20 Minutes and 20 Years

This story came to me from David, a creative director I used to work with. It’s part of the lore an ad man accumulates over years in this business of “thinking up things to sell things.”

One morning, a client dropped in at the agency, carrying a board under her arm. (Before desktop computers infiltrated advertising’s creative environs in the 1990s, commercial artists sketched layouts by hand and affixed the work to cardboard, i.e., boards.)  The receptionist summoned the account executive, who, by chance, happened to be in the office. An impromptu conference in the lobby ensued. The client wished to see a modification to a magazine ad, as quickly as possible. So, the account executive dutifully carried the board to the creative director and relayed the request.

A half hour later, revised layout in tow, the client was back in her car, satisfied that the ad reflected her request. Even better, the artist had made a subtle, secondary change that seemed to elevate the design to the realm of award-worthiness.

A week later, the account executive received a phone call. The client disagreed with the invoice. By her reckoning, the fee seemed high. The work took place while she waited a short while in the lobby. “How long did it take the artist to do this?”

She got her answer. “Twenty minutes and twenty years.”

Of course, this same story has taken many forms. Perhaps the best-known telling is from the life of American artist James (Abbott) McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). The artist sought damages for libel from John Ruskin after the art critic publicly excoriated Whistler for his painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.

In court, Whistler testified the painting took two days to create. Ruskin’s lawyer asked: “The labor of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?” To which Whistler replied: “No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”

1024px-Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_goldNocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, oil on panel. James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Painting resides at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Estimated value, according to Artvest Partners, is $25M to $45M.

What was your first pet’s name?

I came upon this question yesterday in my security settings for an online account. It was in the list with What was your mother’s maiden name? and What street did you live on in the second grade? I suppose those are things you never forget. Your first pet, especially, gets a forever-place in your neural strongbox. It’s as indelible as the memory of the first girl you made out with. Or the teacher who humiliated you in class just for the hell of it. Or that scene in Jason and the Argonauts where the giant bronze dude rains havoc on the Argo and its crew when Hercules tries to abscond with stolen treasure. You don’t remember the bronze dude’s name, but you never forget that scene.Baby Snapping Turtle

Herman was a baby snapping turtle. Black beady eyes and a bumpy green shell about the size of a silver dollar. My little sister, Susan, adopted him during a fishing expedition with our dad on a Saturday in June. I couldn’t muster the Zen for sitting in an aluminum johnboat on a hot afternoon, and I had turned down the offer to join them. So my little sister, not I, was perched in the catbird seat when Herman swam alongside the boat and Dad scooped him from the water with the wide part of the scull.  She was still bubbling when, turtle in hand, she related the moment for me.  I could see her plucking the creature gleefully from the spruce oar, the way she might snatch the last Oreo from a plate. In that instant, she had become the owner of the world’s coolest pet. I was now the world’s most envious brother.

Susan and I were 17 months apart and practically inseparable. She knew me better than anyone did, and I knew her just as well. Dad referred to us as Heckle and Jeckle, after the mischievous cartoon magpies.  We liked being thought of as rascals. We often treated each other as such.

The writer and his sister Susan in 2006.

Heckle and Jeckle circa 2006.

I was determined to wheedle Herman from her. My first plea, a mishmash of psychobabble and outright begging, left her as unmoved as the iceberg that sank the Titanic. I upped the ante. A cigar box full of my own hand-drawn comic strips, my most treasured holding. She softened a little. When I floated a vaguely defined, joint-custody arrangement, she acceded. Herman became, nominally, mine. 

Our first order of business was to secure suitable lodging. We didn’t have a terrarium or even a big glass jar. But we did have an old, insulated metal bait bucket. It held about two gallons. We filled it about one-third with water and set a big shard of cement in it that we had excavated from somewhere around the foundation of the house. Herman could swim about and, we reasoned, crawl onto the cement to rest when he got tired of swimming.

We didn’t know what to feed him. By instinct, we gravitated to insects, tossing all sorts into his lair. I don’t remember how many species perished at our hands before we discovered the filet mignon: a shiny black beetle about a half-inch long. These thrived in the damp soil beneath the sill cock on the shady side of the house. We called them water bugs. They were fabulous swimmers, which enhanced the entertainment value of feeding time.  Herman would chase and attack with relish, clamping his small but mighty jaws onto the abdomen to effect a rupture of no less goo-inducing force than you would expect under the heel of a 230-pound accountant in wingtips.

By coincidence, a neighbor kid, Bobby, adopted a baby snapping turtle that summer, too.  I don’t remember his turtle’s name, but I do recall Herman was slightly bigger. I was strangely proud of the fact, like a father who attaches a measure of his own worth to a son’s physical stature. If there were tryouts for a turtle team, I told myself, surely my turtle would make the roster before Bobby’s.

Bobby suggested our turtles might like to spend the night together. In retrospect, that idea seems a little weird. But at the time it made sense. Overnights and slumber parties were fun for us kids. Why not for turtles? The next morning I walked the two doors over to retrieve my pet, and Bobby came out carrying both turtles in shoebox.

“Your turtle bit my turtle’s tail,” he said.

I peered into the bucket. Sure enough, the lithe, tapered point was missing. In its place was a stiff-looking stub.

“Sorry,” I said. We both laughed. After all, they were snapping turtles.  And mine was bigger.

As summer ebbed through the sticky days of July and August, my interest in bugs and turtles waned. I spent most of my waking hours a block from home, on the playground at Dexter School. I was part of a neighborhood throng, preoccupied with softball, tether ball, box hockey and horseshoes. Only occasionally did I peep into the bait-bucket and flip Herman a water bug before running off to play.

By the time Labor Day rolled past, and I was back in school, my parents had decided it was in everyone’s best interest for Herman to go back into the wild. Naturally, I protested.  Such an action seemed tantamount to murder.  What chance would a little turtle have in a big, heartless food chain? He’d be gobbled up faster than a toasted marshmallow at a Boy Scout jamboree. But the folks insisted. I believe the real, unspoken reason was my mother’s fear of keeping an animal indoors.

We set Herman’s departure for Sunday. It was a family event. Everyone loaded into the Chrysler. I sat in the back seat, bait bucket between my feet, acting as nonchalant as a warden escorting a condemned man to the chair. We drove west on Washington Avenue to U.S. Highway 41 and turned south. After about five minutes, we turned onto a gravel road at the approach of the bridge that crosses the Ohio River. When the car stopped, I got out, carried the bucket to the edge of a slough, and tossed Herman in. He landed with a little splash a couple of yards from shore and disappeared into the murky green. I stood for a few seconds, praying for his safety. Then I returned to the car and a chorus of consolation.  This looks like a good place for turtles. He’ll be just fine here. Don’t worry.

I looked out the window and a soft surge of guilt washed over me. It receded like ripples on the water which, as we slowly drove off, disappeared behind the cattails and brush. As the car turned onto Highway 41 and headed north, I wondered what we would be having for dinner. 

 

 

Thought for the Day

The clipping below comes right from my computer’s built-in dictionary. (It’s not my favorite glossary, but it is convenient.)

“As a verb, impact remains rather vague and rarely carries the noun’s original sense of forceful collision. Careful writers are advised to use more exact verbs that will leave their readers in no doubt about the intended meaning. In addition, since the use of impact is associated with business and commercial writing, it has a peripheral status of ‘jargon,’ which makes it doubly disliked.”

 

A Quick Quiz on Dates

Lately, I’ve noticed several advertisers making fundamental copy mistakes in the expression of dates. Automobile dealers, especially, seem prone to error. Here’s a short test. See if you can differentiate the correct and incorrect forms in the following examples.

  1. The book sale begins on January 27th.
  2. The sale ends on February 1.
  3. Holiday business hours extend from Tuesday, the 9th of December, through Wednesday, the 24th.
  4. Attendance during March, 2011, hit an all-time high.
  5. The June 1999 issue of The Atlantic is missing from the stacks.
  6. I read about the heist of historical documents in the December 1, 2014, issue of The New Yorker.
  7. The Reston Rose Society will hold its annual meeting during the week of May 16–22.
  8. Wildfires of suspicious origin increased dramatically from 2004–2006.
  9. I wonder if anyone living today was alive during the 1800’s.
  10. I can’t think of the ’60s without thinking of the Beatles.

1. Incorrect (January 27)   2. Correct   3. Correct.  4. Incorrect (no commas needed)  5. Correct   6. Correct   7. Correct   8. Incorrect (from 2004 to 2006)  9. Incorrect (1800s)  10. Correct

Offering an oasis amid the heat: Psalm 23.

I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but it’s pretty warm here. I am thankful for air conditioning. Especially when I recollect sultry September days in grade school—windows open wide and not a breeze stirring, except for an occasional moment of fleeting relief when an oscillating fan at the front of the room pushed a tepid gust my way. The school dress code mandated long pants for boys and we guys all wore jeans. Why not khakis? Because any unusual item of apparel put you at immediate risk of ridicule. Blue jeans were the group-sanctioned uniform. Light, breathable slacks, no matter how practical, were not. It was better to swelter with acceptance than to dare a modicum of comfort at the risk of jeers.

While my discomfort rose in step with the mercury, suffering must have increased exponentially for the Benedictine sisters who taught us. Black habits covered every inch of them except faces and hands. For a little relief, some of the nuns would push their tunics and scapulars out and let them fall back, like gravity-operated bellows. I never heard those dear women complain. But I often heard their simple admonition: Offer it up. When faced with trials, they said, think of what our Lord endured on the cross, and anything becomes more bearable.

We also practiced mind-over-body control with imagery to help us “think cool.” Playing in the snow. Jumping into the pool. Wading into the river. In that same spirit, on this warm, June day, I offer a musical setting of what may be the most refreshing text ever penned, Psalm 23. Please feel free to print and share, and let me know if you decide to perform it publicly. (I have refrained from imposing dynamic markings; simply let the words guide your interpretation.)

Duet for Tenor and Baritone voices with piano accompaniment.

Duet for Tenor and Baritone voices with piano accompaniment.

How’s my stuff gonna get there?

I was offered the job on Friday at nine.
They said, “We need to know—make up your mind.”
So I said ‘yes’ with some caveats:
Where in the world is this job at?
Is it cold there? Do they have baseball?

Will you help me move?