Sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe that I’m not still that free spirited, 20-year-old college student wearing moccasins with the holes in the soles, with my hair halfway down my back, and the sun streaming across my brow. It’s almost surreal standing in my shoes here and now, knowing that I’ve traversed vast, distant lands in a matter of only two (or maybe three?) blinks of an eye.
I have attempted to examine my adult life as much as possible (I’ll save my child life for another time and blog). When I look back over the past 35 years, my career path seems at once highly improbable—and yet, careers like mine were typically achievable by many of the people I grew up with in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
We attended public schools. Nothing fancy. Pretty much all of my friends had jobs—my first being when I was thirteen—because we were raised to be independent, and we understood that nothing was going to be “handed” to us by anyone. Though our families may not have been wealthy, they were at least mostly stable and supportive. And those of us who did go on to college weren’t saddled with a ton of student debt by the time we got out (that said, it did take me the better part of ten years to finally pay my loan off).
We were encouraged to dream big and were generally able to build a good life for ourselves with very few perceived limits. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem nearly as good now for average, middle-working-class kids in America; or, for that matter, for the “middle class” itself, what’s left of it.
In 1986, I graduated from college, got married, and a half a year later started what would be a 20-year career as a copywriter and later creative director in a handful of advertising agencies. Somehow, I broke into the insular, nepotistic ad business without having any family or other connections whatsoever (and as I came to find out later, that’s incredibly rare).
Almost unbelievably, from the get-go, I worked on all sorts of very high-profile, national brand accounts—from Coca Cola to Jeep to Warner Bros. Pictures, Padron Cigars, Mastercard, GMC, Comedy Central… And the list just goes on and on. How lucky was that??
I got to huddle with South Park to promote their second season. I worked on Jimmy Kimmel’s first show (with Adam Corolla) at that same time. I had a meeting at Apple’s “mother ship” in Silicon Valley in an office that was right next to Steve Jobs’ (and his door was wide open, btw!). I once made a creative pitch to the president of Tribeca Films while sitting not just in Robert De Niro’s office—but in his very, own freaking chair!
Even before I had any real portfolio to show for myself, the legendary ad man, Tom McElligott, hand-wrote me a note that was incredibly gracious and complimentary of my “spec” book. I came THIS CLOSE to animating Al Jaffee’s Mad Magazine characters for an early ad campaign I had sold to top executives at GM’s Delco Electronics, and for that same campaign spoke on the phone with Moe Howard’s (yeah, we’re talkin’ The Three Stooges!) daughter, Joan.
I mean… Really? What kind of crazy rocket ship was I on, anyway??
Working on all those great accounts, it’s no surprise that I went on to win practically every major, international advertising award out there—including a Cannes Lion, a One Show “Gold Pencil,” many New York and London Festivals awards, a national Addy, I was published in a British Design & Art Direction annual… I mean, it seemed as if everything I worked on won some kind of very large, heavy trophy. I have boxes full of them in a closet. And they weigh a ton!
In the late 1980’s, I witnessed the death of typesetting and graphics houses when ad agencies first began using PC’s and Macs. I became practically an expert in typefaces and kerning. And troubleshooting (!) all sorts of computer and printer problems—not just at work, but also for family and friends. With my rare combination of award-winning ad agency chops and technical prowess, it was a natural that I’d become an early innovator in interactive media as I crossed over from broadcast and print advertising in the mid-1990’s to the “World Wide Web” just as it was taking off and entering our collective consciousnesses. Some of the things we created out of thin air and pixels made people very rich.
I wrote articles for national trade mags, made a speech to a standing-room-only audience in New York City on the future of advertising, was put on a bubblegum trading card representing the hottest creative talent in Detroit (and trust me, I was in plenty of good company there in the mid-1990’s)… They even plastered my smiling face on a ginormous billboard on the iconic Sunset Strip in Hollywood (and I raised a toast of champagne out the sunroof of my limo as I was driven past it) for winning a national competition. The craziest part is, I know there’s a lot more… I just can’t remember it all at the moment!
Yet, though I rode that rocket ship in a blaze of fire and glory across the skies (and lived to tell about it), I have to wonder: Why is it that I’m standing here today, closing in on 60 years old, with absolutely nothing to show for my amazing career other than those boxes of very heavy trophies?! No enduring fame or reputation. No comfortable bank account. Barely a retirement plan. I sold my fancy sports car many years ago. I mean, WTF?? Not a thing. Nada.
Yeah, so I’m just a freelancer now. A gigger, working on a bunch of banal crap to pay the bills. Barely make ends meet. No full-time work or job security. Practically zero prospect of finding anything better. Who wants to hire someone my age? I can’t even get a call back from Costco! How did it all come to this? I have no professional legacy at all. And no idea what to do next other than to simply keep plugging away at my art. I guess, time will tell if I’m a total failure.
I want you to know—all of that “rocket ship” stuff I just went on and on about—none of that is bragging or living in the past or whining in the present. That isn’t what’s in my head at all. As far as I’m concerned, the past is the past. And honestly, I rarely look back. Even still, it’s funny how it’s so hard to even talk about past successes and accomplishments and such without coming off sounding like a big-headed, me-monster jerk (or worse—a washed-up, decrepit old fool).
It’s especially dispiriting after the handful of times that I’d sincerely made an effort to tone it way back for people so as not to sound obnoxious; when I was being nothing but humble, and generous, and trying to give my old teams and other people all sorts of credit—only to have it turn out that nobody believes me. I was in this job interview one time, and was just answering a question that I was asked about my résumé and the guy’s, like, “Robert De Niro, huh? Yeah, right!” Like I’m just making it all up!
I’m also not trying to say that things are overly f_cked up these days—I’m not crying “poor me” and such. I have two eyes that can plainly see that many people have a lot more to actually cry about than I ever did. Even in my exasperation today, I realize how extremely lucky I’ve been all along. Life is what it is and, like many folks, I’ve had to buck up, box up my disappointments and bury them away (in the closet, right next to all those useless awards)! Out of sight, out of mind.
And despite the many struggles I may personally be facing today—not the least of which being the ongoing challenges of simply growing older (!)—I can honestly say that I do genuinely enjoy my life, as it is. I believe that if everything in my life had been easier, I probably wouldn’t be as creative. Without pain here and there, I might not so desperately need an emotional outlet like my music, or my art, or writing this blog. Then where would I be?
For the record, I covet nothing. I envy nobody. I’m deep down happy being a simple guy and honestly wouldn’t want a zillion dollars for anything—especially if I had to be Jeff Bezos to have it. Or anyone else, btw. Too much to deal with. I mean, how many ways can a person possibly come up with to hoard or hide or otherwise be utterly tone deaf and ostentatious with so much money? Who’s got that kind of time on their hands, anyway? I can tell you, I sure don’t.
That said, I do wish I didn’t feel like I’m hanging on by a thread so much of the time. No doubt, THAT would be really nice—to be able to plan ahead a little more, to buy a few things I’ve been putting off for so long, to travel more and worry less about spending money when I do have to. So, yeah. I wish I had a little more financial security. But only if it’s on my terms.
For instance, I’d need to ask, “What would I be willing to give up to have more stability?” The answer so far has been: nothing (that I really care about, anyway). I certainly wouldn’t trade away any more of my time than I need to in order to make a living. Even Jesus said ‘don’t worry’ about such things as our basic needs, didn’t he? He did, btw, for what it’s worth.
I try my best not to worry too much. I believe that what Jesus was getting at about amounts to what is commonly called “mindfulness,” or living in the moment. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is always just out of reach. Therefore, all we can really do is try to make the most of the present moment, being joyful and appreciative of the life we have—today. Right here. Right now. That’s the way I see it, anyway.
Which is why, much of the time, I feel so completely out of touch with modern day America—like I’m some kind of alien, or something. Hoping not to be found out. I strut around like I belong here (mostly so no one bothers me), and try not to stare as everyone continues to run on their treadmill, frantically trying to keep up with everyone else (even though it’s one big, endless circle jerk). And it makes me sad that I once played a role in this harmful nonsense, back in my ad agency days, helping people imagine so many wants and needs to die for. Helping create “pop culture,” materialism and the fear of missing out.
This is my fractured reality here in these days on Earth. On the one hand, I have it together—I really do! On a very deep level, I’m completely at peace and eternally grateful for everything in my life. I have everything I need. It’s all too beautiful!
Then again, I am an absolute alien in this world and can’t relate to much of anything that everybody thinks is so great, and strives for (and ultimately, give their lives for). I’m also every bit as dependent on eking out a living as the next person. And just as vulnerable (like the vast majority of people in the world, truth be told). So I need to keep playing the “game.” As we all do.
What can we do, then? Who are we? Why are we here? And specifically, how could it possibly make any sense for someone like me to pursue my music when the odds of even being heard are so stacked against all of us these days? And when there are so many far more talented musicians in the world than me? Same goes for songwriters. And bloggers. I mean, get real, man! Isn’t that what the world tells us over and over again?
And yet, I can’t just ignore these songs that are playing in my head and pretend that this music doesn’t matter. It matters to me. That’s got to count for something. Who knows, maybe it’ll matter to someone else, someday, too. “Music in the soul can be heard by the Universe.” At least, so it’s been said.
The way I see it, all I can do is continue to keep moving forward, making music, writing, taking it one day at a time and trying not to worry about where it all leads. I’ve got a lot invested in me. It wouldn’t make sense to give up on me now!
Thanks for being here. –TDOE