I started taking a bit of an attitude, the second month, toward the journal my therapist had me write every week. I wasn’t taking it seriously. I gave each entry a kooky title. She didn’t like the titles. And then wacky subheads. After a couple of weeks, she made me stop.
POST-OP WEEK 13
Fri May 1
More Emotional Stuff
I had a flash, just now, while walking from the Starbuck’s to the office… I’m working on so many products that’re for people with problems. Actually, they all are. I don’t know if we handle anything that isn’t for someone battling cancer or diabetes or brain tumors. We had a prenatal vitamin, I guess, that’s a positive product, and a sleep aid and I do commercials for a dietary supplement (but that’s for cancer patients, too, in the hospital). But I don’t work on Snap, Crackle, Pop anymore or record voiceovers with the Pillsbury Doughboy.
I guess it came over me because I’m consulting with another team to help them produce the instructional DVD to teach people how to inject themselves with an anti-seizure drug for MS. Fun. I guess what struck me though was how much it’d suck to be these people. (and then, of course, a flash of how lucky I am in my life that I DON’T have to inject myself with an anti-seizure med twice a week. And then, a flash of how something terrible like that could happen to me at any moment, really, maybe it’s just a matter of time.) and then it was over; I got to the office, through security, and up the escalator.
I’ve heard of other creatives here at the agency who start to feel like they’re “coming down” with whatever disease the drug they’re working on is for, so maybe it’s not so unusual to get a flash like that while I’m crossing Dearborn at Adams. Maybe it means I’m human.
POST-OP WEEK 14
Mon May 4
Okay, this is going to sound just nasty, but there are things you learn (or maybe behaviors you take on) at competitive places like Leo Burnett that are hard to shake. You tend to look over your shoulder a lot. You tend to make sure you’ve got the best chance you can to get ahead. And as soon as you think you’re just being paranoid your Creative Director pulls you into his office after a presentation and tells you even though your campaign’s the best, he’s going to kill it because he’d lose control of the brand and he can’t afford to lose another account.
So you learn how to do things.
Without turning totally nasty (like one of “them”), you do things that can help you and other things that don’t exactly harm everyone else, but it certainly don’t help them. If you have a piece of information that can make your work more accepted, let’s say, by the account people. And you know some other copywriter in the room DOESN’T have this info and so she’ll be going down the wrong path with her work… You keep that info to yourself to have an advantage.
Well, I was just in a meeting, getting a new assignment (for another medical drink) with this copywriter who just joined our group from another group in the agency. I knew her from her old group. I knew she had tons of consumer experience before she came to this agency, so she’d be someone I’d consider competition back before my open-heart surgery. But today I offered up an example that (I felt, anyway) would help her understand the assignment better and not go down the wrong path, creatively. I let it go. And I felt good about it, calm. It was the new me, the re-configured Walter…
Let’s see how it works out, careerwise.
Thur May 7
I’ve been trying to figure out why I cried yesterday when I told you about my rejection notes from Esquire and how I got my job as an ad guy. Those aren’t sad things or events that’re similar to open heart surgery. I felt broken after surgery, violated, scared maybe, vulnerable. But beating out 300+ hundred Leo Burnett creatives for the campaign that goes to the client is a fantastic, amazing thing that I was told never, ever happens. I was also told that getting a hand-written rejection note from a major magazine with constructive criticism is something that never, ever happens either.
Were they tears of joy? Not really. They didn’t feel like that.
I would occasionally get these “emotional” waves that come over me at weird times. Sometimes it’d be when I was re-reading something I had written that, this time around struck me as really good.
(When I write something, sometimes, it just flows out of me, like improv. If I don’t get it written down, it’s gone; I won’t remember it again. I speak that way, sometimes, if I’m telling a funny story. It’s like I’m putting the sentences together, assembling them on the fly, in mid-air, the split second before they leave my mouth. So when I go back to re-read something I wrote, it’s like some other Walter did it, not me, not the guy reading them.)
I guess that’s why it’d happen in meetings when I was presenting work, reading copy.
The amateur therapist in me thought it might have something to do with my childhood, being told that I’d never amount to anything. I think of this smart, creative little kid named Wally, ignored, getting smacked with a shoe. This kid who made cablecars out of milk cartons, writing and recording little “radio” plays on his reel to reel tape recorder, drawing his own comic book, and on and on going pretty much unnoticed.
I didn’t get a lot of encouragement; my dad was too busy being drunk.
But I think about this little boy, disembodied, he’s not me, he’s this other, little kid named Wally doing all these things that should’ve been applauded but was beaten instead.
And I’m welling up with tears because I wrote this really great paragraph that flowed right out of me at once and I captured it on paper and now I can’t believe it was me it flowed out of? That makes no sense whatsoever.
I get little snippets of approval in my life. Not a lot. People rarely applaud you in advertising. My wife thinks I’m a good writer (even though she keeps telling me I’m writing about the wrong subjects), my kids think I’m funny. My boss says incredible things to me, the most talented writer in his group, etc, etc…
So where’s the problem? Why the tears? Don’t know.
Fri May 8
I feel weird trying to figure out a better position at my current job (the homework assignment you gave me). I’ve been telling myself I’m going to stay at this place, doing this job until retirement. The brutal pressures of life are pushing toward staying, of course--- a recession, the job market, 4 kids and a house. My wife’s job can’t support us, even in a good year.
But I get aggravated with the job I tell myself I never wanted to do in the first place. It was some kind of cosmic accident. I fell into it. I was trying to get on the Conan O’Brien show at the time, faxing jokes to the producer I knew there. And this ad job fell into my lap.
[One of the guys from the old comedy group--- I got him a job at Burnett, too, about six months after me. I offered it up to the other two guys, too, but he was the only one who wanted to try it. He quit the business a year or so ago, just up and left, took the severance package and left. He says he’s happy. He also has cats instead of kids. Spends this time learning the ukulele!]
I was a comedian for the longest time, making fun of ads, doing parodies of them. I never had any intention of creating them! Getting all serious about making them. That’s why, maybe, I kind of feel out of place around real ad guys, the ones who studied it in college. Always out on the fringe. They talk the talk about market categories and all that. I just try and tell stories that connect with the target audience.
Maybe I’ve got to finally admit to myself that this isn’t my Plan B anymore and I’ve got to start treating it like a Plan A. Will that change things?
Around this time, my therapist and I talked about other subjects during our once a week sessions. We expanded out into other aspects of my life, my past, whatever, issues that had been buried for a really long time. Issues that controlled me, feelings that I came to accept as part of who I was. So she told me to expand my journal, too, write about other subjects besides how crappy I felt after the surgery. I veered off into my life growing up. Family tales, anything. I’m sure it was part of her plan. She was sneaky that way…
This new direction kicked my writing into high gear, writing during the train ride to and from work, at lunch, any time I had a minute or two to plunk away at my laptop with two fingers.
POST-OP WEEK 15
Fri May 15
My bedroom was small, growing up. Prison cells are roomier than where I slept every night. Just enough room to move around a single bed, a night table and a small three-space shelf unit. Nice linoleum floor. It’s the kind of accommodations monks get used to, as a penance.
Anyway, there was one cool thing about my room. One wall was a built-in storage kind of thing: two big wooden doors that slid to cover the closet, four drawers for my socks and underwear with a big cabinet above. Across the top over all this was a line of smaller cabinet doors that all led to the same shared storage space. We kept long-term storage stuff in that space--- blankets, toys I didn’t play with but couldn’t part with, either, stuff like that.
The other thing that was up there was my secret hiding place.
In among all that stuff, I pushed out a small area. Much like a hamster, I guess, or a rat.
It was only two by two and about three feet deep, but I liked it up there. I’d pull the drawers out of the dresser below, one after another like stairs. I’d climb those to the shelves and then up through the first set of double doors to the middle where my nest was. I’d pull all the doors closed behind me and sit up there.
Sometimes my mom would be calling me and I’d never hear her ‘til she came upstairs to my room, looking. But I wouldn’t answer. I could peep the door open a crack and see her at my door from eight feet up, just below the ceiling, but I’d wait ‘til she left, then come down.
I’d take snacks up there and bottles of Pepsi and RC cola my mom let me buy with my own money. It was my stash…
Every time I have an MRI, I think of my secret hiding place. I hear about people panicking in that little white tube, getting nutty, calling the attendant to get them out. But I love it in there. I get all snuggly and sleepy. Like an amusement park ride, I’m always disappointed when it’s over, when they’re done scanning my head or arm or whatever and they slide me out of there. It’s like my little time machine.
If the shoes fits
My dad used to “get stuff.” He’d bring home TV sets and stereos. We had more TVs than people living in our house. He’d say, with a laugh, that they fell off the back of a truck.
He was one of these guys who was on the leading edge of technology. Seriously. We had a VCR before anybody I knew, years before. One day he brought home a giant box and inside was a Beta Max the size of a coffee table with a little slot for a tape that’d record an hour’s worth of television. There were no movies to rent; we were two or three years ahead of that. So I recorded TV shows, Saturday Night Live, mostly. Then watched them over and over. I recorded movies off of TV, too. Watching it as I did, cutting out the commercials. Marx Brothers movies, Hard Day’s Night, Slaughterhouse Five. I had them all on tape. Halfway through the movie you’d have to put in another tape.
We had a camera, too, to go with the Beta Max. It wasn’t very big, and the video quality looked like Neil Armstrong on the moon--- fuzzy black and white, like a security camera on the ceiling of a convenience store. But I’d record things. I’d sit with my friends and we’d record ourselves talking to camera--- You Tube, the early years!!
One time I even recorded some of my dad’s adult movies and set them the music… I found his small stash of 8mm movies in a cabinet in the basement, so, of course, the first logical thing you’d think to do with them was project them up on a screen with the video camera pointed at them while I ran through my record collection, playing song after satirical song: Todd Rundgren’s “We Gotta Get You A Woman,” Three Dog Night doing “Easy To Be Hard.” You get it… My friends asked me to take it out and play it every once in a while.
My dad would get other stuff, too, stuff he’d get from “a guy he knew” who drove a truck for the Salvation Army. After picking up donations from here and there, he’d stop at my dad’s factory and sell him some of the better items. I got a bike that way. This is where my dad would get, let’s say, a pair of size twelve and a half shoes. He’d buy them off the truck guy for 50 cents, he’d tell us while he sat at the kitchen table doing shots of Canadian Club with a Hamms’ beer chaser. “Only 50 cents,” he’d repeat. “I got this nice pair of shoes for only 50 cents.” But no one in the house had size twelve shoes. So he’d hold onto them. They’d sit in his closet, waiting. Whenever a relative would come over, he’d look at their feet, sizing them up. “What size shoe do you wear?” he’d ask. “Um, 9 and a half,” they’d answer. “Oh,” he say, disappointed. My friends would come over, on our way out for the night: “What size shoe do you wear?” “10 and three quarters.” Disappointment.
Eventually someone would come in the house with feet that matched the shoes and he’d perk up. “Ah!” he’d say, excited. “I got just the thing.” And he’d shoot upstairs and dig out his prized find from the back of his closet, coming back to the kitchen, all proud. He’d hand them over to my friend like a knight handing treasure to the king after the crusades. “Size twelve, perfect.” They’d be wingtips or some other old guy shoes. He’d push them over to this teenager with a forced smile on his face. “Take ‘em. Those’re good shoes. You can’t find shoes like that anymore.” Yeah, there’s a reason for that…
POST-OP WEEK 16
week of May 17
Arts & Crafts
Milk cartons make excellent cable cars. The square, waxed kind. Quart sized, half-gallon. I used to make them, that’s how I know.
You turn the carton on its side, the pointy part away from you. Carefully cut square holes along each side--- those are the windows. Put two eyelets into the top (those things you screw into wood that leave a circle of metal sticking out for hooks to go into or latches). Tie a piece of string to your starting point: a bedpost, chair, banister, or tape it to a wall. Run the other end of the string through each eyelet and then to your ending point, what will be the other end of your cablecar’s journey. For propulsion, to make your cablecar move along this string from point A to point B, tie another string on the back of it, through a pulley (or loop of fabric), place it under the guide string, then allllll the way forward to a second pulley at your destination, through that and back to the front end of your cablecar. Does that make sense? You got one string, pulled real tight for the car to move along and another string that’s attached to both ends of the car like people used to hang laundry on in old movies between tenement buildings.
I’d have one of these strings across my bedroom or from one end of the basement to the other. You just pull the string one way and the cablecar shoots across the room. Pull it the other and it comes back. Hours of grade school fun. I’d put little army men inside and send them on a trip. I found some kind of battery-powered bulb and rigged it to light up on the inside at night.
Arts & Crafts, part 2
My little sister is five year younger than me (okay, an oops baby, I‘m pretty sure). When she was old enough to walk around the house unsupervised, but not tall enough to reach the panel of light switches at the top of the basement stairs, I invented a little thing to help her out. I taped a string to the switch so she could turn it off, flip it down, just by pulling on it. BUT--- so that she could flip the switch the other way, up, I taped another string to the switch, then up through an eyelet and down, so she could pull that one down, too, and the switch would turn the light on. Then I attached an “on” sign on one and “off” on the other one. Simple.
POST-OP WEEK 17
week of May 25
What’s the buzz
I got attacked by bees once. We were up in Wisconsin, at our cabin on the lake. It was in the middle of nowhere--- Hayward, Wisconsin, where they do that lumberjack competition every year on TV, guys cutting logs with chainsaws as fast as they can. We had a little place that I don’t remember too well that we sold after snowmobilers broke into and wrecked.
We kept going up there but stayed at a place called Duffy’s Resort on Long Lake. We went up there for years, starting from when I was probably three or four. We had a boat and my dad would take us fishing. I’d catch frogs all day, put them in a coffee can, then let them all out at night to catch them all over again the next day. I can remember dreaming about frogs at night, leaping, jumping, visions of frogs.
After a day of fishing we’d putter back and my dad would yell, “IIII-vaaaan-hoooe!” Mom, I guess, would hear him and lean out the cabin door and yell back “Ivanhoe!” I never knew why, but I always thought it was cool, like we were medieval adventurers, Norsemen, coming back to basecamp with our largemouth bass. We got walkie-talkies one year so we could actually say words to each other while we were out on the lake but yelling “Ivanhoe” was always much better.
It was literally a cabin with walls made out of logs. There was indoor plumbing, which was something. I don’t know if there was even a phone, but there was no TV. Imagine that.
One year, when we were still at our cabin, I was wandering around in the woods. I was little--- a toddler. I found these interesting plants with little, removable seeds. I’d pluck a stalk and use my fingernails to pull off all the seeds. Plant by plant, pulling the seeds and dropping them into a cup. I meandered my way under a tree, reaching down for one more when suddenly a swarm of bees went after me. I remember thinking they wanted the plants I was plucking, so they were pissed at me. I started yelling, I guess, because my dad came running. He kept smacking me in the head, killing the bees, but I thought maybe I had done something wrong and he was whacking ME. Eventually he stopped and we all ran to the car, piling in: my mom and dad and my two older sisters and we raced to the nearest hospital. Someone, probably my mom, read an article in a magazine that some people can be allergic to bees and she thought I was one of them.
We never went to hospitals because we didn’t have insurance; my dad didn’t “believe” in it, so we weren’t covered. So this was weird.
The nearest hospital wasn’t very near at all so we drove for quite a while. My mom kept me on her lap in the front seat. My right cheek was so swollen all I could see was cheek in front of that eye. All I could see through the other eye was the dashboard and a little of the darkening sky through the windshield.
We eventually got to the emergency room and under the care of a doctor. The first thing he said was that if I was allergic to bees I would’ve been dead already. Nice. He treated me with something, I guess, and we went back to the cabin.
Every other day my dad drank. Monday, Wednesday, Friday sort of thing, I guess. All I know is the other days, he’d go upstairs after dinner to soak in the tub for an hour or so, reading a book, Louis L’Amour, usually: cowboy novels. He always said he “got into the habit of reading” when he was a kid and broke his leg. He said he was laid up with nothing to do for six weeks, couldn’t run with his little band of hoodlums, so he picked up a book.
He’d eat the dinner my mom prepared for us earlier, which was warming on the stove. We didn’t eat together much. He’d top it off with a quarter wedge of layer cake and then off to the tub.
I don’t know for sure, really, if he had been drinking those nights, bath nights. But the other nights, his drinking nights, he’d come home completely plowed. His factory was next door to a tavern (as he called it) so he’d knock off mid-afternoon and walk over for a few. At closing time he’d lock up the factory and go back to the tavern for a few more. Then he’d drive his Ford LTD home shit-faced. He’d hit a light pole every once in a while or the side of our house. After parking the car, sometimes, he’d pee in the corner of the garage or in the garden. He’d stagger in, get another brewsky and sit at his favorite chair (side of the table, back to the fridge, facing the door), listening to Theodore Bikel records on the Hi Fi ‘til he passed out.
This was my male role model.
When my sister and I did Russian dances on the floor in front of him, crouched down kicking our feet or spinning our legs around in the “coffee grinder,” my dad would throw pocket change at us. Hey, it’s a livin.’
Then he’d crawl up the stairs on all floors to bed.
My dad took me bar-hopping from time to time. I’d run around in the place while he sat up on a stool at the bar talking to the bartenders and the other drinkers. I’d ask for quarters to play pinball or the other games they had--- the sliding puck/bowling game whatever it’s called. I liked how the heavy metal puck felt when I slid it toward the fake bowling pins. There was something satisfying about getting those fake bowling pins to flip up, I liked that, too. I’d have a Coke waiting for me at my barstool, too, in one of those old school curvy Coke glasses. I’d take a sip, fill the glass up again from the little Coke bottle.
Somehow I can remember showing the men (they were always men, I think) how I could zip up my jacket. They seemed impressed. Maybe, at that point, they could zip their own jackets.
We’d bar hop, too, like my dad was doing rounds. Drink a little, drive a little. Sometimes I’d sit on his lap, behind the wheel and steer. He called this babysitting.
Every bar had that smell. That stale beer and smoke smell that still makes me warm inside somehow. Maybe that’s why I was a bartender at four different places--- college bar, country, disco, whatever. They all had that smell.
My dad smoked a cigar when he was out. That smell gets me, too. He’d always have a stub nestled between his fingers, lit or not. He burned, melted really, holes in the wall tile in our bathroom at home when he’d put a hand up to brace himself while standing at the toilet. They were high-class plastic tiles made to look like marble. With two or three melty-spots up and to the left of the toilet. Took me a while to figure out where they came from, but then it made sense.
I like the smell of cigars. Every once in a long while I convince myself to try smoking one. Why is that? It’ll be at a wedding or when I’d go up to Wisconsin with the few male friends I have. I try to smoke them outside so the smoke doesn’t make me sick but it always does anyway. I have to excuse myself and go lie down ‘cause I’m completely green. Once I even barfed. Can’t measure up to ol’ Dad.
The diary continues in June, 2009...