writing

My letters to Ireland come home

Emma_typewriter_rw1-RGBAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 15, 2020.

The letters reveal their treasures in different ways, reflecting the evolution of personal correspondence over the last 40 years. Some are on yellow foolscap, handwritten in blue ink. Some are typed, single-space, on translucent onionskin. And some are on white printer paper in a crisp Arial font. But they all have one thing in common: The letters were written by me.

Two years ago, I came into possession of them thanks to my dear friend Grainne, whose family I lived with as a student in Dublin, Ireland in 1980. After I returned home to Rhode Island, she and I began a correspondence that has spanned nearly four decades. Our back-and-forth is mostly digital now, which makes the physical letters I sent to Grainne and her husband, Sean, more precious. I’m grateful she returned them to me.

Grainne’s understanding of what the letters represent came from personal experience. She had recently found missives that she penned to her mother while attending school in Italy as a 16-year-old. “It can be quite an emotional experience,” she said of reading one’s long-ago reflections, “like they are from someone we don’t recognize – the person we were then, young and innocent.”

How true. I unfold one of the typewritten letters, from 1981, and am struck by the brash voice of a 21-year-old wannabe writer: “If I pursue a Hemingway-like career in Ireland, as you suggested, your house will be my first stop.” In another, sent a year and a half later, I report with relief that I had landed a job: “I was hired by an advertising firm as a copywriter. Not a novelist yet, but still a writer of sorts.”

The early letters serve up multiple references to Bruce Springsteen, whose latest album, “The River,” I had obtained during my Dublin stay. I’m reminded that I played the LP, frequently late at night, in Grainne and Sean’s living room, which was right below their bedroom – perhaps a bit too often and too loud. Having left “The River” behind, I suggested that Grainne give the album to her younger brother David or toss it in the fire, which she might find more satisfying.

A handwritten letter from 1986 brings news of romance: “Cupid’s arrow has pierced my heart and now I spend lots of time with Deb.” A laser-printed note from nine years later continues the story: “Well, now there are five of us – Deb, me, Peter, Evan, and … Juliana!”

A Christmas card from 1993, bearing news of my father’s death, makes my eyes sting: “He was only 59. I miss his wit, his Saturday afternoon musings on literature, his calls during basketball games.”

According to a study by the United States Postal Service, letters sent between households plummeted 61% from 2001 through 2016. The report concluded that “correspondence mail is fading as a channel of personal communication,” noting that emerging electronic alternatives provide an “almost perfect substitute.”

Almost perfect, to be sure. These days, email and Facebook Messenger allow Grainne and me to continue our correspondence with speed and ease. But I’m glad such platforms weren’t around 30 or 40 years ago; my letters to Ireland might or might not have survived in the cloud, but it’s unlikely they’d be in my hands now.

Of the 50 or so students that attended the School of Irish Studies during the fall of 1980, I was the one randomly assigned to board with Grainne and Sean’s family. Such luck was not lost on me. Here’s how I closed my first letter back to my kind and loving hosts: “How fortunate I was to have lived with you; how happy I was in your house!”

Today, the letters sit on my desk. The envelopes are like wrapping paper, and the pages within are gifts, filled with revelations.

Thank you, Grainne, for returning parts of my story to me.

 

 

Helping me hear my mother’s voice

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Above, the author, right, with his mother and brothers in December 1965.

As published in The Providence Journal, January 21, 2018.

Imperative verbs — that’s what I remember about my mother’s writing, at least from my early years. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered directives. “Don’t forget your lunch” was probably the most common one, followed by “Working until 5:30 — feed the dog and look after your brother.”

When I studied in Ireland as a college junior, Mom’s writing became more expansive. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, her store on Atwells Avenue, recent deaths. Here are excerpts from a note dated October 28, 1980: “Vinny’s getting married on November 23. It will be a small affair at The Golden Lantern. I’m sorry you’ll miss it.… Business isn’t bad – we’re paying the bills.… I wrote you that I had taken Georgie to the vet. Well, John, I’m afraid there wasn’t much that could be done.”

I loved getting Mom’s letters in Dublin, but they didn’t give me the sense that she liked to write. Her penmanship looked rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, if we could just talk over coffee, that would be better.”

So it surprised me when, at age 71, my mother began writing reflections on her life – rich, evocative pieces that shared stories I had never heard before.

One recalled her dash home from Nelson Street School in Providence during the Hurricane of 1938: “Gravel underfoot jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” Another revealed Mom’s trademark cheekiness: “Being the youngest of the four girls at my house, my vocation in life was to get out of there.” Recollections from her early teens referenced a sister’s boyfriends: “Every one was movie-star material to me.” A sketch about my younger brother recounted the morning he left for the Coast Guard: “All pre-dinner cocktail highs from the celebration the night before were diluted by now.”

And then there was “The Blanket.” “I guess it’s a poem,” Mom said modestly, handing me the page. “A memory, really.”

My mother’s poem-memory brought me back to when our family lived downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a double-decker on River Avenue. I was in kindergarten at the time and didn’t realize that my grandmother was ill; I just knew Mama waved to my older brother and me from her kitchen window as we played football in the backyard. Nor was I aware that, as my baby brother slept in his crib, my parents’ marriage was quietly unraveling. What I did know is that I liked to watch “Get Smart” with Mom and Dad on Saturday nights because the show made them laugh together.

“The Blanket” let me see this world anew. It recalled a pink-and-white bedspread that my mother had received as a gift. The poem, in part, reads:

 

Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay

the blanket on my mother’s sickbed.

 

Its newness would certainly warn

the transporter being sent to take

my mother away

that she wasn’t ready yet!

 

Whose eyes would watch from the

second-floor window as the four-year-old

football hero ran for the touchdown pass?

 

Where would I find the approval she

gave me, in the midst of my own

chaos, I pressed my new baby into her arms?

 

In “How to Write a Memoir,” William Zinsser states: “There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative.” He calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

My mother left behind a stack of photo albums, which include fading prints of her as a cheerleader at Mount Pleasant High School, a young mom in an East Side apartment, and a proud entrepreneur on Federal Hill.

But it’s her late-life writings that I treasure the most. In those black-and-white word snapshots, I hear her voice – human and funny and wise.

What I wanted to be when I grew up

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 2017.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 1.9 million students in the United States will graduate from college this year. By now, a certain question is as familiar to most of them as the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”:

“So what are you going to do?”

Answers inevitably range from the vague to the speculative to the definitive. In my case, decades ago, it was a mash-up of all three.

After receiving my degree from Brown, I vaguely talked about getting a job as a writer. I speculated there might be an opportunity at the ad agency where I had done an internship. As for immediate employment, I was definitive: I would continue to bus tables at the Turks Head Club downtown.

Sixteen years earlier, Miss Carlone, my kindergarten teacher at Nelson Street School in Providence, had posed a similar question to my classmates and me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

With her soft, fleshy arms and sweet voice, Miss Carlone reminded me of Mama, my beloved grandmother who lived upstairs from my family and sometimes took care of me. In September, my teacher’s maternal warmth had made my first-day-of-school jitters melt away.

Several hands shot in the air in response to Miss Carlone’s question. One kid said he wanted to be a fireman. Another was going to be a football player. A girl announced she’d like to become a teacher, which brought an approving nod from Miss Carlone.

And then it was my turn.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a bachelor,” I declared.

My classmates looked puzzled, and so did Miss Carlone – for a moment. Then she threw back her head and howled. Now I was puzzled. What was so funny?

“Tell us what a bachelor is, John,” Miss Carlone said kindly as she slid a finger beneath one of her moistened eyes.

That was easy – I just told everyone about my uncle. He lived with my other grandmother and had the upstairs of Nana’s bungalow all to himself. Once he set up two TVs in the living room so he could watch two basketball games at the same time. He sat back in his big leather recliner, eating peanuts and following the scores, until he fell asleep. What a life!

Most of my classmates continued to stare blankly at me while Miss Carlone fished a tissue out of the sleeve of her dress.

At dismissal time, Miss Durgan, the principal, appeared in our classroom door – usually a sign that something was wrong. But Miss Carlone simply asked me to reveal my life’s ambition again, after which the two educators laughed with abandon, like my aunts at a family party. I was still puzzled, but at least I wasn’t in trouble.

The following year, apparently, my career plans evolved. Thanks to my mother, a lined yellow paper of mine from first grade still survives. Titled “My Wish,” it reads: “If I had one wish, I would want to be a writer. And I would write stories for all the children.” There is no mention of my marital intentions.

My wish came true – sort of. Three months after graduating from Brown, I indeed landed a copywriting job at the ad agency where I had interned. I would eventually meet my wife there, too.

But at the Brown commencement in 1982, my future was as unclear as the dreary Providence weather that first Monday in June. The only thing I knew for sure was I now had an English degree.

Miss Carlone would have been amused to know it was a bachelor’s degree.

Always voyaging, never arriving: How La Salle helped me become a writer

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As published in the La Salle Alumni Magazine, Winter 2015.

Brother Eugene raised his arm like a basketball referee calling a foul. He was clutching a stack of papers – our first book reports in freshman English. And then Eugene let our stapled, loose-leaf musings drop to the floor – SLAP! – and all pre-class chatter ceased.

“Garbage!” he shouted.

It was not an auspicious start for an aspiring writer like me. But it was instructive. Turns out many of us had misspelled “separate” in our analysis of the John Knowles classic, A Separate Peace. From that day forward, I paged through my American Heritage Dictionary more often.

Brother Eugene’s class was just one of many experiences at La Salle that helped set me on the path to becoming a copywriter and Op-Ed columnist. Three months after graduating from college with an English degree, I landed my first ad agency job and have been writing for a living ever since.

At La Salle, I glimpsed the importance of editing from my AP U.S. history teacher, John Carpenter. He dissected my essay on Reconstruction as if it were a frog in biology class. With a red pen as his scalpel, Mr. Carpenter cut my first three paragraphs. “Here’s where you should start,” he said, pointing to the bottom of the page. “Everything above is fluff.”

I tested my hand at journalism through the Maroon & White, our school newspaper. My first assignment? A report on improvements made to the school building over the summer of 1976. I think I wrote about fresh paint, refurbished desks, and fluorescent lighting. I told myself Woodward and Bernstein had similar beginnings.

Classmate and friend Jim Phelan demonstrated the power of message repetition, a technique I have employed for clients many times. A huge fan of the band Black Sabbath, Jim graffitied the school with the lead singer’s name – OZZY in lavatory stalls, OZZY on cafeteria trays, OZZY beneath the bleachers, OZZY inside my locker, somehow. I’m surprised I didn’t find OZZY scrawled on my diploma at graduation.

English teacher A.J. Ramsey was especially supportive, overseeing my independent study in creative writing junior year. Mr. Ramsey introduced me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Virginia Woolf. He read my essays, short stories, and poems with patience and gentle criticism. And he revealed to me the fundamental truth about getting good at this craft: write every day.

In May of my senior year, I was among ten or so students who wrote and read speeches to be considered for our class’s valedictory address. Three weeks later, I delivered my speech during our graduation ceremony at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. It was my biggest writing milestone to date.

Earlier that day, I had received a gift from Mr. Ramsey: a leather-bound edition of Mrs. Dalloway. The first page was inscribed:

John: To teach and to have you learn – to share and to have you accept beauty – it has been a pleasure, and a life. We (you, and I, and the rest of us) are the university, once described “like a sailing ship always voyaging, never arriving.” Bon voyage, dear shipmate! – Ramsey

 

My Op-Ed draws Syracuse grad’s wisdom

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After my Op-Ed, “Choosing college more art than science,” appeared in the Providence Journal on April 19, 2015, I received the following email from Bob Benchley, an alumnus of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. I’m grateful to Bob for allowing me to share his wisdom with you.

John:

It was nearly 50 years ago that I decided to go to Syracuse. I had grown up in a Boston suburb (Wellesley), was on the school paper, loved writing stories, and I wanted to be a journalist. Kids are so much smarter now about schools than I was back then, and the admissions engines run so much hotter and faster. I just had a guidance counselor, a few catalogs, modest grades and some attitudes that were mostly instilled by others. I flew out to Syracuse for a weekend with an older friend who had gone there after working with me on the high school paper. I stayed in his dorm, drank beer (18 was legal then in New York), went to a concert, had an interview and figured it might be cool to go there.

So Syracuse it was. Newhouse was just one building then, print was everything, and you did your assignments on manual typewriters, on which you also had to pass a speed and accuracy test to graduate. I was a magazine major, and the guy running the department was fairly fresh out of Newsweek. When he talked to us in class, it was always “when” you go to New York, not “if.” And I did, working there 15 years before heading back to Boston for another 10 years, then here to Miami in 2000.

In retrospect, I should have gone someplace farther away and very different from Boston. It would have exposed me to so much that was new culturally, geographically, yet I don’t know what my life would be without Syracuse. It’s sort of like what if you hadn’t had one of your kids, but a different one instead. You can’t imagine the tradeoff.

I wish your daughter well. Tell her that her degree will always stand her in good stead. They say that your college degree gets you your first job, and your first job gets you your second job. That’s true; at some point you’re a professional, not a former student. But if she picks and stays with a career in some form of communications, there will be dozens or hundreds of times that someone also in the biz will ask where you went. When you say “Newhouse,” there will be a quiet little nod of recognition, and you will be elevated a notch in the respect of the person you are speaking with.

You have “adv” in your email address, so I suppose the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. This stranger from far away sends best wishes to both of you. It is a joy to be able to turn information and ideas into consumable visual imagery (that doesn’t sound very sexy, but you know what I mean); to spend a life being paid for it is even better.

Bob Benchley

Why you should check spell check

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Do you check spell check, your computer’s application for flagging words in your documents that may be spelled incorrectly? I do. While spell check is an effective way to give your writing a first scrub, it will never replace proofreading. That’s because there are mistakes spell check will never catch. Often, they involve homophones – words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. (Homophone derives from the Greek homos “same” + phone “sound.”) The word sounds right and is spelled right; it’s simply not the correct word.

Here are several homophones that lead to common spell check-proof mistakes:

Affect and effect. As verbs, these words have distinct meanings: affect means to influence (The weather affected the outcome of the game) or to feign (He affected an air of confidence despite the fact that the ripcord wasn’t working), while effect means to bring about (The politicians promised to effect change). Effect is more common as a noun, where it means an outward sign or result (The politicians’ promises had little effect on their constituents).

Complement and compliment. As a copywriter, I use the word complement often, as in The new entrees complement our existing menu. Here, complement means to complete or make perfect. It is distinct from compliment, which refers to the expression of admiration or praise, i.e., Customers complimented us on our new entrees.

It’s and its. One is a contraction (It’s raining) and one is a possessive (The band saved its biggest hit for the encore). Here’s an easy way to avoid confusing the two: read the sentence using it is instead of either it’s or its and you’ll know immediately if your usage is correct, e.g., The band saved it is biggest hit– oops!

Lose and loose. I see writers everywhere using loose when they mean lose – and the words aren’t even true homophones! Lose the extra “o”.

Premier and premiere. Premier is another common word in a copywriter’s arsenal, since we are always looking for ways to say a product or service is the best in its category. But that has nothing to do with a premiere, which is the first performance of a play or musical, or the first showing of a movie.

Principal and principle. The former is a person, the latter a fundamental truth or belief. In an earlier blog post, I shared a simple trick that my fourth grade teacher, Miss McAndrew, taught our class for remembering the difference between the two.

Who’s and whose. Who’s is a contraction of who is, as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Whose indicates possession, as in Virginia Woolf is a novelist whose books are read in college literature classes. To avoid confusion, use the same trick suggested above for it’s and its: read the sentence using who is for either who’s or whose and any mistake will jump out at you.

Your and you’re. Your is a possessive pronoun – your blog, your writing – while you’re is a contraction of you and are: I’m happy you’re coming to the game with us. Again, to avoid mistakes, read the sentence with the contraction spelled out (“I’m happy you are coming to the game…). If it sounds right, you’re right.

OK, time to spell check this post – and then proofread.

The oversized, wonderful life of my petite Auntie Marie

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

The email from my cousin brought news I didn’t want. My aunt, Marie Paulson, had unplugged her oxygen and crawled into bed, declaring that, after nine years of ovarian cancer, she had had enough.

Petite and cheerful, with an easy smile and deep reservoirs of empathy, my aunt had forged a special bond with me. When the astrology craze hit in the late 1960s, she was quick to point out that, with our February birthdays, we were fellow Aquarians. “We’re beautiful people,” she told me, with certainty. “We understand each other.”

Before I was old enough for school, my aunt had brought me to her kindergarten class for a day. I recall that her students kept hugging her. She was a five-foot superhero — part teacher, part mom, part nurse, part friend, and all love.

But now her light, at least the physical part, was dimming.

My cousin eventually persuaded my aunt to reattach her oxygen. When her son-in-law and nephew visited, she perked up. By the afternoon, she was drinking wine and watching Wimbledon. Later, it was Jimmy Fallon.

But somewhere between tennis and “The Tonight Show,” my aunt wrote down her “wishes” — one of which was that I write her obituary. She said I would “do her justice.”

I am a copywriter. For more than 30 years, I have been slinging words for all kinds of clients — in annual reports, websites, radio spots, print ads, email blasts, you name it. I tell people I can write anything.

But this was different. I was flattered that my aunt thought I could do her justice with the obituary. But can any death notice do that?

I knew the pitfalls from experience. After my father’s sudden death 21 years ago, I wrote his obituary in haste at the kitchen table before leaving for the funeral home to make arrangements. How could I have forgotten his master’s degree in English from Penn? Why did I use the slangy “frosh” instead of the more correct “freshmen” in referencing the state-champion basketball team he had coached?

Oversights and errors weren’t the only things I was wary of. Obituaries have a just-the-facts curtness about them, which I welcomed — purple prose valedictions only deepen the sadness for me. Still, in summarizing my aunt’s life in nine column inches, I knew a lot would have to be left out.

I noted her academic accomplishments, but not the exhilaration and trepidation she must have felt leaving her immigrant parents’ home to attend the University of Rhode Island in 1946.

I referenced her 49-year marriage to my uncle, but not the detail about them going to Moonstone — the nude beach — when they were dating in college. (“We had so much fun,” she had told me, with a you-don’t-even-know look.)

I cited her 23 years as a teacher in Providence, but not that she taught in tough schools during turbulent times and that, in the midst of integration, her love was a godsend to the 5- and 6-year-olds in her class.

I listed by name her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as her three sisters, all gone now, but included nothing about the laughter and music that once filled her beach house during big family parties.

My aunt reviewed my draft and said it was “to the point.” I’m sure she meant it as a compliment. It was also an accurate criticism.

News of her death came at dawn on a Tuesday. I went downstairs, made coffee, and paced around the kitchen. The obituary, especially what it didn’t say, nagged at me.

I knew what I had to do.

Four days later, as sunlight streamed into St. Pius Church at my aunt’s funeral Mass, I stepped into the pulpit: “Good morning. Marie was ‘Auntie Marie’ to me, and I’ll always be grateful for that …”

And then came the words that were missing from my aunt’s obituary — less to the point and more to the person.

I hope my eulogy did her justice.

 

What Lost Luggage Led Me To Find

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My son’s luggage got lost at O’Hare International Airport last weekend. It’s still missing in action, to his extreme annoyance.

As I texted him for an update, the lug in luggage leapt out at me. Did the two words share etymological DNA?

Sure enough, at etymonline.com, I found that luggage derives from the late 14th-century lug, meaning “to move (something) heavily or slowly.” Even better, lug derives from the Swedish lugga and Norwegian lugge, “to pull by the hair.” Ouch.

Luggage emerged about a hundred years later, meaning “what has to be lugged about.” By the 20th century, it referred to “baggage belonging to passengers.”

True to lug’s Scandinavian roots, my son will be pulling his hair out if his bag doesn’t show up at his doorstep soon. What a drag.

In the meantime, I have newfound respect for the word luggage. I love words that tell a good story.

I’ll never call it a suitcase again.

Why Punctuation Matters

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

Why I’m Mad About ‘Mad Men’

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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.

 

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