Me and Julio down by the side yard

We had our carpenter, Julio, do some work for us a while back. One day when he was finishing up, we stood in the strip of side yard between my driveway and the neighbor’s yard and talked about being fathers of daughters.

Julio’s from Uruguay originally. He’s been here for 20-some years, so he speaks only passable English. But no more than every fourth word or so was a verbal black hole from which meaning couldn’t escape. Where language failed Julio and me, we segued smoothly into head nodding and eye rolling accompanied by minimal verbalization.

According to the always reliable World Book Encyclopedia, volume U-V, 1975 edition, Uruguay is slightly smaller than Kansas. But outline to outline, Uruguay's lopsided pear beats the Kansas square hands down. This smallest of South American republics exports excellent meat, wool, and carpenters.

“Ahhhh, mmmmm, yesssss, that isss sooo,” Julio would say.

“Uh-huhhh, uh-huhhh,” I’d reply.

Of course being men, we don’t need to say much to say much anyway. And, too, fatherhood is its own universal language.

Yes, my 20-some years comment was a joke at Julio’s expense. But after five years of taking Spanish in high school and college, I recognize a fellow slow language-learner when I meet one. Not that innate inability is my only excuse. I’ve always been pretty talented at not learning a subject that early on I decided to invest minimal time and effort in.

(The perceptive reader will have picked up on my attempt to add a veneer of rationalization to the sorry core of that last sentence. But I guess only Ikea can do that and get a really attractive result. [Did you know that to slice wooden logs [[as opposed to, say, Duraflame® logs]] to the thinness of veneer requires boiling the logs to soften them first? I did not know that until very, very recently. I’m filing it under “Trivia to bore with.”])

Even understanding some English speakers can give me problems. My friend Marina, a naturalized American citizen from Russia, can have me nodding and smiling in bewilderment in a crowded, noisy room. Her Russian-flavored English is fine. It’s my Rolling Stones-concert ears (going back to maybe The Dave Clark Five) that are the problem.

Speaking of speaking a second language, I came across a Rosetta Stone magazine ad the other day and thought, “Maybe I should brush up on my Spanish,” and guffawed. (Kidding. It was a low-key laugh.) Brushing up suggests a solid foundation to build on. At my current vocab level of five or six Spanish words, the backhoe hasn’t disturbed the ground yet.

I read the ad’s tagline: Live life fluently. Was that supposed to mean we one-language speakers weren’t living life fully? That’s the way I took it. My old Latin teacher, Bernice Owen (who long ago joined her beloved language in the hereafter), may have been blunt in her assessments of me (OK, she was) but she stuck to teaching Latin without once trying to be Tony Robbins.

I’m thinking of looking into Berlitz. They eschew telling us uno-linguals how to live.

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When I helped make safe sex more available

The take-one brochure I wrote. Email me for a free PDF to share with friends and neighbors.

Now for a modest account of the historic role I played in bringing condoms out into broad daylight, or rather the cool white fluorescent lighting of convenience stores. This is a true story: I did breakthrough condom work. Make that breakthrough work in condoms. In the advertising sense, I should add.

It was the late 1980s, a time when family planning sections were few. Condom perusal was an unknown shopping concept, and young men lived in fear of having to ask the adult at the pharmacy cash register to show them the condoms. Then along came the AIDS epidemic, and just like that merchants everywhere became pro prophylactics display.

At the time, I was doing freelance work for Williford, Winstead, James, a small ad agency in Raleigh. WWJ had a niche focus: convenience stores, or c-stores in the parlance of the trade. If a company wanted to get its products into c-stores, WWJ had the expertise to do it.

Carter-Wallace, Inc., the maker of Trojan® brand condoms, wanted to make a splash in c-stores nationwide, and they engaged WWJ to create advertising and sales-support materials promoting the profit potential the leading condom brand offered, plus the small-footprint, countertop merchandiser unit they had designed to tempt the titillated, impulse buyer.

An advertising career can be full of painful disappointments, e.g., this brilliant but doomed print-ad concept for the condom merchandiser unit.

Kristie Freeman, WWJ’s art director, and I developed a sales brochure—“Trojan condoms have come out from under the counter” its cover proclaimed—and a small take-one brochure for a side pocket on the merchadiser. After answering the pressing question of why to choose the Trojan brand, the copy went into “Instructions for condom use. (Reading level: third-grade, stupid about sex.) Step 10—Carter-Wallace wanted to be thorough—read as follows: Remember—never reuse a condom. I won’t even begin to guess at the number of unwanted pregnancies that admonition saved.

I’m proud that I helped bring condoms out of the dark, making safe sex available to more. So proud that I believe a highway historical marker near our neighborhood entrance might be justified. Surprisingly, the Commonwealth of Virginia has not gotten back to me on my application. I’ve heard that some state offices are severely understaffed. Probably a waiting list for historical markers, too, I imagine. If so, I hope my offer to write (or at least collaborate) on the marker’s text moves me closer to the front of the queue.

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How I became a writer, part three (and the end)

An untitled painting from my Blue Period at VCU, a.k.a. "I'm painting abstractly and have no idea what I'm doing."

After two more (mostly trouble-free) years at Virginia Military Institute, sprinkled with compliments on my writing from English profs along the way, I earned my BA and took the traditional route of the English major: left college without a job. But with typical English-major practicality, I had a plan: Go to art school.

I had four years of higher-education abnormality to make up for. And what better way to do a 180 from VMI than to go to Virginia Commonwealth University and work towards an MFA? I say “work towards” for a reason: Due to VMI’s lack of an art curriculum (a void it and other military colleges ignore to this day), I would have to rack up a sufficient number of undergraduate hours to be eligible for a graduate program. But fun undergraduate hours, which was the point. I painted. I sculpted. I declared sculpture my major. Art school was indeed liberating. Baffling for someone fresh from six years of military school, but liberating.

In art school, I eschewed traditional sculpture materials for those that fit my budget (e.g., scrap cardboard). What exactly was I thinking when I created this piece? "Hope I get an A."

My confusion didn’t last long. Mid-first semester, fate intervened in the form of an invitation from the United States Army to attend its upcoming three-month armor officer basic course at Ft. Knox, KY. The letter may have may begun with, “You are hereby ordered to attend …” It was a good while ago.

Near the end of those three months of playing in the winter mud of Kentucky and pulling the triggers on guns so large they were not then or now available for purchase at a Bass Pro Shop, I learned the army needed young, innocent lieutenants. In an impulsive act that makes me shake my head to this day, I chose to go on active duty. (Ever since, I have looked kindly on the temporary insanity defense). In less than 24 hours, I had orders for Tok Mok Nowhere, South Korea. Not once did Lillian admit her joy at the thought of me being stationed halfway around the world at a remote, hilltop missile battery, with little to do but play ping pong and write her letters. My mother never acted on the stage, but she had the talent, she really did.

Two years later, I left the army and came home for an extended period of relaxation. After a few (and possibly six) months of this, Lillian threw up her parent of a-mooching-adult-child hands and showed me the door. But I was ready to leave. The time had come to venture forth into the world and ask an important question: How long would my sister put up with me? Fairly long, it turned out, as my residence agreement included no-charge babysitting services. I did find time to poke around for a job. I found one in a small advertising agency and made a significant discovery: they paid writers to write advertising. I had written flowerly award citations in the army; I could do this. And so I have ever since, working in several ad agencies and, for a long time now, on my own. My clients not only pay me to write, they pay to edit my writing. It’s a pleasing arrangement.

Of course advertising writing is writing about subjects one would not choose to write about without pay. I couldn’t help but wonder what I might write on my own. A number of years ago, I started a novel. And in the best tradition of all budding fiction writers, I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. I was off to an auspicious start! Then I did National Novel Writing Month and in 28 days (I’ll have you know) wrote a 50,000-word novel. See “This is all about me” for what happened next. (I hate to repeat myself.) In a nutshell, that novel is the reason for this blog. What kind of nutshell? Pecan. I’m a Southerner.

When I finish the latest draft of my book tentatively titled Honestly, Scott, beta readers await. Then come the agent query letters.

Letters! I can hardly wait.

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