood shutters to protect us. I’m not purpling this up for effect. On that morning, in real time, we had no way of knowing if other famous buildings and landmarks were targeted. If they were, the Hancock building would make any shortlist.

And so as beautiful as these last few days have been, they are also bittersweet. The preternaturally blue skies heighten the memory of 9/11… As does the crispness of the air… the skyline…planes.

Wispy cloud or catastrophe?

While talking on the phone today from my office, I stared out and up into the sky, watching an airplane heading toward the airport. So clear and bright was the day, I could make out the United Airlines logo on the plane’s tail. The jet seemed on collision course with each high rise it passed over. It was eerie.

Selfish as it may sound, I was struck by the irony of having such a rare and beautiful early fall day marred by the terribleness of that one just like it nine years ago.

I was born moody…

Are we having fun?

I ask because sometimes I think we take ourselves too seriously. I know I do. I also know it’s often a character defect disguised as something noble, like integrity or being a hard worker.

And while I think everyone could benefit from lightening up, I’m primarily talking about us folks in the advertising business. Obviously, doctors need to take themselves seriously. (I want mine to.) Plenty of other vocations demand a more serious attitude.

But we in Adland are not one of those groups. Nor should we be. First of all, we don’t make anything. Our product is ideas. Each one of us is a creator or a facilitator of creation. Therefore, when we take our craft too seriously we risk playing God. It’s okay to debate whether what we do is art or commerce or both. However, we go too far when we think of marketing ideas as precious. They are not. And despite what your mother told you, you are not either. We may be talented. We are certainly lucky. Said another way: what we do isn’t precious but that we get to do it is.

I’ve always considered my job one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever received, be it through hard work, good luck or likely both. And I’m not just talking about now. I loved my first years at Leo Burnett as much, if not more, than any other time in my life. And that’s saying a lot because I love my current job. Love it.

Advertising (or whatever we’re calling it) has been very, very good to me and to a lot of people. You, I hope. Though our business is changing, perhaps diminishing, it’s still one hell of a gig. I won’t waste space selling the proposition. You know what I mean. Next time you’re at a dinner party or something similar, take note of what the other guests do for a living. We are surrounded by traders, financial advisers, retailers, lawyers, and, sadly, the unemployed or underemployed. High salaries or not, in good times and bad, I wouldn’t trade places with any of them. Would you? (Note: teachers are pretty special; they are an exception. ☺)

That is not to say we should get on high horses. I suggest we count our lucky stars and say a prayer to the Gods of Advertising and to God period that we get to do what we get to do. Those of us still gainfully employed in this ephemeral task should lighten up. If any group should be whistling while they work it’s us!

Special note: I’m unsure of this writing. I wrote it some days ago when my mood was better. Now, I worry it’s more wishful thinking or even magical thinking. Lord knows, there’s plenty to fret and wonder about when it comes to our business. I’m also considering the many creative directors who’ve recently resigned their seemingly wonderful jobs. Why? I’m afraid the answers are in conflict with my above points. What do you think?

While I’ve written four novels, dozens of short stories, probably thousands of ads, as well as maintained three blogs, I’ve done it all with basically one finger: the index on my right hand. Yes, I use the left index finger to mark punctuation but the other digit taps out all the words.

Crazy, huh? It’s not that I prefer longhand; I don’t. Though I wrote the initial drafts of my first two novels with pen and pencil I quickly migrated to laptops when those became available.

In college I wrote in notebooks or on a typewriter nicked from my father. Back then I was a drinker and a smoker and I used my left hand to do that and my right hand to work. God knows what my brain was doing but that’s how I functioned.

As time went by I stopped drinking and smoking cigarettes (though I still puff cheap cigars) but I never learned to type properly. That’s not to say I didn’t evolve; I did. I certainly memorized the keyboard. Subsequently, my finger tapping became faster and faster. I never timed it but when I’m in the zone I can probably hammer out forty or fifty words a minute, maybe more.

As cell phones became more versatile I began using them the same way. Though Blackberry’s keyboard is made for traditional typing I use the one-finger approach there as well.

This likely is stupid behavior but it won’t change. I’ve gotten too competent in my dysfunctional approach to bother learning the proper method.

Oddly, I don’t know a single person who types like I do. All of you seem to engage your keyboards properly. Even you non-professional writers. Am I wrong about this? If so, let me know. I’m curious: Am I the only one-fingered typist who is not a child or a monkey?

TV. New and Improved!

Great article in the September issue of Details magazine, by Simon Dumenco, on the evermore arty and erudite medium of television. That’s right, TV. Seems the boob tube has come of age and is no longer the “vast wasteland” as so many smarty-pants used to call it. No doubt there are plenty of shallow programs around the dial –the plethora of reality TV shows testifies to that. However, we elitist snobs now have an array of high-brow choices unlike the medium has ever seen: Mad Men, True Blood, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Glee, and many others coming and going.

When I was a tyke we basically got frivolous crap –though sometimes highly entertaining- like The Beverly Hillbillies and Love American Style. Basically, the only TV smart people owned up to watching were 60 minutes, PBS and the Olympics. But with the advent of cable, Internet platforms and DVDs the sheer volume of options has bred higher and higher quality shows, shows that people want to own and talk about. We are as likely to display a boxed set of Mad Men on the book shelf as, well, books.

Dumenco pokes fun at our newfound elitism, writing that so-called “must see TV” has become “home-workey.” Clearly appointment television has entered the highest tiers of society. We like to brag about being up-to-date on the greatest shows, and not just around the water cooler but via Twitter and Facebook. We are ever so slightly dismissive of those who aren’t. Ironically, it reminds me of those kids in college who pooh-poohed TV altogether, claiming it was junk food. Indeed, I remember feeling cool admitting I didn’t watch TV at all. Just football and the news, I used to say. Not anymore.

I adore Mad Men and True Blood. I am frothing at the mouth to catch AMC’s latest offering, The Walking Dead. And I still think the Simpson’s provides some of the finest social satire available.

In addition to regular folk developing meaningful, long-term relationships with TV, so are many big time creators of content. Dumenco points out Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Boardwalk Empire as a prime example. It is no longer considered “slumming” for a famous feature director to take on the medium. Quite the contrary.

Perhaps the most revelatory aspect of all this is TVs rekindled adoration by advertisers. While Mad Men may only garner a million or two viewers they are considered among the most important viewers in the universe. For BMW and other like-minded advertisers going on such programming is like shooting fish in a barrel. A long way from the barrel of monkeys TV viewers used to represent.

When there were only a few channels, networks dumbed everything down to the lowest common denominator. Quality shows like All in the Family and Mash were major exceptions. Now smart programming doesn’t just survive; it thrives.

Unlike Dumenco, who sarcastically wraps up his piece suggesting its time to “stop telling everybody just how much (we’re) gorging on TV,” I think this phenomenon is a remarkably good thing. And not just for the viewing public but for all of us in the advertising business as well.