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Dinner with a legend

Years ago, when I was working in a smallish advertising market at a great, but smallish agency, an industry peer phoned out of the blue.

“Would you like to have dinner with Bob Levenson?”

My reaction was probably similar to that of a nun being asked if she’d like to wash feet with Mother Teresa; a golfer invited to play 18 with Jack Nicklaus; or a plumber being invited to snake a drain with Thomas Crapper.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, trying to regain some semblance of nonchalance, and failing.

“He’s coming to town on Thursday for a speaking engagement and the dinner is the night before.”

You know how you pencil something in when you might be able to make it? I Sharpie’d that night in my calendar. 

Bob Levenson would be in anyone’s top five of the greatest ad men in history. His boss, Bill Bernbach, changed advertising forever. Mr. Levenson had a bachelor’s and master’s in English. His writing was simple, compelling, and brilliant. 

When I showed up to the restaurant, I was expecting a long table of maybe 20 people. There were six of us, including the guest of honour, and I ended up in the seat directly across from him. He was impeccably dressed: cufflinks, shined shoes, perfectly knotted tie. Madison Avenue, personified.

When I was trying to break into the ad business, I studied Bob Levenson’s work like architects study the Franks (Lloyd Wright and Gehry). I knew all about his work, his agency, and his colleagues. 

He spoke to us like we were valued peers in the industry, when we were more like wanna-be’s. He was gracious, charming, courteous, and a wonderful communicator. Only once in the entire evening did I see a flash of anger, and that was when I asked about a particular former colleague of his. “We won’t mention that name again,” came his calm instruction.

A wonderful talent, great dinner companion, and good human. If one lives their life checking those three boxes, that’s time well spent. And it’s always nice to meet a hero who lives up to your expectations.

Bob Levenson

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Random acts of coffee

Just got back from having some bloodwork done. The lab is in an area where there is a sizeable homeless population and a safe consumption site for addicts.

The security people are abused, spit on, yelled at, and occasionally have to deal with the entire spectrum of bodily fluids from people who are in a bad way.

I’ve never seen anything but professionalism from them. So every time I go, I buy a gift card from the coffee shop in the building and hand it to the people at the security station. 

“I’d like to buy the shift a round of lattes.”

Every time the reaction is the same.

“Really? Thanks!”

Keep up the good work folks. 

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A cut can tell part of the story

A few years ago my wife and I took a walking food tour of NoLita in New York City. At one point our guide, the inimitable Paulette Goto, pointed out an apartment on the top floor of this building. From this perch, a young Martin Scorsese watched the goings-on in his neighborhood. What he saw influenced his films. 

The building where Martin Scorsese grew up.

Editing is probably even more important in film-making than it is in writing (which explains why Scorsese has collaborated with editor Thelma Schoonmaker for more than 50 years). In an interview, Scorsese said something about editing that has stuck with me as a writer:

A cut can tell part of the story.

I think of it as an express bus. You don’t have to go from A to B to C. A good cut can take you from A to C. I use this technique all the time. It’s useful for eliminating a bunch of unnecessary text, as in the cut between the third and fourth paragraphs below, taken from my novella, The Check:

They had met in high school. He was the only boy in the Food Science class. The desks were doubles, so that two students sat beside each other. Her last name was Veraldi; his Zaratti. Thus, their first meeting was alphabetically ordained. 

She was beautiful. He was short. One day as they were leaving class a football player named Sammy Kirkland picked Carlo up by the shirtfront and slammed him against a locker. He taunted Carlo in an effort to impress Mali. “You like wearing an apron, gay boy?” 

Carlo looked at Sammy calmly, even as his feet dangled. “I sit next to Mali in a cooking class with twenty-one girls. You share a sweaty locker room with forty-two naked guys. Which one of us is more likely to be gay?” 

Mali helped him find some ice for his black eye. Then they walked home from school together. Although his family’s apartment was in the other direction, for Carlo there was no turning back. He was determined to win Mali over.

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Art is all around us

Remember that scene in the film American Beauty, where Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) shows Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) the video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind? 

It was mesmerizing. Here’s my version, captured one evening when I was doing the dishes after a delicious stir-fry. 

A random tar stain on the ground, which I thought resembled a Tyrannosaurus
A discarded teddy bear on a dumpster in an alley behind my place
I dropped a latte off for my daughter at work one day. She took this as cosmic proof I love her.
Of course, not all art is incidental. I think this barista might’ve had an ulterior motive when he gave my daughter her latte. Especially since mine was just plain foam.

It’s good that we’re all carrying cameras around in our phones. But sometimes I think we miss a lot when we walk around staring into them instead of paying attention to what’s around us.

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I hate when this happens

Everyone has pet peeves. I like to think I have fewer than most.

Tech is one. Don’t you hate when tech support tells you, “unplug your (whatever) then plug it back in again.” What other appliance gets the benefit of the doubt like that? 

I actually have an excellent toaster. My favorite part is the “A BIT MORE” button.

Can you imagine putting bread in your toaster, pushing it down, and when you come back it has popped up but the bread has vanished. Imagine toaster support saying… “Do you have back-up bread? Okay, unplug the toaster, plug it back in, then re-do the bread. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

No, because my toaster is in the dumpster.

In stores, it drives me nuts when you track down an employee and say something like, “Hey, do you have any Froot Loops. There’s none on the shelf.” What’s the first thing they do? Take you back to the cereal aisle and spend two minutes trying to prove you wrong. Like you’re going to miss a large red box with a toucan on it.

In one especially annoying incident, I was in a big-box hardware store, looking for an odd-sized light bulb in a specific wattage. Couldn’t find one. So I went up and down the aisles looking for someone. The guy I eventually found was wearing glasses with lenses about half an inch thick. 

“Hi, do you have any blah-blah sized light bulbs in yadda-yadda wattage? There aren’t any on the shelf.” 

You guessed it, he takes me back to the lighting aisle. Then, to supplement his thick glasses, he pulls out a magnifier with a light on it and starts inspecting bulbs. I stand there, like a kettle put on to boil, and when I’m just about to say something, he hands me a box. “Here you go.”

I hate when that happens.

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A hole-in-one never gets old

For professional golfers, the odds of getting a hole in one are 3000 to 1. In tournament play, Tiger Woods only has two. Which puts him eight behind Hal Sutton and Robert Allenby, who each have ten in tournament play. Golf legend Tom Watson has two in tournament play, 37 years apart. 

The odds of a hole in one for an average golfer are 12,500 to 1. And according to the PGA of America, the average amount of time that recreational golfers play before making a hole in one is 24 years. Mine took me 40 years. Mind you, some of those years I didn’t play very many rounds. 

It was a perfectly struck 7-iron on a 160-yard par three. Water to the right, sand traps on three sides. Landed about 10 feet left of the pin, curled to the right. My buddy said “get in the hole!”. I turned to him and was about to say “we always say that” when it rolled in. 

In celebration, my 7-iron flew 30 feet in the air. Thankfully it didn’t land in the water. 

My buddy suddenly realized he was three down after only five holes. So on the next hole, he drove the green on a 300+ yard par 4. Lucky for me he missed the eagle putt. Unthinking, I played the rest of the round with the golf ball I used to score my ace. Could’ve easily lost it.

One of my brothers has an even better story. After playing golf for almost 50 years, he finally had a hole in one. Then he had another in the same week. And then he had another later that same summer.
Hat-trick!

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Why an advertising career can be good training for a novelist

Before I wrote my first novel, I had a career as an advertising copywriter/creative director. It was a lot of fun. I never took it as seriously as legendary New York ad man George Lois, who threatened to jump out of a window if a client didn’t buy his campaign for matso crackers. But there were a lot of great debates as we encouraged clients to buy breakthrough work.

Renowned authors James Patterson, Salman Rushdie, Mary Higgins Clark, Clive Cussler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others all spent time writing advertising copy. 

Writing ads taught me never to take readers’ attention spans for granted. When you only have 30 seconds, or a quarter page, or a banner ad to intrigue people, you can’t write flabby copy.

I used to embrace the challenge of simple, text-only ads. The most austere of these were career ads. 

Before the internet, the newspaper was the go-to place for job ads. And there was no search function. You had to read the classifieds or career pages. Lots of firms were content to simply list the position and prerequisites. But I always took it as a great opportunity to make a company stand out.

I wrote an ad for our ad agency with the headline,

“Once a woman sat in our reception area for 17 months.”

The copy went on to reveal that she was our receptionist. She did a great job, proved herself, got promoted, and now we needed a new receptionist.

I knew I’d written a good ad when we got a ton of responses for the entry level job. 

One was a phone call from a guy in Montreal. He said he wasn’t interested in applying, but he’d read the ad and it made him laugh (LOL hadn’t been invented yet). He was in the midst of an arduous, unsuccessful job search. He’d been unemployed for a while and the ad had put a smile on his face. So he called to say thanks.

Makes your day when that happens. 

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Food

When I started writing my crime fiction series, I knew that my lead detective was going to be handy in the kitchen, like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Elvis Cole, the great lead character from Robert Crais. 

The descriptions of food in their books always made my mouth water. Mitchell, my lead, is often found in his girlfriend Mya’s kitchen. He’s either lamenting the paltry contents of her refrigerator or stocking it, prior to making them something good. 

When he’s at home he’ll whip up anything from a stir-fry to pasta. Here’s a sample from my book, “Shank”:

He used the blade of the knife to push the garlic to one side, then chopped some green onion and fresh ginger. Once the chicken was sliced thin, he prepped a bowl of fresh squeezed orange juice, honey, and soy sauce. He whisked in a rounded teaspoon of corn starch, and it was ready. 

After five minutes in the wok, the garlic, ginger, chicken, and young asparagus were perfectly cooked and coated in the sauce. 

Mitchell spooned the stir fry over two bowls of jasmine rice, then added some fresh mango and a fistful of freshly torn mint. He poured the remaining sauce from the wok over top of each dish and sprinkled on the green onion. He shook some chili flakes on his own bowl then took them to the couch where Mya was relaxing.

If you like the sound of that, you can find the recipe in Steven Raichlen’s excellent book, The Big Flavor Cookbook. The Tahini Salmon recipe is killer too!

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Favorite books on writing

Every writer has their favorite books on the craft. For me they are:

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

On Writing, by Stephen King

Anything by Elmore Leonard

The first two offer great advice on the craft of writing. The third is useful in the same way that Quentin Tarantino found it helpful to work in a video store – you get to immerse yourself in craftsmanship.

They’re the reason I use adverbs like habanero peppers (sparingly – see what I did there?). They’re also why I keep to the active voice.

I tend to keep my sentences under twenty words, with the occasional exception (see above). I think it’s due to my decades in the ad business, where space was expensive and attention spans fleeting.

Stephen King’s book is also a great memoir. He’s lived an interesting life. And he gives proper credit to his wife for rescuing early pages of Carrie from the garbage can.