All Gravy: Feedback on My ProJo Column

July 23, 2014

cali_gravy

 

My op-ed column, “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which appeared last Wednesday in the Providence Journal, is by far the most widely read piece I have written. To date, it has elicited 477 Facebook shares and 138 Tweets from the Journal’s online edition alone.

In addition to garnering social media love, the column has prompted readers to contact me directly via email. I have heard from fellow bread and gravy aficionados, displaced Rhode Islanders, people who grew up on Federal Hill and Charles Street, long-lost cousins… The feedback has been great, and I wanted to share some of the highlights.

                                        *        *        *       

“The Italian bread never tasted better than when dipped in the gravy. Not to be confused with American white bread. As I am reading the article, I’m laughing because my wife’s family and mine have been having the sauce versus gravy debate for 20 years of marriage.”

                                        *        *        *   

“I grew up in Mt Pleasant (born 1956) and went to many of the same bakeries. My late mother, born and raised on Federal Hill, admonished me with the same words as she sent me to the Castle Spa to pick up a loaf of Crugnale’s bread. I recall running down Chalkstone Ave with the bread ‘like a football’ and taking a piece off the end. Your words warmed me as I recalled the love of my mother.”

                                        *        *        *       

“Having resided in NH since 1969, I’ve suffered with the lack of food products and choices I grew up with. This problem is only rectified by numerous trips back to RI to stock up. My New Hampshire-born wife had to endure the same ‘gravy-sauce’ and ‘macaroni-pasta’ education you mentioned.”

                                        *        *        *       

“My mother was from Federal Hill and my father the North End or, more specifically, Charles Street. Every Sunday morning on the way back from church at St. Ann’s I would stop at a little bakery on Russo Street (Palmisciano’s, as I recall) and would eat the heel before I was at the next corner – my house. I would turn the bread upside down and it wouldn’t be discovered for at least a couple of minutes when my father would take the bread out – for the same reason.”

                                        *        *        *       

“My wife and I are long-time bread lovers. When we lived on the East Side, we bought bread on Federal Hill, including at the old Palmieri’s.”

                                        *        *        *       

“I turned a shade of pink, having been guilty of stealing the heel.”

                                        *        *        *       

“I grew up in the Silver Lake section of Providence and we certainly had our share of bakeries. Fact is, as a young child, I baked the bread and delivered it to houses in those days. THANK YOU for stirring up those memories.”

                                        *        *        *       

“My husband is half Italian and did exactly what you did when asked to go to the bakery. To this day, he dips a crusty piece of bread into the ‘gravy’ just to test!”

                                       *        *        *

“Don’t we love the food debates and yes, a good local bakery that you can walk to is such a treat. Moreover, it brings back those great childhood memories.”    

                                        *        *        *       

“The scent of all those neighborhood bakeries rose off the newsprint. Thank you so much for that memory.”

                                        *        *        *       

“I was once in a high-end store in the Berkshires and following a couple whose wife asked her husband, ‘What kind of pasta should I get?’ Unable to control myself, I said, ‘Why the ‘rigs’ of course.’ They turned to me somewhat confused… ‘Uh, I meant rigatoni.’”

                                        *        *        *       

And finally, this gem:

“Thank you for supplying me with new material to use in the never-ending ‘sauce versus gravy’ wars we enjoy with our old Italian friends. I can still recall, as a child in the fifties, loitering in the kitchen waiting for my mother to ask if I wanted to try the gravy on a piece of Italian bread. She eventually taught my Hungarian wife to make equally high-powered gravy. One of our Hunga-Wop daughters carries on the tradition. We never, ever, used the word ‘pasta,’ either. That was for people on TV macaroni commercials.”

 

Thanks to all for sharing their bread and gravy stories. And if you haven’t done so yet, feel free to add your thoughts below – would love to hear from you.

 


Stirring Things Up: The Gravy Recipe

July 18, 2014

crushed tomatoes

I have written seven Op-Ed pieces for the Providence Journal since December. Topics have included Wiffle ball, the return of “Mad Men,” and Christmas Eve at my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill.

Of all the pieces, one stands alone in its popularity: “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which ran this past Wednesday. It garnered, by far, the most Facebook shares of any of my columns to date.

I’m not surprised. Having grown up in Providence, I know first-hand how passionate people can be about bread and gravy.

When the number of Facebook shares topped 100 on Wednesday afternoon, I offered an incentive in hopes of generating more: if the shares reached 200, I’d publish my gravy recipe. It worked. Shortly before noon on Thursday, we hit the magic number. By the end of the day, the shares exceeded 300. First thing Friday morning, they were at 401 (appropriate number) and still climbing.

My gravy recipe is simple, but figuring it out was anything but that. Years ago, when I asked my mother about the ingredients, she said “depends on what you have.” (For meat, she would use sausage or pork or steak or braciole – whatever was on hand.) When I asked her about proportions, she used phrases like “just a bit” and “a good amount” and “you know, until it tastes good.” That’s when I learned these truths: making gravy is more art than science. And each batch is as unique and personal as a signature.

My mother’s gravy was delicious, the ultimate comfort food for me. I watched and experimented and fine-tuned. And then one day, many years later, my mom said, “Your gravy is good.”

If I had been elected President of the United States, she would have been proud. But it would have been a silver-medal accomplishment next to my gravy gold. I had arrived.

Opinions abound about what makes a good gravy, so feel free to weigh in. Just don’t get me started on the meatballs.

Buon appetito!

Here’s the recipe:

THE GRAVY

INGREDIENTS

> ½ cup vegetable oil

> 1 small onion, finely chopped

> 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

> ½ pound sweet Italian sausage, about 3 links, cut into pieces (OR pork or steak or braciole, “depending on what you have”)

> 1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes

> 1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce

> Fresh basil and thyme, finely chopped, OR Italian seasoning

> 1 small carrot OR a pinch of sugar

> 1 bay leaf

> ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

> ¼ teaspoon salt

In a large pot, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and onions, and sauté until onions are tender and translucent. Add the sweet Italian sausage (or other meat) and brown. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, fresh basil and thyme (or Italian seasoning), carrot (or pinch of sugar), bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Simmer partially covered over low heat for at least two hours; if the Patriots are playing, for the entire game. If gravy gets too thick, add “just a bit” of water.

 

 


Please Pass The Bread – And The Gravy

July 16, 2014

 

 

meatball_post_image

As published in the Providence Journal on July 16, 2014.

My wife and I had only known each other for several weeks when she asked me a serious question: “Do you eat bread with every meal?”

My astonishment foreshadowed the mash-up of backgrounds that our eventual marriage would bring. “Don’t you?” I said.

Deb was raised in Canton, Conn., up in the hills northwest of Hartford. Lots of pine trees and farms and country roads — a great place to grow up. But the nearest Italian bakery was at least 30 minutes away.

I was raised in Providence. There were bakeries everywhere, and Italian bread was a staple at our supper table. When I learned the Lord’s Prayer at catechism, “give us this day our daily bread” made perfect sense to me.

Up on Federal Hill, where I worked at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, my aunts would send me to Scialo’s for bread. Papa had his own preferences. Driving home from the Hill to Elmhurst, he sometimes stopped his copper ’75 Olds Cutlass at Amore’s Bakery on Valley Street, or at a neighborhood market, where there might be a loaf of Crugnale’s. And on Sunday afternoons, with her gravy simmering on the stove, my mother would ask me to run up to La Salle Bakery for bread. As I bounded out the door, I’d hear the familiar refrain: “Don’t eat it all on the way back!”

I’d walk the eight blocks home, fresh loaf tucked under my arm like a football, further proof of Pavlov’s theory. I couldn’t resist tearing off the heel of the bread and biting into its flaky, crunching crust. When I got home, I’d tear another piece off and dip it into my mom’s burbling gravy before she could shoo me away.

“Gravy” was another point of courtship conversation for Deb and me. “You mean sauce, right?” she asked. “No, I mean gravy,” I replied.

My mother was a Pantalone, and on Sundays, she made “the gravy.” All my aunts made gravy, too. But I understood Deb’s puzzlement. As I moved beyond the Providence enclave of my upbringing — teeming with first- and second-generation Italian Americans — my use of the term gravy for tomato sauce had produced similar confusion in others. In college, a friend asked, “You put brown gravy on your pasta?”

A quick Google search shows that the gravy-versus-sauce debate is spirited and ongoing. This much seems clear: gravy, as my mom and aunts knew it, is a meat-based tomato sauce, cooked slowly for hours. The term is peculiar to Italian Americans in the northeastern United States. And, yes, it is red, with a hint of brown from the meat and a depth of cooked-tomato color that can make store-bought red sauces look like cheap ketchup.

The word “pasta,” which Deb used, revealed another instance where our vocabularies forked. It was always “macaroni” to me — any of the tubes or shells or twisting ribbons that, coated lightly with my mother’s gravy, made up the first course of Sunday dinner or Wednesday supper. I can hear my mom’s voice across the decades: “Have some more ’ronis.”

During our first trips to the market together, Deb laughed when she found me pondering the options in the pasta aisle (by then, pasta had entered my lexicon). I insisted that the different shapes had different tastes or, at the very least, different textures when cooked.

If nothing else, pasta presented a feast of melodic words and delicious etymologies: “farfalle” meant butterflies; “rotelle” translated as little wheels; “mostaccioli” were little mustaches (it is the staple macaroni in our house today); “cavatappi” meant corkscrews; “orecchiette” were little ears (though we called them pope’s hats because they resembled the pontiff’s zucchetto or skullcap).

After college, most of which I spent living on the East Side, I moved back to Federal Hill and rented an apartment near Holy Ghost Church. Next door stood a small bakery. Each morning, I’d awake to the smell of bread baking in the ovens. Heaven.

Fast-forward 31 years to last winter, when a sign appeared in the window of a vacant store on Main Street in East Greenwich: “Coming Soon: Palmieri’s Bakery.” I looked closely at the logo: “Federal Hill Tradition. Established 1898.” I couldn’t believe it: the legendary Providence bakery was opening a new location right around the corner from my house.

On the Sunday after Palmieri’s opened, I hustled down to Main Street and bought my first loaf. Walking home, I resisted the urge to tear off a chunk. But that didn’t last long. With the first bite, I was a kid again.

Back in my kitchen, I smiled as my daughter dipped her bread, with a communicant’s care, into my simmering gravy.

 


Why Punctuation Matters

July 10, 2014

photo

By East Greenwich Cove, a missing apostrophe turns a well-known idiom into a declarative sentence – not the quahaugger’s intent, most likely.


Seuss to Joyce: A Bloomsday Journey

June 16, 2014

Ulysses

As published in the Providence Journal on June 16, 2014.

Today is Bloomsday, as the world celebrates all things James Joyce. Bloomsday gets its name from the protagonist of the Irish author’s modernist masterpiece “Ulysses,” which takes place on June 16, 1904. From Dublin to Philadelphia to Sydney and beyond, there will be readings and re-enactments and more than a few pints raised.

Some consider “Ulysses” to be the finest English-language work in the 20th century. Others find it unreadable. I think it is both — 783 pages (1990 Vintage edition) of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, impenetrable allusions, and sheer comedic joy.

As a junior in college in 1980, I attended school in Dublin and took a class on “Ulysses.” I recall purchasing the book. It was about the size of a cobblestone, with nearly the heft. I would have used it as a doorstop had I not taken the class. To pass, I had to read Joyce’s tome closely. I am still reaping the rewards today.

“Ulysses” charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in the Dublin of 110 years ago. By paralleling the events of the novel with those of Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man — Bloom and Stephen, you and me — as modern heroes (or, some would say, antiheroes). The fact that Bloom works in the advertising profession, as I do, has, with time, made him even more endearing to me.

Studying literature in Ireland deepened a love of words that was born in me as a young boy. Long before Swift and Yeats and Joyce, there were Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman. Books like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and “Go Dog, Go!” taught me how to read; they also showed me how much fun words could be. Like playing catch in the backyard, throwing words around was exhilarating and engaging.

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know that the baby bird in Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” was being onomatopoetic when he called the earthmover a “Snort!” I just knew it made sense to me. (Years later, I would discover that English teems with words whose sound suggests their meaning. Ducks quack. Teeth chatter. People hiccup. Fires crackle.)

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know Dr. Seuss’s narrative in “Green Eggs and Ham” was an exercise in parallelism: “I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.” I just enjoyed the repetition — I kept reading, with growing interest and expectation.

(Years later, my study of “The Gettysburg Address” confirmed what I had sensed intuitively reading Dr. Seuss as a boy: parallelism provides balance and rhythm and eloquence. “We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground”; “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here”; “Government by the people, of the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The effective use of parallelism is one reason Lincoln’s words are long remembered.)

Saturday morning cartoons were playgrounds for words, too. When Bugs Bunny mispronounced “moron” in his dismissal of Elmer Fudd — “What a maroon!” — my brothers and I didn’t call it a malapropism; we just laughed. I felt a kinship with Bugs. For months, I thought my big brother played flamingo guitar. Then I saw the cover of his lesson book: flamenco.

(Years later, malapropisms were among the many rewards of having children of my own. In our family, we call Ruby Tuesday restaurants Rubby Tuesday in honor of one son’s original pronunciation of the name. And then there was the 3-year-old who had the misfortune of getting a rash on his private parts. He knew we had used an ointment to soothe his woes, but confused Vaseline with another word: “Hey, Dad, should we put more gasoline on it?” We still get mileage out of that one.)

The journey from Dr. Seuss to James Joyce is not as unlikely as it may seem. In fact, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which preceded “Ulysses,” begins with the language of a classic children’s story: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was . . .”

Today, in celebration of Bloomsday, I will open “Ulysses” once more and lose myself in Joyce’s Dublin. When Molly Bloom rails at her husband’s constant use (and misuse) of obscure scientific terms — “O, rocks! Tell us in plain words” — I can sense Joyce smiling. He loved to poke fun — even at himself.

Happy Bloomsday!

 


Play Ball! Wiffle Ball, That Is

June 5, 2014

IMG_0685

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 1, 2014.

Baseballs and city neighborhoods don’t mix. Windows loom; shattered glass and lost allowances are just a line drive away. When I was a kid, we didn’t even think of playing hardball in my backyard on River Avenue in Providence. But we didn’t have to. We had Wiffle ball.

In 1953, in Fairfield, Conn., David Mullany came home to find his 12-year-old son trying to throw curves with a small plastic golf ball, to no avail. Mullany, a former semi-pro pitcher, knew that throwing breaking balls wasn’t good for adolescent arms. So he set out to design a ball that would let his son do so without harm.

Mullany found inspiration in an unlikely place: the hard plastic orbs that served as packaging for Coty perfume bottles. After cutting holes of various sizes and shapes in the re-purposed spheres, he arrived at an eight-slot design that made them curve and rise and sink when thrown.

While Mullany was the inventor, his son was the marketer. The 12-year-old came up with the name for the ball, a play on “whiff,” which is slang for “strike out.” (Whiffing batters was the whole point of throwing curves!) In an act of typographic economy — and branding brilliance — the Mullanys dropped the “h” in their spelling. Thus, the Wiffle ball was born.

In the early 1970s, Mullany’s plastic masterwork transformed our tiny Providence backyard into baseball heaven. We threw curves like Steve Carlton, with no fear of shredding elbow ligaments. We swung for the fences like Harmon Killebrew, with no worry of destruction.

Our playing field was quirkier than Fenway Park. The trunk of a maple tree and a clothesline post became our foul poles. An eight-foot concrete retaining wall, adorned top to bottom with a painted garden mural, provided a welcome backstop. We oriented home plate in front of one of the wall’s giant sunflowers. The span of its petals formed our strike zone.

And there were strikeouts — the curving, rising, sinking Wiffle ball lived up to its name. But there was plenty of contact, too. We rapped liners off den windows for doubles, dinged the dormer of my bedroom for triples, sent long balls over the roof for home runs. When a gutter swallowed the ball (ground-rule double), my little brother would climb out a second-floor window, creep down the crunching shingles, and pluck the ball from its aluminum holding pen. Don’t tell Mom!

The copy on the Wiffle ball package explained why the ball was a godsend to those of us playing in city backyards: “BAT IT! BOUNCE IT! SAFE ANYWHERE!”

Anywhere but our dog’s mouth, it turned out. A bouncing Wiffle ball turned Georgie into a canine Bert Campaneris. When she chased down a ball, we were one chomp away from disaster. We’d carefully pry the ball from her clench and then banish her to the house.

When a Wiffle ball did crack from all our mashing and Georgie’s gnawing, duct tape prolonged its life. And when a ball was beyond repair, we pooled our change and ran up to Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue to get a new one. There is nothing better than pitching with a brand new Wiffle ball.

My brothers, friends and I all played Little League baseball, of course. I remember one Opening Day at Nelson Street playground: a blaze of sunshine and promise. Crisp uniforms bore the names of local sponsors: the Lawyers and the Medics, Quinn’s Funeral Home and Lions Cleansers, Fifth Ward Democrats, the Elms.

But as much as we liked organized baseball, it was Wiffle ball that we lived for. You could always get a game together — Wiffle ball accommodated various numbers of players. And best of all, like basketball, you could play one-on-one.

My best friend, Chris, and I squared off against each other for what must have been 60 Wiffle ball games in the summer of 1972. I know that the Yankees, my team, won the regular season and that the Orioles, Chris’s team, took the World Series. After the seventh game, we ran into the locker room (also known as the garage) to celebrate. I poured champagne (soda) over Chris’s head, and he took it as the honor it was intended to be.

A grainy Super 8mm film from 1967 plays in my mind: I see my father in Bermuda shorts, cigarette in one hand, Wiffle ball in the other. He pitches to me, and I hit a hard liner off his calf. “Ow!” he mouths, grabbing his leg. Then he grins at me in approval.

Cross-fade to a video from 1997: now it’s me as dad, throwing a pitch in the backyard to my 4-year-old son. I watch as the Wiffle ball, like the arc of my life, bends to his eager swing.

 


My First Bruce Gig: He Was One Of Us

May 19, 2014

Springsteen_Alumni_Hall

As published in the Providence Journal, May 17, 2014.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are playing the Mohegan Sun Arena this weekend, and single floor tickets are going for more than $2,000 at StubHub. That made me think of the first time I saw Bruce. As a high school junior in 1977, I scored a second row seat for his Alumni Hall show at Providence College. The ticket cost me $7.50.

I had been listening to Bruce since 1973, after a cousin gave my older brother “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.” I wasn’t crazy about the album at first. But Springsteen’s voice and lines like “the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do” kept me dropping the needle. The more I listened to Innocent, the more I liked it.

And then “Born To Run” thundered onto the music scene. With its anthemic songs and romantic escapism, the album spoke to me like nothing I had heard before. Maybe it was the iconic imagery — screen doors slamming and dresses waving and Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. Maybe it was the common ground I had with Bruce: Roman Catholicism, Italian ancestry, an urban upbringing in the Northeast, the beach (or shore, in his case) right down the road. Or maybe it was only rock ’n’ roll — and I liked it, liked it, yes I did.

Still, everyone told me I had to see Springsteen to get what he was all about. And, as I was about to learn that night at PC, they were right.

You could still light up in Alumni Hall then; the place was thick with cigarette smoke, and other smoke, too. The girl sitting next to me offered a joint, but fearing a scene out of “Reefer Madness,” I declined. As the lights went down, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

The opening song, “Night,” detonated with grinding guitars, pounding drums and a wailing sax. Springsteen’s hand, curled to a chord around the neck of his guitar, was instantly dripping with sweat. I had never seen a group work so hard — and this was just the first song! These weren’t some rock stars down at the Civic Center, aloof and distant from the crowd; heck, by the third song, Springsteen was in the crowd. And then I got it: Bruce was one of us.

As I walked — danced, really — four blocks home down River Avenue after the show, I reclassified every concert I had seen. There was Grand Funk, Three Dog Night, Alice Cooper and Chicago. And then there was Bruce. It wasn’t even close.

In my first year of college, I met a guy who was a big fan of Billy Joel. I told George if he liked the Piano Man, he’d love the Boss — he should give a listen. I’m glad he did.

George would soon be a rising star at WBRU, the student-run radio station at Brown. That’s how he got a backstage pass when Bruce came through Providence on The River tour in 1980. I missed the show — I was away at school in Ireland. Upon meeting Bruce, in an act of supreme generosity, George mentioned that I had turned him on to Springsteen’s music — and that I was out of the country.

A four-by-six-inch index card sits in a safe deposit box in a bank vault in East Greenwich. The scrawl on it reads: “To John, Sorry I missed ya! Thanks for spreadin’ the faith! Bruce Springsteen.”

bruce_autograph

When George gave me the autograph, I was speechless. It had all the intimacy, and the commitment, of the best Springsteen songs.

I won’t be going to see Bruce at Mohegan. My brother-in-law tried to get tickets the minute they went on sale, but the Ticketmaster gods weren’t with us.

The last time I did get to see Bruce was back in March 2003, when he played the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. It was almost 26 years to the day of my first Bruce concert.

Unlike Alumni Hall at PC 2 1/2 decades before, the Dunk was almost smoke-free and lacking in strange smells. That was a good thing: I had brought my two sons, then ages 9 and 11, and aspiring musicians themselves. When the house lights came up during the “Born To Run” encore and Clarence Clemons hit his solo (something we had blasted in the car countless times), my boys were ecstatic — transfixed and transformed.

I had kept the faith and was still spreading it.

 


Why I’m Mad About ‘Mad Men’

April 21, 2014

mad_men_v1

As published in the Providence Journal, April 20, 2014.

Mad Men is back for its seventh season, and I’m thrilled. I love the show’s braided story lines and stylized sets and just about everything Roger Sterling says.

Confession: I also love Mad Men because the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, shares my profession: he is a copywriter.

Like many English majors in college, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took a copywriting position at an ad agency after graduation, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made me write every day. And I loved the challenge of channeling creativity to connect with people through a form they were predisposed to ignore, if not hate.

I tell clients that people say they hate advertising until they see an ad they love – one that makes them laugh or solves a problem they have or connects them to a cause. Really, it’s the idea of advertising that irks people. They hate being targeted for a sell job, especially when it’s intrusive – the pop-up ad that obscures the article they want to read; the inane radio spot jingle that they can’t get out of their head; the e-mail solicitations that cram their inbox.

And yet, when someone loves an ad and it appears on TV, they will stop a conversation to ask a friend, “Have you seen this?”

Advertise derives from the Latin ad- “toward,” + vertere “to turn.” Ads turn our attention to products and services that someone wants us to buy. We love ads that do their work with wit, style, and simplicity. But when ads barge in on our lives with carnival-barker shouts and pedestrian design, we reach for the remote, or swipe the page.

For, as everyone quickly learns in the business, advertising can turn an individual toward, or away, from a product.

In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser points out that “writing is a craft, not an art. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” He could have been talking about advertising, where hundreds of refinements stand between the flash of an idea and an ad that connects with people. Pencils have erasers; keyboards have delete keys; and good copywriters make heavy use of both – just like their colleagues in the “pure” creative arts.

In a Consumer Resistance Study conducted by Yankelovich years ago, nearly 70% of consumers said they were “interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing.” Yet 55% also offered that they enjoy advertising.

Most people’s relationship with advertising is paradoxical. We resist with our heads but succumb with our hearts.

In an early episode of Mad Men, novice copywriter Peggy Olson tells Don Draper that “sex sells.” He corrects her. “You feeling something – that’s what sells.” It’s true of communications at every level. Whether it’s a film or a poem or a song or, yes, an ad, people buy into an emotion honestly felt and artfully conveyed.

If you were an aspiring copywriter or art director during the Mad Men era, you pored over Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen and Avis and Alka-Seltzer, which broke new ground for creativity and intelligence. The agency’s visionary was Bill Bernbach, who said, “let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

When someone says they hate advertising, I’ll suggest that they hate bad advertising – just as they hate bad movies, bad music, and bad advice.

And, hey, who doesn’t?

But among the reasons for Mad Men’spopularity is its keen portrayal of the alchemy that good advertising achieves. At the close of the first season, we see Don Draper transform left-brain strategy into right-brain creative gold. As a Kodak slide projector clicks through old photos of his family, in happier days, he tells us it’s a “time machine.” He names the projector the Carousel because “it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again.” Now, that’s good selling.

To paraphrase Edison, advertising is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I spend 99% of my time writing and re-writing declarative sentences; learning about energy management and hip replacement surgery and commercial lending and other things that my clients do; checking facts and verb agreements; preparing strategy briefs and presentations. It’s good work and I am grateful to make my living this way.

Especially when a 1% moment shines through.

 


From McCoy Stadium to the Carrier Dome: A Father-Daughter Journey

March 30, 2014

 

DSCN5277_MyCoy04v2

As published in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com, March 31, 2014.

We’re at McCoy Stadium, in 1999, with the Pawtucket Red Sox playing the Toledo Mud Hens. It’s the first time my daughter, Juliana, and I are at a game together. We’re celebrating her fourth birthday.

Julie eats popcorn and ice cream. She has her picture taken with Paws, the mascot for the minor-league Red Sox team. When the crowd starts doing the wave, she laughs and throws her hands in the air. By the sixth inning, she is yawning. And before we make it out of the parking lot, she’s fast asleep.

What was born in Julie that day, and reaffirmed in me, was a love of games. Every August, for fourteen years now, we have returned to McCoy Stadium to celebrate her birthday. We have gone to many other athletic contests, as well – from CYO basketball and high school football to college hoops and Major League Baseball.

At first, I took Julie to games because that’s what my father did with me. Eventually, I did it because being with Julie in the stands brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and money and house projects and everything else on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

When Julie was looking at colleges, good teams and great school spirit were among her must-haves. I was thrilled when she was accepted at Syracuse University. Yes, it was exciting that she got into the Newhouse School of Public Communications. But my mind went right to the Carrier Dome – now we could go see Syracuse basketball!

I bought two tickets to the North Carolina State game, slated for February 15th. As I drove up the Massachusetts Turnpike on the morning of the game, Julie called to let me know that the start time had been moved from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – North Carolina State had travel issues because of a snowstorm.

At the Syracuse Sheraton check-in counter, I mentioned the game time change to the receptionist and she pounced. “I hope it messes those kids up,” she said, referring to members of the North Carolina State team. “They didn’t get here until a few minutes ago. I’ll take any advantage we can get.” Her face softened as she handed me my room key: “Enjoy your stay!”

The receptionist’s gamesmanship didn’t surprise me. This was Syracuse, after all. While Julie and I were having lunch, I saw a guy in a shirt that read REAL MEN WEAR ORANGE. It could have also included REAL WOMEN, REAL BOYS, REAL GIRLS, and REAL PETS, for that matter. EVERYONE was rocking Syracuse orange that day, of course – everyone except me. I was wearing a Berklee College of Music pullover. Technical foul.

I mentioned my faux pas to Julie and we concluded that it was a minor transgression. Berklee was not threatening to crack the AP Top 25 Poll anytime soon.

At 6:15, Julie and I made our way to the Carrier Dome. The seats I had bought weren’t great. As we climbed up and up and up to Section 318, Row V, Seats 3 and 4, I thought of Felix Baumgartner’s dive from space. Once seated, we were looking down on what would qualify as nosebleed seats in a smaller venue. And as I watched others make the ascent, some stopping to catch their breath, I wondered if there was a Crouse Hospital medical station nearby.

But when the game began, I was struck by how intimate the Dome felt. Perhaps that’s what happens when 35,000+ disciples react as one – to bad calls (against the Orange), to good calls (for the Orange), to the guy who sank a shot from a recliner during a TV time-out.

It was an ugly game – and close from start to finish. As the clock wound down in the second half, it looked like Syracuse might, after 24 straight wins, lose its first game all season. That cursed Berklee sweatshirt – I was the jinx!

The basketball gods – and two key turnovers by North Carolina State – saved me from such ignominy. Syracuse won 56-55 on a C.J. Fair layup with six seconds left. (Alas, the streak would end four days later with a loss to Boston College.)

After the game, over dinner, Julie told me how much she loved Syracuse – the new friends she had made, the courses she was taking, the sorority she hoped to get into. “I feel like I’m becoming the person I want to be,” she said. That was clear to me – and I marveled at her nascent transformation.

Our first PawSox game seemed far away.

As we left the restaurant, I told Julie I’d walk her back to her dorm. “You don’t have to,” she said, but I insisted – always the dad.

The air was dry and cold outside. My ears stung – I had left my hat in the hotel room. When we reached the corner below the majestic Crouse College building, Julie said she could go the rest of the way on her own. We hugged and I watched, motionless, as she walked into the cold night. When she looked back and saw me standing there, she called out, “Dad, do you know where you are?”

“All set!” I yelled back, lost in thought.

The street signs said I was at the corner of University Place and South Crouse Avenue. But I knew better.

On that night, in that moment, I knew I was somewhere between Holding On and Letting Go.

Photo by Rob Walsh • http://www.robwalshphotoshop.com

As appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com on March 31, 2014.


109 Seconds of Beatles Brilliance

February 9, 2014

there's_a_place

There are Beatles songs more popular than “There’s A Place,” including the twenty-seven that topped the charts in both the United Kingdom and United States.

There are Beatles songs more ambitious. “A Day in the Life,” “I Am The Walrus,” and the suite on the second side of Abbey Road come to mind.

But as the world celebrates the Fab Four’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show fifty years ago this weekend, I find myself drawn to the second-to-last song on their debut UK album, Please Please Me. “There’s A Place,” which I didn’t discover until the mid-1970s, is 109 seconds of Beatles brilliance.

I wasn’t one of the 73 million who watched the historic Ed Sullivan performance on February 9, 1964, two days before my fourth birthday. But soon enough, Beatlemania would sweep me up, too.

The following Christmas Eve, my brother Rob and I listened to Meet The Beatles while waiting for our family to have dinner with my grandfather. “Where’s the Christmas music?” he asked. “Papa, it’s the BEATLES!” we said. Our tone suggested that the thought of listening to anything else – even a yuletide chart-topper like “Silent Night” on December 24th – was absurd. Papa dragged on his cigar and walked away.

In the summer of 1965, at the start of a family vacation, my mom gave Rob and me each our $1 allowance. “That’s for the week,” she said. “Make it last.” Later that day, Rob spent all his cash all at once – ten packs of Beatles cards at 10¢ apiece. I hedged and bought five packs. Rob still has his cards stashed away in a shoe box somewhere. Turns out they were a good investment. Just look up Beatles cards on eBay.

Such were the ripples of Beatlemania. And then there was the music itself.

When you look up “rock and roll” in an online dictionary, the definition should be an audio file of the Beatles ripping through “Twist and Shout.” It was the last song the group recorded in its one-day Please Please Me session – by design, according to producer George Martin. He knew the performance would take its toll on John Lennon’s voice. Whenever I listen to “Twist and Shout,” I think of Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap: THIS ONE GOES TO ELEVEN!

The first song the Beatles recorded for Please Please Me was “There’s A Place.” It has that classic early Beatles sound: the two-part harmony (Lennon low, McCartney high), the three guitars, the sweet bridge, the rumble of Ringo’s drums throughout. But it’s the lyric that truly distinguishes the song. While the group’s eventual breakthrough hit in America would concern itself with wanting to hold hands, “There’s A Place” is more cerebral. It discusses longing to escape to a place where there is “no sorrow, no sad tomorrow.” The persona in the song finds that place in his mind, as he thinks of the girl who said to him “I love only you.” Hello, adolescence.

Two final notes on “There’s A Place” make me like the song even more. First, McCartney and Lennon were inspired by “Somewhere” from West Side Story, which was written by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyric). The song opens: “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us…” My dad loved Sondheim, and he and I spent many Sunday mornings listening to the composer’s musicals over coffee. The connection between “There’s A Place” and “Somewhere” was a sweet revelation. 

Finally, the Beatles recorded “There’s A Place” on my birthday – February 11th – in 1963. Almost fifty-one years later, it remains a gift of pop perfection.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 354 other followers

%d bloggers like this: